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LETTER: Citizen says spread of misinformation is a public health crisis unto itself

Leighton offers tips to sift through misinformation
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GuelphToday received the following letter from reader Zack Leighton regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and misinformation:

Dear Guelph Today,

It was my 30th birthday on March 10. The weekend prior, my wife surprised me by renting a cabin out in Chatsworth, Ontario where 16 of our friends from Guelph and Elora intercepted us. It was a great weekend and perhaps the last time that we would see everyone before the reality of COVID-19 set in and our social responsibilities would override the chance for any sort of birthday celebration or the like.

During that weekend and in the days to follow, our group traded facts about the virus.

“You can go out, but only if there are less than 500 people in the room” or “When you wake up in the morning, hold your breath for 10 seconds - if there is tension in your lungs, you are at risk."

We’ve all heard something similar at this point and it seems that days later, we’ll be offered a conflicting message from a more credible source.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a second virus spreading that we need to take as seriously as this coronavirus. Our social connectivity is ablaze with rampant misinformation.

At 30 years old, this is the most publicized public health crisis of my lifetime. Like all major events that happen in our social-media-enhanced generation, there are information sources broadcasting opinion masquerading as fact. In some cases, these sources have amassed enough of a following that they have the power to go viral and infect our populations on a mass scale. Amidst a crisis of this scale and urgency we need to make a greater effort to curtail these actions.

So how do we do that?

To the influencers, tastemakers, bloggers, vloggers, speakers, artists, writers and broadcasters. Treat your role in the public forum the way a crack-journalist for a longstanding, reputable newspaper would. Fact check, call an opinion an opinion, consider the ethics of your decisions and commentary. If constant content is an imperative in maintaining your followership, work harder to provide your group with facts or go to every length to ensure they understand the context of your comments. You are in a position of power - take responsibility.

To the readers, viewers, listeners, consumers and casual debaters. Treat your role in the public forum the way a reporter for a longstanding, reputable radio station would. Seek your information from reliable sources and present your opinions as opinions. I am certainly guilty of this and have been known to speak with hyperbole when I am excited about something. COVID-19 is exciting to me - it’s also scary and something that has really impacted my life. I have the urge to speak this way, to win debates, to sound authoritative - to make myself feel better. I have a responsibility to curtail that desire - to protect myself and the people around me.

I have had a career in music, entertainment and tourism for over a decade. A lot has changed - I’ve heard from many that our industry is one of the hardest hit at this point. Whether that is fact or not, I am personally experiencing immense change and significant loss. Still, I have to be thankful for living in a country with certain infrastructure and access in place. I am grateful that my wife is employed by an industry that appears to be in proper condition. We both work from home. We are both in good health. We have a variable mortgage. We have what we need to isolate and take care of our family.

We are fortunate in this scenario but it can be easy to forget that many others are not.

COVID-19 presents a great deal of risk to the health, livelihood and security of millions in our country. The Government of Canada and governments around the world have made it clear that as a society, we must take action to protect more at-risk and vulnerable populations from contracting this virus by avoiding social engagement, keeping proper hygiene, self-isolating if we are symptomatic and more.

We need to consider the emotional, mental and social impacts of the dialogues we are having.

There is ample evidence of the physiological impacts of poor mental health. I elect that we treat the societal anxiety spawned of COVID-19 with equally as much care and concern as we are the virus. Treat the spread of misinformation as well as the constant barrage of fearful messaging as a public health crisis unto itself.

Here is an acronym we might consider - FACTS

Find credible sources
I’ve been using FirstDraft.Org. This group have created a site titled “Coronavirus: Resources for Reporters”. Not only does it provide credible sources like WHO or NHS but it also provides a framework on how to ethically report about the virus. Guidelines that we can certainly draw from in our own discussions.

Announce your opinions
Remember how powerful opinions can be. We naturally crave certainty in times of insecurity and fear. It’s okay to have an opinion that might help us come to our own conclusions. When unsubstantiated opinion is presented as fact, we are contributing to a dangerous dialogue.

Contextualize your comments
Sometimes facts taken out of context can be equally as confusing and misleading.

Take your time before responding/commenting
This is a practice that I am trying to bring into my own life as someone who experiences personal anxiety quite often. There is a great deal of value in stopping, pausing, observing and then proceeding (the S.T.O.P. acronym).

Stop the spread of misinformation
Protect your own mental hygiene and that of others. Consider the impact that misinformation is having on our world at a time when we must all be united.

In an email thread among colleagues about the state of our industry, a dear friend of mine said that “chaos can be a ladder.” Out of context, it sounds like something someone selling toilet paper from their trunk at a 300% markup might say as they make off with thousands of profiteering dollars. In the context of our conversation, it identifies the chance to see a picture that is greater than ourselves and to learn from the conditions of my environment toward opportunity.

We have the collective permission to change our behaviour and pivot our habitual actions. We are all experiencing tremendous change, fear and uncertainty. Use this time as an opportunity to change your actions without fear of social repercussions or perception - everyone else is in the same boat.

- Zack Leighton