rEATsearch (It's like overhearing your nerdy health science friends chat and laugh over coffee.)
Take a hot second! (Misinformation and the infodemic)
September 21, 2020
COVID-19 info is coming out frustratingly fast & furious, amirite? And some of it is pretty shocking. But, how do you know which social media posts are shareworthy? (While fact-checking is HIGHLY recommended, let's be realistic--it isn't always possible.) The truth about a social media post might just lie in a brief moment of pause. . . Find out more about a very recent study that looked at a super-simple thing to do so you can intelligently share social media posts. That's the topic of the first rEATsearch podcast episode.
COVID-19 info is coming out frustratingly fast & furious, amirite? And some of it is pretty shocking.

But, how do you know which social media posts are shareworthy? (While fact-checking is HIGHLY recommended, let's be realistic--it isn't always possible.)

The truth about a social media post might just lie in a brief moment of pause. . .

Find out more about a very recent study that looked at a super-simple thing to do so you can intelligently share social media posts. That's the topic of the first rEATsearch podcast episode.


For more information on Leesa, visit:

For more information on Lindsay, visit:


[00:00:00.330] - Intro/Outro
rEATsearch is a podcast that explores current nutritional research and health studies. Our lawyer says we have to let you know that this podcast is for entertainment, educational, and informative purposes only. If you have any health questions, see your doctor or licensed health professional. 

[00:00:16.270] - Leesa
So now we've heard about epidemics and pandemics, but there's a new word that's been making rounds the last few months and that is called an infodemic. So today we'll talk about misinformation. We'll talk about how to recognize it and stop it in its tracks. And the study that we're going to talk about today; Here's a quote from the researchers. They say, "We present evidence that people share false claims about COVID-19, partly because they simply fail to think sufficiently about whether or not the content is accurate when deciding what to share." That's today's topic.

[00:00:56.330] - Lindsay
I think this is going to be a good one.

[00:00:57.740] - Leesa
OK. Yay!

[00:01:05.990] - Leesa
So the study itself is called, "Fighting COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media: Experimental Evidence for Scalable Accuracy Nudge Intervention." And it was just published on June 30th, 2020. So it is pretty recent.

[00:01:23.780] - Lindsay
Well, there's never been a time that needs it more, that's for sure.

[00:01:27.390] - Leesa
Exactly! It's really cool that they're actually looking into it because some of the stuff in here is going to be like an "aha moment," but some of it everyone's going to be like, "yeah, we already knew that was going to happen." But now we have data. So not only do we think and know what's going to happen, we have proof. So this is a great opportunity. One of the things I like about this is it's an international collaboration between two universities in two different countries.

[00:01:53.810] - Leesa
It's with University of Regina, right here in Canada. 

[00:01:59.710] - Lindsay
Go Canada!

[00:02:00.320] - Leesa
I know, I know. Great researchers here! 

[00:02:02.450] - Leesa
And M.I.T., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US. So we have an international collaboration of two universities, which is one reason I like this study. 

[00:02:12.760] - Lindsay

[00:02:13.220] - Leesa
When it comes to COVID-19, there is so much information out there that everybody's confused. And I'm not just talking about everybody. I mean, EVERYBODY! Researchers are online critiquing each other's studies. I'm trying to follow credible people. We have information about masks that's been changing over the last few months. This is legit confusion. Every time I go online, it's like, "we should be doing this; but you said we shouldn't do this; but what about this; we're finding this." And I'm following researchers and they're critiquing online and it's . . . oh, my gosh, I get it!

[00:02:53.220] - Lindsay
I think, like you mentioned, the main one is the mask issue, because even at the beginning, it was such a gong show. 

