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Knowledge Is Power: Fighting Misinformation, Disinformation, and Junk News

Who shares COVID-19 rumors?

COVID-19 Misinformation

Why would someone make up a story or share an unverified rumor? As Craig Silverman noted in Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content, a 2016 report for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, behavioral economist Cass Sunstein identified four main types of rumor propagators in his book On Rumors. Here is a quick explanation of what they are and how they apply to the information we see online:

  • Those who promote self-interest at the expense of others (for example, people spreading scams and using falsehoods to build up large followings online).
  • Those who promote the interests of a group they favor or support (for example, people in one political party who share false claims or misleading videos about a politician in the other party).
  • Those motivated by malicious intent (for example, trolls who seek to derail conversations or extremists advancing agendas of hate online).
  • Those who act for altruistic reasons (for example, people with a sincere desire to warn others about a possible threat).

In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, we see all of those motivations playing out in our social media feeds. And you might be surprised to discover the biggest misinformation vector in the current crisis: people acting on the altruistic impulse to help others avoid infection — and sharing misinformation without realizing that it’s false or misleading.

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