Skip to main content

On March 21, Lenard Wells became the second person in Milwaukee to die of COVID-19—the coronavirus that has so far infected more than 1.2 million Americans and killed more than 75,000.

By April, Wells’s death became a viral meme promoting the idea that COVID-19 is a hoax.

“Corona is so bad, this guy died twice! #FakeNews” the meme reads.

A closer look at the side-by-side comparison of headlines shows the apparent confusion. Different outlets focused on different aspects of the man’s life to localize the story. In Milwaukee, the story led with Wells being a retired Milwaukee police officer. In Memphis, the lead was that he was a University of Memphis professor. 

Both facts are true. The spin was completely false.

As COVID-19 upends our lives, economies and future, a dangerous game is playing out on social media. Fake news about the pandemic is hitting a fever pitch—and chances are good that you’ve come across a misleading post or headline. Perhaps even shared some. 

The Center for Countering Digital Hate outlines the main actors behind fake news about COVID-19, including people motivated by hate and politics, but also misinformed citizens. 

Fortunately, you can take back control of your social media timeline. 

This guide shows you how. It will teach you:
• How to effectively report fake news
• How to confront family and friends
• How to become a more-informed news consumer

Social media companies are being more proactive in taking down fake news stories. But they need users to point them out.

Facebook allows users to mark posts as “False News.” On Twitter users can flag tweets and the likeliest categories would be “It’s suspicious or spam,” “It’s abusive or harmful,” or “It’s misleading about a political election.”

On YouTube, click the ellipses next to the share button. Click “Report” and choose an option from the menu, in this case, Spam or Misleading. Users can also report the entire channel.

On Google, the process is less clear. As the largest search engine, Google plays a major role in the visibility of fake news sites. Users can report questionable content by scrolling all the way to the bottom of the screen and clicking “Send Feedback” in the footer section. There users can submit screenshots of the offending news sites or questionable articles. 

Reporting fake news is the best tactic when dealing with strangers, or people you don’t know very well. But what are you supposed to do if a friend or family member is the one sharing dangerous content?

We are all scared right now. We’re not only dealing with concerns over our health, but many people are dealing with job loss, furloughs or reduced hours. All of us face the specter of a deep recession. Ultimately, we all deal with stress in different ways. So a good first step is to acknowledge each other’s feelings.

Some things are in our control and others are not. It’s always worth reminding ourselves and each other that events themselves don’t affect us, but rather our perception of them.

This can help remove the tendency people have to blame something, or someone, for what’s ailing us. If someone is peddling in conspiracy theories about the pandemic, focus instead on actions they can take to help those in need, or affect change.

Change is intimidating because we tend to focus on what we stand to lose — not gain. The same can be said for times of crisis. It’s important to think about the things we still have as opposed to what we’ve lost.

Social media gives us the false impression that we have complete control over what we say. Unfortunately, we don’t. Once we post something it’s up to the world to interpret our meaning and intentions. And whether it’s fair or not, this has a big impact on how others will treat those closest to us. Sometimes we forget that. And people may alter their posting habits if they consider the broader impact on their family and friends.

Avoid challenging people online. A public debate over fake news may make them double down on their beliefs. Sometimes conflict is part of a larger strategy to trigger certain responses. Approach the topic with an open mind and without confrontation. If you get resistance, back off. You can still consider reporting the offending post.

Are they familiar to you? Do they seem credible? Are they easy to find online? Most credible outlets will include links to major sources of information, for example, unemployment statistics, or the number of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations. Be wary of stories that draw conclusions without citing objective facts first. Even opinion pieces should point to facts as much as possible.

“Click bait” articles try to draw in readers by promising something they can’t deliver. Social media rewards engagement and often the more sensational headline wins the day. You may be motivated by a “feedback loop,” too. Think about how often you’ve searched for headlines to prove a point you were trying to make. We tend to seek information that reinforces our opinions. Resist this urge.

The news industry has been battered for the better part of the last two decades, but major outlets are still very protective of their reputations.

Major errors or lapses in news judgement harm the credibility of news organizations so you can expect they’ll scrutinize their own work. On the other hand, fly-by-night websites, podcasts, and YouTube shows are more motivated to build a following as quickly as possible. Some newer sites will clone the look, feel and name of established outlets.

Polarizing networks know their bread and butter are loyal viewers. And the best way to secure that attention is to position themselves as the truth-tellers. Anchors rely on a common technique: Repetition and volume. A 24-hour news cycle takes a lot of content to fill. TV and radio personalities with daily programs will begin repeating their analyses, an effect similar to the chorus of a catchy tune. It’s effective. People are likely to believe something they hear often.

It could be hard to discern fact from fiction. Thankfully, there are a number of websites that work hard to parse out the truth. Politifact is a nonprofit fact-checking site with an emphasis on Washington. Snopes fact checks popular conspiracy theories and produces original investigative reporting. is a project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania focusing on major elections.

As shelter-in-place orders are extended across the U.S., most of us are spending far more time online. In April, the New York Times reported that daily traffic to Facebook alone was up 27 percent. 

While most Americans believe that fake news has been a problem in the country in recent years—there is no consensus on how to combat it. 

Consider the results of two separate polls in the last year.

In a June 2019 Pew Research Center poll, 68 percent of Americans said fake news is making people distrust the government; and 53 percent said the media is responsible for setting the record straight.

Fast forward to this March. According to a Gallup poll, 55 percent of Americans say they disapprove of the work journalists are doing—a rating far lower than that of Congress. 

The far-right is leveraging this moment of unprecedented isolation, fear and uncertainty to inspire even more infighting, polarization and recruitment. 

We want to help disarm those efforts. And we believe media literacy is a powerful tool in fighting misinformation. As digital citizens we have an obligation to be responsible consumers of news—that includes how we take in our news, how we share it, and how we offer feedback to others within our social media ecosystem.