[00:02:59.930] - Leesa

[00:03:00.940] - Lindsay
Because it was like they didn't know whether masks were going to help. Maybe they were. Maybe they are. And what about cloth masks? And what about so many people touching it? What about all these different. . . . It was back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And now the evidence is quite clear. Masks help. But because there was so much confusion at the beginning, we still get these naysayers that just don't believe--still--even though we have a lot more evidence to back it up. So that's the best one right now that I can think of. And I mean, even still, whenever I go on social media, the debate is just ridiculous when you see how passionate. . . It's become a political stance, which it shouldn't be.

[00:03:46.850] - Leesa
Right. I totally agree.

[00:03:47.570] - Lindsay
It just comes down to the science.

[00:03:49.910] - Leesa
 And the science has been evolving. I think that's part of what makes things so confusing. Because this is a novel virus and we really didn't know very much about it at all. And as more and more studies like this is record-breaking numbers of studies coming out, we know we're kind of refining and all of this grey area is becoming really clear in certain points. And it's all happening over time and it's all happening in public view. We both know that this happens in science all the time on every topic. It's messy, we need to make sense of it. There isn't a black and white. Yes and no. Hundred and zero. It's all about taking all of this grey and putting it together. And that is exactly what we're going to talk about with this study. 

[00:04:37.770] - Lindsay

[00:04:37.770] - Leesa
The amount of research is amazing. The behind the scenes work is amazing. And it is amazingly confusing.

[00:04:44.840] - Lindsay
Well it is and I think what's really cool is the public is now finally starting to understand why science is such a collaboration and why it's such a long process. It's not clear cut. It's not something where people need to do a study and then you're going to get the results published the next day. I mean, COVID has really sped up the process, but it's still a complicated, multi-step process that has to be followed. And so you can't just jump on stuff right away and think, "Oh, my God, this is so true!" When you go back and look at some of the retracted articles, the list is huge when it comes to COVID. So we need to remember that the scientists and researchers need the time to do it properly or we are going to get the wrong information. 

[00:05:27.000] - Leesa

[00:05:27.000] - Lindsay
And so you can't just jump on stuff right away. You need to be patient. But of course, people are not in a situation like this. 

[00:05:34.330] - Leesa
Right. And when we learn science, when we're doing grade 10 experiments and you can see the pH colour change of something right away and it looks like everything is clear--it goes from red to blue or whatever happens. It looks like science is simple, when really, we're just doing the very simple things when we're in school. When you get out and you're doing research, especially with people, it gets really complicated and long. 

[00:06:00.790] - Lindsay

[00:06:01.430] - Leesa
I'm so glad you brought that up. So I'll dive back into the infodemic. And this word, actually, was coined, from what I understood in my research, by Dr. Tedros at the WHO. And this is back in February where he was talking about an infodemic, which is like an epidemic (or even bigger global pandemic) of fake news that spreads faster and more easily than the virus. So talking about fake news in general, studies have shown--and we all know that a lot of political misinformation has been going around for years. And there's a really cool study also done by MIT on political misinformation a few years ago. But this particular study that we're going to talk about today goes into specifically COVID-19 information. By "misinformation," the whole concept is it's fake. It's not true. It is demonstrably false. 

[00:07:01.010] - Lindsay

[00:07:01.560] - Leesa
And again, it's not just 100 percent false or 100 percent true. There are grey areas within it. So in one element, you could have, for example, just to illustrate the different shades of grey of misinformation, you have on one end satire, you have parody, you have somebody making a mistake. There's no intention to deceive. There's no malintent. It's all about a misunderstanding or it's meant to be a joke. And you can imagine that on the other end is stuff that is legitimately fabricated with the full intention of dividing people and stoking fears. And you have this whole area in between all these. It's getting worse and worse and worse until it gets to be that it's literally made up in some bot farm somewhere, anywhere.

[00:08:00.030] - Lindsay

[00:08:01.010] - Leesa
So, again, we're not talking black and white. We're talking about something that is false. But it could be a mistake. It could be misrepresented, could be misunderstood, or it could be legit not cool. Some examples for COVID-19 are that it's a hoax altogether. I think this has died down over the last several months. But that was one of the original misinformation, that we're just making this up for whatever reason.

