News Agency boss gives top tips to finding truth in the COVID-19 era

To stop the spread of fake news, PAP chief Wojcich Surmacz proposes seven steps. Marcin Obara/PAP

Every day we are inundated with news about the coronavirus and some of it is fake.

To stop the spread Surmacz proposes following measures:

• Always judge the credibility of an information source. Apply the principle of limited trust even towards friends or family. Someone can mislead them too.

• Go beyond the headlines. Information is not just a title. Read, listen, watch and pay attention to information you receive.

• Identify the source. Find it on the web, ask your friends. It may turn out that such a person does not exist at all.

• Check the publication date of the information. The best information is the up to date information, especially given how rapidly the COVID-19 situation is changing.

• Investigate the facts which form the content of the information.  Statements, infographics, photos, videos , can all be verified by using tools available on the internet.

• Check your prejudices. In short, when you get a message, try to tame your emotions because they can give you bad advice.

• Ask a professional. If you have any doubts, you can always share them with institutions that professionally verify information.

A New Field

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in us being swamped by a flood of information about the coronavirus, and some of that information is false. This phenomenon, which is something completely new to the media, is referred to by the WHO as and “infodemic”.

A new field of science is being born before our own eyes. It is the study of how to manage information. The WHO calls it “infodemiology”.

It is worth paying attention to this topic because people want to know more and more about the coronavirus. However, it is this irresistible desire, this pursuit of knowledge, that can push us to into a corner. We cease to distinguish between bad and good information and the truth from lies.

Unfortunately, the most popular form of obtaining knowledge today is searching for, and sharing information on the web. This can be done via social networks, but also through  instant messaging, short text messages (SMS) or e-mails. What do we have to do to stop ourselves getting lose in all this information? It should be enough to efficiently manage information.

The WHO has developed a short manual for this purpose. Something like an information manual. It contains seven steps to intelligently, skilfully navigate the world of COVID-19 news. Because probably everyone would like to decide responsibly who they can trust and what information should be considered reliable. It's actually simple. Common sense and a little goodwill are enough.

1.   Assess a source

Consider who is sharing the information with you and where they get it from. It is always worth checking and evaluating their source, even if they are friends or family.

To check your social media accounts look at how long the profile has been active. Check the number of followers and the latest posts. Accounts that are too "young" account, or have only a few of followers or just a few posts published should raise your suspicions.

For websites, please check the "About Us" and "Contact Us" pages. There should be basic information and details of an authentic contact. If there is no such data or the data is anonymous, then your level of trust should drop significantly.

When it comes to images (e.g. photos, graphics) or videos, you can also try to verify their authenticity. For images, you can use the reverse image search tools provided by Google and TinEye.

For videos, you can use the YouTube DatViewer tool to extract thumbnails (freeze frames) from the videos that can then be entered into the reverse image search tools (shown above).

Other features of the information indicating that the source may be unreliable or inaccurate include: unprofessional visual design (illustration), poor spelling and grammar, or excessive use of capitals or exclamation points.

2. Go beyond the headlines

Headlines, titles, news tickers can be deliberately sensational or provocative. For what? Just to get your attention. Such activities are often undertaken by the media for purely commercial reasons. But there are times when we are deliberately misled (for example, for purely political reasons).

Therefore, try to see more than just the headlines of information provided in the media. Go on, get the full story. You may find that, as in the picture for this text, the title is "just" a question. The answer may surprise you.

It is also worth not limiting yourself to only social media platform, turn on the radio or television, look at printed sources such as newspapers or magazines. Check out digital media such as podcasts and online news sites.

Remember: diversifying your sources increases your awareness of what is trustworthy and what is not.

3. Identify the author

If you receive anonymous information, i.e. without the author's signature, it is obvious the information is questionable. Don't distribute it and don't pass it on, even if the content seems reliable. You will never have a guarantee that such messages are true, and their distribution may expose you to various types of problems (e.g. blocking your account on a social network).

It may also happen that the information you receive comes with a false name. Authors may hide their identity by using a false name for various reasons. They generally want privacy online. Often, however, especially in the era of infodemia, they are individuals or bots that aim to sow confusion. It is worth checking the information and whether such “a ghost author” signed the publication earlier. Disseminating this information also carries a high risk. Even if you hide yourself under a false name, remember that your data is also there if you are online.

In the case of information signed with the author's name and surname, the principle of limited trust should also be followed. If you have any doubts it is better to search the internet for the author's name to see if it is real and credible. Especially watch out for the so-called deep fake, i.e. statements (in text, audio or visual form) that are attributed to real authors and manipulated in such a way as to give the impression of being authentic. Reliable authors and their editors usually comment on their publications on social media profiles and on their own websites.

4. Check the date

Sometimes it may only be necessary to check the date of publication in order to determine whether the information is reliable. In extreme cases, the dates listed may not even exist - as an example, February 30.

If there are no dates at all, then the information should be ignored. If it turns out that you are reading an article that is out-of-date, you need to consider whether the information is related to current events.

It may also be possible that, although the publication is up-to-date, the infographics, photos or videos it contains may be shown out of context. Although the article may not be inaccurate, this reduces the credibility of this type of publication.

5. Do some fact-checking

Reliable information is based on facts, the statements of participants of events, expert opinions, infographics, research results or specific figures. In the case of online editions, these may be links to statements, statistics or research.

Not all of the above-mentioned elements may be included in the publication, especially those dealing with news stories. However, at least one of those items should always be included along with the information that is provided.

In addition, try to check whether the opinions presented by experts are credible. Check whether the links are active and if they direct you to proper websites. Verify quotes. All of these activities are extremely simple and can be completed easily by using a search engine.

6. Don’t be impartial

Each of us has preconceived notions that directly affect how we perceive reality. Assess your own views and think about why specific headlines, publications, or content have attracted your attention. What is your interpretation of the situation? Why are you reacting in this manner and not in another way? Does a specific message challenge your assumptions, or does it tell you just what you want to hear? If you can answer these questions honestly, you can realistically interpret the information and respond to it in a proper way.

Remember, emotions are a poor guide. Try to keep them in check when reading or sharing news about the COVID-19 pandemic.

7. Consult experts

If you come across any information about COVID-19 that you are unsure about, consult trusted organizations that can competently verify the facts. One of the most well-known, advanced and professional organisations is the American Pointer Institute, established by the International Fact-Checking Network.

News agencies have also focused on debunking disinformation, including the Associated Press, Reuters or AFP. In Poland, this type of activity is being carried out by the Polish Press Agency (PAP), which has launched the #FakeHunter project.

Check those sources before further passing on information. If you can’t find the answer you are looking for, it is always better to ask a professional and wait a while, rather than passing on inaccurate information.