The internet is a virtual treasure trove of information. Trouble is, along with the information comes a lot of misinformation. And rumors. 

The coronavirus crisis is a classic example. As the pandemic spreads, so do rumors. We’re more than halfway into the lockdown and there’s virtually a new rumor every day: The lockdown will be extended by three months, we will be working from home for another six months, or we’re going to run out of food soon. 

There’s more. Somebody says a concoction of garlic and bay leaf will cure coronavirus and suddenly it’s a full-blown rumor on Twitter and WhatsApp.

In this internet age, it doesn’t take much for people to turn these dangerous rumors into their new reality, regardless of plausibility. That’s why even the World Health Organization has one piece of advice: Get the facts, not rumors or misinformation.

So, make it a habit not to start or spread rumors in this time of tumult. Use your emotional intelligence to understand and share facts rationally, especially since it takes very little to fan the flames of anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic. Fight rumors with science and logic.

But why do people believe in rumors? Fear is one reason. Another reason is that people tend to believe rumors that reinforce commonly held beliefs or feed their own biases.

An Ohio State University study showed that people self-generate their own misinformation; and as the misinformation passes from one person to another, it gets further and further from the truth.

Look around you and you’ll see what some call the “domino of disinformation”. Your uncle goes for a walk in the park, hears a rumor about a shortage of essential supplies like milk and vegetables and then tells a relative on the phone. The chain continues and by the end of it, people have twisted it further to say we’re going to run out of cooking gas and oil. 

Pradeep Nair, director of New Media at Central University of Himachal Pradesh, says that unlike the global debate on the need to regulate the sources of rumors, the challenge in India is about re-engaging the audience that is prone to believing in rumors.

It’s important to refute rumors by engaging with rumor-mongers rationally and kindly. Badgering a rumormonger—even innocuously—will only worsen the problem. 

Is it worth arguing with a fact denier? It might feel futile, but research on rebutting science denial by behavior scientists Philipp Schmid and Cornelia Betsch at Germany’s University of Erfurt shows that it is. 

They recommend debunking misinformation in a three-step process. First, expose yourself to the rumor and break your arguments against it into topic based rebuttals and technique based rebuttals. 

A topic rebuttal will present facts countering the misinformation, or the fact of the argument, and a technique rebuttal will expose the logical fallacies in the process that formed the argument. Second, decide on which method to use against which argument. And finally, convince people firmly yet kindly. 

For example, many people might believe that a home-remedy will protect them from the coronavirus pandemic. You can use scientific facts, or topic based rebuttals, to persuade them that frequent hand-washing and keeping your distance from people are the most effective ways of keeping yourself safe. This counteracts the fact that they are sharing. 

You can also use a technique based approach to rebut a rumor. For instance, someone may believe that we shouldn’t trust the social isolation protocol because it can’t guarantee 100% safety. Persuade them that their abundance of caution is healthy yet misdirected. 

Convince them they can trust official communication but not baseless rumors. Mistrust is healthy towards unsupported rumors or news. But authorities base their public communication on scientific inquiry and while a population-wide protocol cannot guarantee 100% safety, it is the best option. 

It may feel like this is a lot of work and you may feel tempted to not engage in a debate at all.  But ignoring deniers is dangerous. Schmid and Betsch say people tend to believe deniers when no advocate for facts is present. 

So, even if your instinct tells you to stay out of the family WhatsApp group, wade in if you see some ludicrous rumor.  Don’t stoke the fire. Don’t let it spread, either. Put it out.

Aditi S. Biswas is a Learner Engagement Manager at Harappa Education. She studied Epidemiology at Boston University and is currently a student of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at IGMPI. She enjoys cooking and watching documentaries. 

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