[00:08:25.520] - Lindsay
I think that was one of the scariest ones. That this whole thing is made up.

[00:08:29.330] - Leesa

[00:08:31.630] - Lindsay
Unfortunately, a lot of people are dying. And so it can be dangerous for a lot of vulnerable communities out there. 

[00:08:39.440] - Leesa
Totally. That was definitely misinformation, hopefully that's gone. But also things like whether it's a bioweapon--which it's not. And this is a whole other episode if we want to get into it. 

[00:08:52.670] - Lindsay

[00:08:53.090] - Leesa
I've seen things for sale. Have you seen this little battery-operated device that you can hang around your neck on a string. And it says that it will protect you and the air you breathe from the virus. Have you seen this?

[00:09:07.670] - Lindsay
I haven't seen that, but I've seen little personal air purifiers and stuff like that, which, personally think is ridiculous. I haven't really looked too much into it. There's so many other better ways to protect yourself. It seems like a waste of money. 

[00:09:23.120] - Leesa
Right. A lot of these are people trying to sell stuff. Either for prevention, so people don't get it or they're trying to sell cures, which we literally don't have. Science has been working on cures for months and we're getting closer in a lot of different areas. But some things that were touted as cures are not and a whole bunch of things are being touted as cures now that are not very likely to succeed. But either way, there is not sufficient evidence. There is no cure right now.

[00:09:51.470] - Lindsay
I think it really comes down to people are scared and they find ways to protect themselves and they're willing to shell out money for it. And then, of course, on the flip side, you have people that are trying to monetize on that fear. And so you need to stop and use a little bit of logic. And that's not to say that there isn't some products out there that will help. But definitely think about it first before you just go blindly buying stuff. I mean, this comes right down to what we're here to talk about. 

[00:10:22.120] - Leesa
I'm so glad you brought that up, because that's exactly the study about how do we stop misinformation. And what it comes down to is just thinking about things for a second because people are smart!

[00:10:35.080] - Lindsay
They are.

[00:10:35.590] - Leesa
Another reason why I like this study is it's a two-part study. So they looked at COVID misinformation--Facebook posts--and they found 30. And they took a group of people and they split them into two groups. Therefore, it was a controlled study. So you have a control group and you have an experimental group. So what they did was, they asked people the simple question, "To the best of your knowledge, is this claim in the above headline, correct? Yes or no." So they just showed people 15 fake and 15 true social media posts. By fake, they're all real social media posts, but they were fake news. In random order to random people who participated in the study--hundreds of them over eight hundred. And just ask them a simple question. And most people figured it out. People are smart and most people don't want to share misinformation. So this is good news. 

[00:11:37.420] - Lindsay
That's very good news. 

[00:11:38.480] - Leesa
It's very good news. People are smart and people can figure this out if they literally just asked to simply just think: Is this accurate, yes or no?

[00:11:46.690] - Leesa
Then in the other group, what they did was they wanted to know whether or not people are going to be sharing it. Did they intend to share it? So the question they asked this other group was, "Would you consider sharing this story online, for example, through Facebook or Twitter?" 

[00:12:01.250] - Leesa
And what they found in the sharing question was more people are willing to share false information because we never asked them the first question about do they think it's accurate?

[00:12:14.130] - Lindsay
So they react, they don't stop to think before they react. This seems to be a problem in general, in society, but especially with fake news.

[00:12:25.020] - Leesa
That's exactly it. It's very reactionary. It was very impulsive. As opposed to, if people literally just stop and think: is this accurate or not? They're more likely to understand that it's not. Versus if they're going to share, they're more impulsively going to share because they didn't actually think about accuracy. So this is great news! People are smart. They don't want to share false information. 

[00:12:48.430] - Leesa
So, why do they do it? So then they took similar-sized group of people (over eight hundred). 

