By Ella Lee
Fact-checking has historically been used to debunk urban legends and in newsrooms behind the scenes, ensuring the veracity of reporters’ work. But in this era of viral misinformation, the role of the fact checker has become more public and more vital than ever, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on during an election year.
As a fact checker for USA TODAY, I witness the depth of misinformation online each day. Thousands of unfounded claims — from outlandish conspiracy theories to an intentional tweak to claims otherwise true — percolate online each day, many of which garner millions of views and interactions.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic enveloped the world, the stakes for fact checking were raised. Falsehoods about the virus and the ways in which people should protect themselves from it could do more than spread misinformation — it could kill.
Some of the first false information that spread online had to do with the effectiveness of masks. The mixed signals sent by the federal government at the beginning of the pandemic about whether masks are effective protectants against the virus led to a confused country, unsure of whom to believe as most mask messaging was divided down party lines.
At USA TODAY, we showed homemade cloth masks do offer protection, and confirmed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t say otherwise; reported N95 filters aren’t too large to stop COVID-19 particles; explained HIPAA and the Fourth and Fifth Amendments don’t give business patrons a loophole out of mask-wearing; and that wearing facemasks don’t cause health problems, like hypoxia, hypercapnia or a weakened immune system.
While some of these claims may seem outlandish, each was shared hundreds of thousands of times online, many of the post’s creators and people engaging with the social media posts adamantly believing they were true.
Even more dangerous misinformation soon began to spread as talk of cures began to seep into the mainstream conversation.
Claims that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine was a miracle cure to the coronavirus began to make rounds on social media this summer, after President Donald Trump lauded it as potentially one of the “biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” The drug does not work — not here, nor abroad — and some studies have found that it might be dangerous when used on COVID-19 patients.
Like in that case, the falsehood-fighting cause isn’t helped when the country’s leaders are often where the misinformation begins. A study by researchers at Cornell University found that the “single largest driver” of coronavirus misinformation is President Donald Trump.
In addition to claiming some drugs are miracles before scientists have backed that up, the president has often pushed a false narrative about the severity of the virus, grossly misinterpreting CDC data as recently as last month. And, of course, pointing out those falsehoods only deepens the partisan divide which already exists in America. That it’s an election year adds fuel to the fire, too.
That’s not to say misinformation hasn’t also come from across the aisle. A talking point frequently repeated by the Biden campaign, and mentioned by Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris during the Sept. 7 vice presidential debate, is that Trump’s administration fired the White House’s pandemic response team in 2018. That’s not fully true — the Directorate of Global Health Security and Biodefense was disbanded under Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, but Trump didn’t fire them. Some resigned and others moved to different units.
It’s clear that 2020 has cemented the need for fact checkers around the globe. But the scope of the fact checker’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet fully known.