The second week in October 2019, I wrote of my frustration with the use of social media and internet to spread misleading information about the eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) virus and the treatment of the mosquitoes that spread the virus. Science and common sense, it seemed, had given away to fearmongering and emotion. While that event was localized to southern Michigan and northern Indiana, the current nationwide COVID-19 crisis has unleashed much of the same phenomena.

Sometimes it is hard to separate the fact from the fiction. Case in point: On March 16, the French Minister of Health, normally a trusted source, released information about ibuprofen (known as paracetamol in other parts of the world), saying it appeared to aggravate the infections in those unlucky people. News services and social media quickly reported the posting. A day or two later, other health agencies around the world began to reject the premise behind the announcement. The current message: there has been no research into ibuprofen and the new coronavirus.

In this case, a normally trusted source released information that was misleading, which went “viral” and muddled the issue for many. Two weeks later, you can still find fresh references to that poorly thought out release twittering about the world.

So, what is a person to do if even a normally reputable source might put out bad information? First of all, do not jump to conclusions right away. In this case, other trusted sources around the world questioned the validity of the post as they sought to verify the information. Wait a few days until other trusted sources can corroborate the information.

Second, remember the tendency for information to go viral, whipping people into a frenzy, true or otherwise. Remember the odd claim last week that drinking water frequently would wash the virus into your stomach and negate the chance of getting sick? I must have seen that post 10 times in a single day.

Perhaps most important, if something is questionable, do not forward it on to all your friends. Those kinds of claims can make an anxiety-riddled person go to the edge. Giving people you love and trust poor information is really the last thing you want to do.

With shortened attention spans, less interest in details, and a tendency to prefer entertainment to actual news, people are much quicker to assume something is true when it is not. Take a deep breath, take time to verify with other sites, and do not jump to conclusions.

So, what or who can you trust? That is a great question. I am no doctor. I try to take a calm, science-based approach to evaluating information. I look to places like the Centers for Disease Control with their recommendations that most agencies are referring to: https://www.cdc.gov/

In Indiana, the Indiana State Department of Health site, https://www.in.gov/isdh/, is also up to date. In Elkhart County, the Elkhart County Health Department site, http://www.elkhartcountyhealth.org/ and their Facebook site has valuable local information as well.

Another way of sorting information to specific types of websites is to use “site:.XYZ,” where the XYZ represents the domain on the internet you want to search. For example, if I want to search for information on fertilizing a lawn, I can type “fertilize lawn site:.edu” and do a focused search for information on fertilizing lawns from just university sites on the internet. Common domain sites for information on the COVID-19 are .edu and .gov.

This technique works in most search engines, including Google, Bing and Safari. By adding the phrase “site:.edu” or “site:.gov” to your topic of interest, you screen out a lot of irrelevant information.

Jeff Burbrink is an educator with Purdue Extension Elkhart County. He can be reached at 574-533-0554 or jburbrink@purdue.edu.

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