[00:12:57.570] - Leesa
And one thing to note about studies is they didn't recruit eight hundred people. They recruited over eleven hundred people. And of all those people, eight hundred were participating in the study. So that's another complexity in research, if you want one hundred people in your study, you need to recruit more than that, because people are either not going to be the right people. They have some criteria that excludes them. They're going to drop out. Something's going to happen. So getting eight hundred people means they recruited eleven hundred. So that's just another little tidbit of how research is done with people. 

[00:13:33.250] - Leesa
But again, they took new people in the second study and they split them into two groups. So again, we have an experiment where they're randomizing people into two groups. And the difference here was one of the groups was asked the same thing as in the first study, "Would you consider sharing the story online, for example, through Facebook or Twitter?" So that's the control group that did the same thing in both studies. For Group two, for the sharing part, not the accuracy part, but the sharing part, they had them do two things.

[00:14:04.710] - Leesa
So this is the experiment. They had them first rate the accuracy of a politically neutral non-COVID-19 headline. Step one was they were shown something that was not political, not about COVID. Just asked, "Do you think this is accurate or not?" And then, for the two-step process, the 30 COVID posts (half were fake and half were real). And instead of saying: "Would you share this?", the question was, "If you were to see the above on social media, how likely would you be to share it? Rate from one six." One being extremely unlikely to share it; six being extremely like share it.

[00:14:48.960] - Leesa
Here's the difference. A, we're nudging them to think about accuracy before, and for B, instead of saying would you share yes or no, we're actually saying, can you take a step back, one to six, how likely are you to share it? 

[00:15:05.600] - Leesa
What do you think? Do you think this would help?

[00:15:08.910] - Lindsay
I definitely think it would help. We're just encouraging them to put a little bit of thought into the topic before they decide to share or not. I think when people stop--and this is true for any situation--when people stop and think a little bit, their actions can drastically change. As I said, that's what we're going to see in this study. That's my guess.

[00:15:29.270] - Leesa
It's 100 percent right, because people are smart and people don't want to share misinformation. So they actually found that by asking that first question, people were almost three times more likely to understand that this was false or true. It was amazing.

[00:15:50.660] - Lindsay
That's a big number. That's a big difference.

[00:15:51.800] - Leesa
That's right. It was the difference between the people who would originally recognize it versus the people who had that nudge and recognized it. So, just by taking that second to think about accuracy, you can do better. You can get it. And people were less likely to share the false news when they thought about the accuracy and they had to weigh it on a scale of one to six. So it wasn't just yes or no, which is kind of impulsive. It wasn't just impulsive. I know I had no impulsion onto what this impulsiveness was. It was actually, think about one to six, not just yes or no.

[00:16:30.590] - Leesa
So basically, the results of the study--which is fantastic, in my opinion--is that just nudging people to think about accuracy is a simple way to increase the accuracy of posts that are shared on social media.

[00:16:47.810] - Lindsay
Yeah, I think that's great. I think what I'm taking away from this article is that this is fantastic for COVID right now because there is information, there's so much fear-mongering right now. We really need to clarify what's going on. But in general, this is something that people should be doing for everything. There's so much misinformation out there about so many topics. 

[00:17:12.560] - Leesa

[00:17:12.950] - Lindsay
So don't just read the catchy headline and think, "Oh, my God, I have to share this." Stop and scan through whatever information it is people are trying to share and take that moment and think, "Is this true? Is this likely the truth? Is this a scenario that could actually happen in real life?" before sharing anything. So this article is pretty awesome, actually.

[00:17:38.930] - Leesa
Yeah, I'm so, so happy to come across it. And it's an actual experiment--they asked people to do something and they measured it. They didn't just send out surveys. It wasn't just observational. It was literally, think about this and then tell me the answer. 

[00:17:53.870] - Leesa
One of the big implications of a study like this is that on social media, (this has to be tested, but you can apply it and see how it works) is just nudging people before the share button. Maybe have a little, "Do you think this is accurate?" button that they just have to think about it first. This could possibly be one piece of the puzzle to help reduce misinformation. Again, it's not black or white. This one thing isn't going to end all of the misinformation, but it is one piece of the puzzle to get people to just think about accuracy before sharing. And it looks like it could work. I think that this is kind of cool. 

