We are gravely concerned about misinformation disseminated via social media. Misinformation is a major, if not existential, threat on a number of fronts including democracy and the economy, but developments this month have highlighted the unique potential for social media to spread dangerous medical misinformation.

On Tuesday, February 25th, the CDC announced that the new coronavirus could turn into a global pandemic. With anxiety high and the need to communicate timely, accurate information critical, the possibility of an emerging pandemic leaves us particularly vulnerable to the threat of misinformation.

And so, predictably, we have already seen misinformation about the virus flood into social media. As NPR reports: The false statements range from a conspiracy theory that the virus is a man-made bioweapon to the claim that more than 100,000 have died from the disease (as of this week, the number of reported fatalities is reported at 2,200-plus).

To protect public health, a number of reforms, for which we have been strongly advocating, need to be implemented urgently. Social media platforms need to do a better job at identifying and removing medical misinformation. And, public policies, including civil, criminal, and regulatory, need to be comprehensively updated to respond to this new threat.

For your own family’s safety, you need to ensure that any health information or news that you are consuming and/or relying upon comes from trusted sources only. Those sources include legitimate, known news organizations, government authorities, like the Center for Disease for Control, or your own medical professionals. If you see health information on social media — check the source carefully or ignore it completely.

But, we also need to be upstanders and do our part to remove potentially harmful information. Block posters from your own social media feeds that are spreading clearly false information and block news sites you do not know containing suspicious information. Report any posts to the social media platform if you believe the misinformation may be dangerous to the public. And please, do not repost or “like” any information when you have not taken the time to verify the source and the content.

The threat of a global pandemic is concerning enough. We must do everything we can now before a crisis hits to make sure the public can receive and respond to current and accurate health information.

Marc Berkman, Executive Director

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