Fake News, Reliable Sources, COVID-19 Information and You

Note: Chet Lunner had been scheduled to speak at South Portland Public Library as part of our Senior Programming initiative, sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council.  Due to COVID-19 prevention measures, this talk was postponed and, subsequently, City buildings – including the library – were closed to the public.  Mr. Lunner was kind enough to write this article in order to get this important information out to the community at this important time.

By Chet Lunner

When an unexpected event like the coronavirus takes place, our first problem is often a lack of information. What just happened? How bad is this? Am I at risk? What can we do?

The next problem is way too much information. This scientific mumbo-jumbo is confusing. Where can I find the best, most clear information? Who is the most trustworthy expert? How do I separate the wheat from the chaff?

In the case of the virus, we’re well into the second stage; our sources of intelligence have gone from a trickle to a Niagara Falls of 24-hour news alerts and a constant barrage of online chatter. Citizens must navigate a convoluted maze of data and sort the good from the bad, find the true experts and ignore the rumor mongers, wrongheaded blowhards and scammers.

This is not an academic exercise. In a situation like this, “fake news” kills people. And many of those most vulnerable to the virus are also the most vulnerable to the effects of misinformation. Ironically, that group — our senior citizens — are also much more likely to pass along misinformation they find on social media.

As people age they become generally more trustworthy and tend to believe what they read online. The Federal Trade Commission reports that up to 80 percent of scam victims are over 65, and researchers at NYU and Princeton have found that seniors are seven times more likely to share questionable social media than younger users. (Whatever happened to “trust but verify?”)

Maine’s librarians can play a key role today in the fight against “fake news,” by carefully curating their websites to offer clear, trustworthy, easily navigated materials. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I would argue that in the current situation, a “less-is-more” approach may serve elderly patrons better than an endless online collection of scientific sites. Let’s look at a few examples that I believe are particularly user-friendly for senior citizens, offering easy access to the basics while opening gateways to deeper levels of information. 

Maine Council on Aging

This site features colorful, large “click boxes,” which lead the user with two simple clicks to an extensive set of clear, well-written FAQs about coronavirus, plus a well-organized list of resources — local, state and federal — and helpful links for those who wish to delve deeper. At the same site, the council also offers daily email coronavirus updates.

AARP

As you might imagine, AARP concentrates on issues of concern to seniors, and they do a fine job. (You don’t have to be a member for access.) Attractively designed, clearly labeled topics include how and why the virus affects older people, how to make Skype calls on your computer, how to deal with forced isolation and the like.

World Health Organization (WHO)

This United Nations agency is just what its name implies: the epicenter of the international fight against the current pandemic. A trustworthy source, the WHO site offers a global perspective and an extensive collection of one-click topics related to virus issues.

I’m sure you’ve found some good sites, as well. The more Maine librarians can share the trustworthy sites with seniors, the better.

A big part of the problem seems to be that seniors didn’t grow up using the Internet, with its steady diet of fake news, disinformation, and rumors. In their day, newspapers, books and magazines could generally be trusted.

Seniors need to start automatically asking some questions about what they see online. Is it from a political source with an ideological agenda? What does the other side say? (There’s always at least two sides to every story, right?) Are they asking you to send them money for something? 

Does the story even identify a verifiable source, or does it cite unidentified “informed sources,” or vague “experts” who apparently have no names? Do you recognize the source as usually reliable and knowledgable, or is this someone you’ve never heard of?

In a crisis, a society’s most valuable resource is timely, consistently clear and trustworthy news upon which its citizens can make potentially life-and-death decisions. Librarians across Maine are on the front lines of the battle against fake news. 

 

Lunner, a former Maine newspaper editor and national news correspondent, is available as a public speaker on “The Impact of Fake News” as part of the Maine Humanities Council’s World In Your Library program, or at chet.lunner@gmail.com.

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