[00:18:36.170] - Lindsay

[00:18:36.680] - Leesa
So when it comes to looking at the strength of this research, we'll link in the study notes. We're using a scale from one to seven about rating the methodology--how strong is this type of study? And this one, because it was a randomized controlled trial, is actually rated as six out of seven. And you can see in the links below. Because what they did was they took people, they randomized them into two different groups. So you didn't choose the group you were in. And they had a control in both study one and two where the control was just asked: "Do you think this is accurate?" And then they asked a question about sharing. And then the second study: "Do you think this is accurate?" And then before they asked the question about sharing, they asked: "Do you think this particular non-COVID is accurate?" And then asked them to rate it from one to six. So that is what I would rate this study on that scale.

[00:19:33.050] - Leesa
 Also, I want to say in terms of funding, there were no conflicts of interest declared. 

[00:19:37.970] - Lindsay
That's good. 

[00:19:38.560] - Leesa
By any of the researchers in the University of Regina or MIT. And it was funded by a whole bunch of foundations in the US, as well as the Canadian Institute of Health Research and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

[00:19:54.380] - Lindsay
Those are all good places for all good stuff. 

[00:19:59.430] - Leesa
Exactly. It's not funded by industry. Not to say that industry research is always bad, but there is potentially implicit bias in there. 

[00:20:08.030] - Lindsay

[00:20:08.860] - Leesa
So I think the takeaway is really just recognizing that social media doesn't have these, "Do you think this is accurate?" buttons before the share buttons. If we just literally spend a second or two to think, "Is this accurate?" before sharing it, we can actually increase the accuracy of information on the Internet. Like, how cool is that?

[00:20:30.590] - Lindsay
I think that's pretty fantastic because there are some people that just take this misinformation and run with it. And if there's less of it circulating, then there's less opportunity for that to happen. 

[00:20:42.720] - Leesa
Exactly. And COVID-19 is a huge public health issue now. This has big implications for people who don't believe in it, or whatever the misinformation is. This could potentially be life and death or permanent medical problems--even in healthy people--if we don't fix this or at least make strides toward improving it. So I'm really happy about this. It brings me hope. And, to be honest, I am happy that people can figure out if things are accurate or not, just by thinking about it. That means that our gut and our brain, are kind of cool. They work together. 

[00:21:23.590] - Lindsay
Yeah. It's neat that there's no big step or big system that has to be put into place in order for things to get better. All it takes is sharing that one step and the benefits that come out of it can be great. So, definitely share this with friends. If you're listening, just stop and take a moment to evaluate what information you want to be sharing with the world first.

[00:21:53.960] - Leesa
It's so true. Just take that hot second and we'll all be better off. 

[00:22:00.280] - Lindsay

[00:22:00.280] - Leesa
And in fact, one thing that's pretty cool is this research is already being used in one of the social media, things that may be showing up in people's feeds. And it's called Check First, Share After.

[00:22:12.410] - Lindsay
Oh, really? Which social media is it on?

[00:22:14.670] - Leesa
It's by Media Smarts and it's been shared--you know Tim Caulfield from the University of Alberta?--He is part of this and was talking about if you just get people to check, either fact check the accuracy or in this case, even gut check it. Does this seem like clickbait? Does this seem sensational? Does it seem legit? Take that hot second and then share it. So I'll link to that in the show notes below as well.

[00:22:42.950] - Lindsay
That's awesome. Cool. 

[00:22:47.900] - Intro/Outro
Thank you for listening for exploration into more health research, don't forget to subscribe and we'd like to thank Joseph McDade for the music. If you have any comments, ideas, or recipes to share, you can reach us at rEATsearch on Instagram and Twitter and rEATsearch podcast on Facebook. That's spelled r-E-A-T-search.