How you can fact check claims about the new coronavirus
26th Mar 2020
There’s a lot of information out there about the new coronavirus, but not all of it is right.
This false or misleading information can come in many forms: from viral posts on social media, to comments made by public figures, to statements printed or broadcast by journalists.
It’s vital that everyone receives clear, factual information about Covid-19. Bad information ruins lives. In situations like this, it can cause unnecessary fear and—most importantly—may lead people to ignore important advice about symptoms or avoiding infection.
But there are some things we can all do to check how likely something is to be right before you share it with family and friends.
Where is the information from?
Be wary of anonymous sources
It’s true that sometimes people have good reasons to share information anonymously. But when you don’t know who the source really is, it makes it a lot harder to verify if it’s true or false. If there isn’t a named source to the information, think twice before sharing it.
A trusted source is your safest option
If the information is said to come from a named source, try searching to check if they’ve actually said it. (For example, if it’s claimed that a news organisation reported a fact, try searching for the name of the organisation and a few keywords from the claim.)
If you don’t recognise the source of the information, try and find out. If it’s from a named organisation look them up, examine the ‘about’ page on their website, or search for information about them on Google.
For medical information about the new coronavirus, try the NHS website and the World Health Organisation. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has a useful Q&A page, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States also has a good Frequently Asked Questions page.
If you want to know what the current advice from the UK government is, the gov.uk website includes the latest stay at home and social distancing guidance, travel advice and figures for the number of UK Covid-19 cases).
The International Fact Checking Network (IFCN) has created a database of fact checks on the new coronavirus from fact checkers like Full Fact around the world. Search it to see if the claim you have seen has been checked. This doesn’t contain every false claim you might see (and just because something doesn’t feature there doesn’t mean it’s true) but it can be a good place to start your search.
Johns Hopkins University in the US has a good page of coronavirus resources, including an email newsletter and a Twitter list of experts. (And if you’re really keen on knowing more, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is offering a free online course on Covid-19.)
If the information you have seen is at odds with these sources, ask yourself how reliable your source is. (And remember that advice from other countries may not always be the same advice that is relevant for the UK.)
If it doesn’t look right, be careful
False news can be hidden on websites made to look like familiar news outlets, like the BBC. Look for little clues: phony URLs, bad spelling, awkward layouts or strange articles. On Twitter, make sure the name of the account matches the Twitter handle attached to it. Sometimes this can be a giveaway, for example the account name might seem to be a source you’re familiar with like the NHS, but the Twitter handle might be @fakenews123.
On Facebook, check the page the information came from to see how reliable it seems, including what other information it has shared and how it describes itself. You can also check to see if the account is a verified one, if it is there will be a blue tick beside it
Get the whole story, not just a headline
Headlines can be misleading without context. It’s important that you read the whole story and watch out for images, numbers and quotes that don’t have sources, or could have been taken out of context.
Covid-19 is still a new disease and there is a lot we don’t yet know about it, and so be wary of anything that seems to be making a definite claim about the illness without clear evidence
Images and videos can be misleading
False news stories often contain images or videos that have been changed. Even real images or videos can be made to look like things they’re not with a misleading caption, or by editing a crucial part out.
You can search for images online to find out if they’ve been used online before, and where they might come from. For example, using Google Chrome, if you right-click on the image and click “Search Google for image”, Google will tell you where it thinks the image is from and where it has been used before.
Other dedicated search engines like TinEye can also help you find the source of images. We’ve written more about exactly how you can do this in our guide on how to spot misleading images online.
Innocent images can also become sinister if they are reported incorrectly. We’ve fact checked pictures claiming to show satellite images of mass cremations in Wuhan, which actually turned out not be be satellite images at all , and pictures of students dressed in military fatigues that were shared with the incorrect claim that the army was taking to the streets of London to fight Covid-19. It’s important to ask yourself what an image could really be showing.
Is anybody else reporting this?
It’s always good to get more than one source for your information. If you’re not sure if a story you’ve seen is reliable, try searching to see what trusted news sites or fact checkers are saying. (Again, the IFCN’s database of fact checks might be useful here.)
You can also search key words in an article to see where the story started. Try searching for people’s names or locations along with some of the main words from the story, or searching for specific quotes (if you put them in quote marks—“like this“—search engines know to only show you results with exactly those words).a database of fact checks on the new coronavirus from around the world.
The Science Media Centre is also helpful for finding comments from experts on stories about Covid-19.
How does it make you feel?
People who make false news try to manipulate your feelings
They know that making you angry or worried means they’re more likely to get clicks. When it comes to Covid-19, be wary of any story that sounds like a conspiracy or makes sweeping statements about which people are most likely to be badly affected. Stop and think about what you are seeing before you share.
Don’t be the one who doesn’t spot the joke
Sometimes jokes and satire online aren’t obvious. Funny or outrageous details, the way it’s written or the site it is on might give it away.
If it looks too good to be true, that might be because it is
Hope can also be used to manipulate us, especially in times of extreme anxiety. If it looks like a miracle, make sure it’s real. We’ve seen lots of posts claiming to share tips on preventions and cures, but unfortunately a lot have turned out to be false or misleading. While doctors and researchers are investigating a wide range of possible cures and vaccines, right now there is no known cure for Covid-19.
If people follow this incorrect advice and wrongly assume they are protected from the new coronavirus, they could be risking their own lives, and the lives of others.