In mid-July, President Biden spoke very bluntly about the threat of misinformation being spread online, saying that social media companies such as Facebook were “killing people.” While some felt that this statement was a little harsh and that misinformation on social media wasn’t solely to blame for the spread of the COVID-19 virus, it is fair to say that the amount of misinformation spread online has resulted in some severe consequences. For example, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that calls to poison control centers throughout the country have tripled after it was falsely claimed that drugs such as Ivermectin, a medication used primarily to treat parasites in horses and cows, and not the Ivermectin made for humans, were an effective way to treat COVID-19 symptoms.
The surge in calls to poison control centers resulted in the Food and Drug Administration Twitter account bluntly writing, “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously y’all. Stop.”
While it seems that the majority of people falling for misinformation are members of the baby boomer generation who primarily use Facebook, misinformation has also spread to younger generations on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. In some cases, young adults and children have begun to trust the information they get on TikTok more so than information they get from their parents or doctors. For example, a mother living in California with a 12-year-old daughter reported that even though she is very pro-vaccine, her daughter did not want to get the COVID-19 vaccine when she turned 12, telling her parents that she wanted to become a mother one day and she had heard on TikTok that the vaccine effects fertility.
In addition to TikTok creators spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and its so-called cures, there has also been a rise in TikTok-ers making false claims about mental health issues under the guise of psychology facts. For instance, a TikTok uploaded by a user erroneously stated that the way people clenched their fists reveals their personality. Another TikTok user made a video stating that if a person you know appears in your dreams, said person is romantically interested in you. Both of these videos do not cite any sources and have no base in science.
To combat the spread of misinformation relating to psychology on TikTok, Inna Kanevsky, a professor of psychology at Mesa College in California, created an account where she duets TikToks that feature psychological misinformation and critiques and picks apart each claim. As helpful as her TikToks are and as great it is that actual licensed psychologists are doing their part to help combat misinformation online, it shouldn’t have had to come to this. Psychologists and those in the medical profession should not have to take time out of their already hectic schedule to create TikToks or be interviewed by the local news to encourage others not to believe everything they see and read online. Instead, people can use their critical thinking skills to question and analyze what they are being told.
People have the tools to distinguish between what is true and what is false or misleading. The problem comes when they don’t use these tools to analyze what they see online. Critical thinking is 100% free, and people should take advantage of it and apply it when they see a story online that seems too good to be true. In addition to using critical thinking skills, it is also vital for people to read up on how to identify misinformation online and understand how the people spreading the misinformation try to sway the person reading the post by playing with their emotions.
In Feb, Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies listed ways to spot misinformation online. The first point was to analyze both the content and the source and try to identify any information posted that seems too good to be true, inconsistent with other information the reader has seen or read, or seem overdramatic, overblown and lack specific evidence. It’s also advised that readers should look into the source of the piece and see what their credentials are, what other content was created by them and what kind of agenda they seem to set in their work. In addition to this, it is also recommended for the reader to evaluate how the information fits into their belief system.
According to studies in cognitive psychology, research has shown that trust plays a significant role in the cognitive process because people care more about who they trust, not about the facts themselves. People must be aware of this tendency and question why they believe what they believe. Misinformation is getting deadly, and more so than ever before, it is crucial that people truly think through what they read and watch online, and keep in mind that you should not believe everything you see online.
There are so many available resources to help combat misinformation being spread, but the most helpful and easily accessible resource is people’s own critical thinking skills. In addition to that, it is important to question any information that seems unreliable, conduct research on the claims being made and on the person making these claims and be aware of one’s own biases and beliefs. If misinformation is a deadly virus, critical thinking skills are the vaccine.