'Stop and think': U of R prof explains how to fact check COVID-19 information
SASKATOON -- The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a lot of questions and even more answers. The problem? Not all of them are true. CTV Morning Live’s Mike Ciona was joined by Gordon Pennycook, an associate professor of behavioural science at the University of Regina, to explain. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How vast is the spread of fake news and misinformation?
It depends how you define it. There are quite a bit of false memes and stories and things that you see. The specific example of fabricated news stories, fake news, it's a little less common. There’s lots of falseness out there though, that’s for sure.
The onus has to be on everybody to fact-check. How do we fact check stories that we read on Facebook and other sites?
The first thing we have to do, which most people don’t do, unfortunately, is just to stop and think about whether the things they share are true. A lot of the time the way we interact with social media is, we see something that seems true to us, we don't think about it and we share it. So the first thing is just to stop and think.
Apart from that, you’re just one person so what you need to do is find a lot of different sources that are confirming the same thing. It’s called lateral reading, which means you find as many sources as possible and if a lot of people aren't saying the same thing, then maybe it’s not true and you need to be more skeptical about it and you probably shouldn't share it.
So often when you are looking at a quote-fake article, you see they can be a little bit on the convincing side. You might look at one and it says, written by a doctor or a doctor’s father at Johns Hopkins, that’s got to be true, right?
It’s funny because those betray the idea “a doctor says it’s true,” which is great. But presumably if it’s true lots of doctors would say it’s true. It’s one opinion and you don’t know if what the doctor said is true in the first place. So you need to find lots of other sources. People will try to use that kind of information to dupe people to get them to share falsehoods and we have to be vigilant about that.
Why do people create false stories in the first place?
It’s a hard question. There are a couple things. First, people can make money off it. If you have a Facebook page or you have a website and you get clicks on the pages you can get money from Facebook.
Some people just have a need for chaos. They want to see the world burn. There’s not that many people that are like that. But it's enough out there that one falsehood could be shared by millions of people. It’s only created by one person with a need for chaos but it’s a major problem we need to keep in mind.
Why are we as humans so driven to believe them, that a compound found in tea might be the cure?
The brain is really efficient, which is good for lots of things. We can identify people's faces very fast, for example. But the problem with that is that we often take easy answers - especially answers that are consistent with what we want to believe in the first place. We want our lives to go back to normal. So if you see something that says, oh this isn’t that big of a deal, or here’s a magical cure, you're going to have a disposition to believe it. The only way to get around that is to stop and think about it and verify your sources.