Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Brian Weeks investigates how people experience and learn from the media. 

There are many stories about COVID-19 and what we know is quickly evolving. What effect does having so many news stories about such a fast-moving, high-anxiety topic have on people?

Brian Weeks: The volume of online and social media content means there is a lot of contradictory information circulating about COVID-19. This can cause a lot of uncertainty and anxiety for people because they don’t know what to believe. The problem with uncertainty is that it fosters an environment in which rumors and misinformation spread widely. People are looking for information to make them feel better about the situation and may be prone to believing or sharing unverified or false information that helps them make sense of what’s happening.

That makes sense. Given all of that, can you also say a bit about how we should evaluate such information?

BW: There are a few best practices I think people should follow in times like these. First, unless it is coming from a major news or health organization, I would be wary of information on social media. So much of the content on sites like Facebook and Twitter is unverified, taken out of context, not based in fact, or just outright false. Remember that anyone can say anything they want on these platforms, whether it is true or not.

Second, I would avoid getting news about COVID-19 from sources that are overtly sensational or partisan. These channels often cover the political implications of the outbreak, which is less helpful for people wanting to understand how they can take care of themselves and their families. And finally, the best resources at times like these are those that are reporting verified facts, not offering opinions. This means turning to journalists and news organizations who are out there talking to experts and officials in order to accurately inform the public. 

Nationally distributed newspapers are providing up-to-the-minute information about COVID-19, and regional papers are reporting news about how the virus is affecting people more locally. Also, the websites of public health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services offer clear, up-to-date, and accurate health information about COVID-19. These are excellent health resources that people should use.

Are there any specific opportunities or benefits social media brings to a situation like COVID-19?

BW: One benefit of social media is that they allow people to stay connected to their friends and family during uncertain times like these. People can use these platforms to let others know that they are okay or that they might need some help from their community. Social media can also be utilized to help communities organize to get resources to people in need. Social media can be a great place to bring people together to work together for their communities, whether it is starting a food drive, finding childcare for a parent who is not able to work from home, or helping a neighbor get medical supplies.