It should come as no surprise that social media use has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are all trapped in our homes and planted in front of our computer screens, when we're not glancing down at our phones.
Facebook's usage has grown by close to 40 percent over the past several weeks, the company says. The same goes for Instagram. And Twitter says it has about 12 million more daily users now than it did at the end of 2019.
That increased engagement, however, comes at a cost: A nearly unchecked flood of online misinformation about the coronavirus, its spread and possible treatments. In recent weeks, for example, one viral video touted sticking a hair dryer up your nose to kill the virus, while an online thread suggested vaping organic oregano oil. Another urged people to inject vitamin C directly into their bloodstreams.
All wrong. All deadly.
Social media companies say they are trying to police their platforms, but it's clear they are not keeping up.
"The sheer number of false and sometimes dangerous claims is worrying, as is the way people are unintentionally spreading them in ever wider circles," writes Jon-Patrick Allem, director of the Social Media Analytics Lab at the University of Southern California.
In his piece on the public affairs website The Conversation, Allem writes that people can be as careless in passing on misinformation as they are with the actual COVID-19 virus. People tend to share information online because they find it funny, or enraging, or interesting. Truth and accuracy rank low on the list, according to study after study.
There is, however, a cure for media misinformation: Get your information from accurate, accountable sources. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shares timely information across all the major social media channels as well as its website. So do the World Health Organization, and the state of Massachusetts.
The three-step plan offered by industry group the News Media Alliance is especially effective: Stop, search and subscribe.
-- Stop yourself from sharing information you don't know to be true.
-- Search for background research if you doubt a story's veracity.
-- And subscribe to a local newspaper. If you have questions about what you're reading, you can always pick up the phone and call an editor.