When misinformation becomes viral

The Bottom Line

  • A lot of people are experiencing stress and anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), which can be exacerbated by a ton of information circulating on media and social networks.

  • Interventions to correct misinformation should provide coherent explanations that describe what really happened and why it happened.

  • Develop your critical thinking skills by asking key questions to determine if information is trustworthy.

A lot of people are experiencing stress and anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) due to the context of social and physical distancing, home confinement, uncertainty about the progression of the virus and when things will get back to “normal.” These feelings can be exacerbated by the ton of information in the media and on social networks about measures to fight the virus (which are sometimes different across the country and around the world), possible promising treatments and vaccines, and even conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus.(1)

Misinformation (sometimes referred as "fake news") is not a new phenomenon. That said, older adults are particularly vulnerable to misinformation. A study conducted in the United States revealed that Internet users over the age of 65 tend to relay more false information on social networks than younger users.(2)

At a time when fake news is going viral, how can we fight misinformation?

What research tells us

A recent systematic review of moderate quality reviewed 65 studies of interventions to correct misinformation.(3) The results indicate that it is not easy for individuals or organizations to address misinformation. That said :

- it seems more difficult to correct misinformation related to political and marketing issues compared to health issues;

- it seems more difficult to correct misinformation when it is linked to real issues (for example, misinformation which aims to lead people to believe that some vaccines cause autism), as opposed to misinformation on fictional events (for example, a fake plane crash);

- some interventions may not be sufficient to correct misinformation if they are used alone: for example, warning people that information could be misleading; “fact checking” to systematically assess the accuracy of information; or appealing to the credibility of sources (which may reflect political polarization and the growing erosion of public trust in official sources of information); and

- interventions to correct misinformation should provide coherent explanations that describe what really happened and why it happened.

Train your critical thinking skills

In this current crisis, the speed at which disinformation spreads depends on each of us. It is important to be extra vigilant and to identify trustworthy information.

Stay informed about new measures to combat the virus: Scientific knowledge on the new coronavirus is rapidly evolving. Check the websites of the Public Health Agency of Canada and the public-health authorities in your jurisdiction for the latest news.

Be vigilant when you read (or share) new research findings: Every day, there is a ton of information in the media and social media showcasing new treatments or new solutions to fight the coronavirus. Develop your critical thinking skills by asking 6 questions to see if this information is trustworthy:

1) What’s the source? Examine the trustworthiness of news sources and references behind the claims.

2) What’s in it for them? Examine if the researchers, their funders or the groups sharing the information stand to benefit from the information shared (which could suggest some potential biases).

3) How many people were involved in the study? The more people involved in a study, the more power researchers have to make conclusions and generalize the results to a larger group.

4) Was there a control group? The highest quality studies randomly select participants to try the activity or treatment, and compare results to a group that do not participate (for example, a group receiving the new treatment versus a group receiving the standard treatment). This way, they can tease out the benefits of the activity, controlling for other influences.

5) How long did the study last? Short-term measurements of treatment benefits are useful. However, studies that use accurate and reliable ways to measure the effects more than once and over a longer period (say, 6 months or a year later) provide more information about long-term benefits as well as any potential long-term side effects or harms.

6) Will it work for me? Consider your own personal needs, preferences and circumstances when making health decisions.


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Author Details


  1. Sanderson Z, Aslett K, Godel W, Persily N, Nagler J, Bonneau R, Tucker J. It’s not easy for ordinary citizens to identify fake news. The Washington Post, 7 April 2020.
  2. Guess A, Nagler J, Tucker J. Less than you think: Prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on Facebook. Science Advances, 2019, 5(1): eaau4586.
  3. Walter N & Murphy S. How to unring the bell: A meta-analytic approach to correction of misinformation Communication Monographs. 2018; 85(3): 423-441.


DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.