COVID-19: Navigating the Digital Waters of Misleading Health Advice

Article by Estefania Cordero, EPF Project Communication Officer

Last week, countries across Europe began taking increasingly strong measures to halt the spread of COVID-19. In Belgium, where I am based, workers have been asked to stay home, only supermarkets and pharmacies are open. Anxiety is high – some of us are concerned for ourselves, older loved ones at higher risk, partners with underlying conditions, or the overall wellbeing of our communities.

I try to follow all of the work from home advice – keep good sleep hygiene, establish a routine, move a little. I coordinate with my partner and we try to be respectful of each other’s boundaries and new ‘work spaces.’ But I still worry – I worry about my Mom, who has underlying conditions and whose job cannot be done from home, or relatives who live in countries that have not yet taken any measures. 

And adding to these worries – which I am sure many of us share – I have found myself increasingly receiving false news. Messages about dolphins returning to Venice canals, holding my breath for 10 seconds to test for COVID-19, drinking water every 15 minutes to ‘flush’ down the virus, WhatsApp chain messages about secret government meetings, the list could be longer. These are all well-intentioned, and from people who care about me, who want me and others to stay as safe as we can through this health crisis. But they are ultimately false, and can sometimes be dangerous.

The past days I’ve spent considerable time explaining to relatives and friends, that the information they’ve shared is not factual. It’s a difficult and awkward conversation. There is no easy way to call someone out. Which is why I’ve embarked on a sort of campaign, making sure to check where the news I’ve received comes from – and if false – notify the sender so they can stop sharing it. Its easiest to find a source citing the post, or something similar, as fake news, this way it doesn’t come off as a personal attack. But what is really important is to replace that news source with a link to credible information, in the persons native language. Lastly, I try to be patient and kind as I explain. No one wants to be at the sending-end of false news, and it can be embarrassing for those sharing to be called out.

So what next? I will continue to contribute my little bit – maintaining social distancing and listening to health authorities, being patient and kind as I explain to family and friends how to be more careful with that they share. We all have a responsibility to each other, especially our loved ones, to share factual information from trusted sources. All of our actions – however small – matter the most right now.