It's tough to control the spread of information online, but health officials in the Northwest Territories have been trying to tackle the gossip, mistruths and questionable sources around COVID-19 and the vaccine one comment at a time.
Mike Westwick has been managing the N.W.T. government's communications response to COVID-19 through most of the pandemic and tries to "flood the zone" with good information. He says people have become better informed throughout, but his team still spends a fair bit of time combating misinformation.
"Folks are understandably scared and a little bit frantic during a pandemic," Westwick said. "And our job as communicators is to help them feel a little bit more at ease and get them the information that they need to protect themselves and others."
He says the sources of misinformation can vary, from discredited websites to word of mouth — people playing the "telephone game."
In the N.W.T., he says the most common misinformation is generally related to the level of threat northerners are facing, "phantom cases" of COVID-19 that never actually existed, or that the territory isn't testing enough. In those cases, he says his team offers quantitative data to dispel the mistruths.
"There have been many occasions where we've taken to social media directly to combat those rumours in order to give people, you know, an accurate idea of what the risk is and the current state of COVID-19," Westwick said.
Northerners open to conversations
Westwick says it's a risk communicator's job to "directly, rapidly and empathetically" combat misinformation.
"Social media has opened up all kinds of opportunities for misinformation to spread," he said. "But it's also opened up unprecedented opportunities to actually join those conversations as communicators."
Westwick says that, by and large, northerners are open to having those conversations and appreciate hearing from someone with helpful information.
"I would just really applaud northerners for ... being receptive to that information and taking the right actions that have led us to the point that we're at today in a very successful pandemic response," he said.
That response will be changing hands though. Westwick has taken on a new role in communications for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
He says it's been an "intense" year, but quite a ride, and he's looking forward to the new challenge.
How to spot misinformation
Nadya Bliss, the executive director of the Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University, says people spreading misinformation online are often doing it unintentionally and "tapping into a sense of belonging."
Bliss says there are several red flags and things to consider as you scroll through social media feeds.
Does the content create an overly emotional response, or make a broad claim?
"We're living through a number of overlapping crises. And in crises, people tend to want to share information faster," Bliss said.
"You're just nervous, you're worried and you want to share something."
Broad claims from unofficial sources should be cross-checked with a trusted source, Bliss said.
If you're seeing similar posts or stories, remember — it's the algorithm.
Social media algorithms prioritize what they think you will be most interested in, and will amplify posts from your social circle, said Bliss.
"If you are getting information from your group of peers or friends, a lot of the time the reason you see it is because you clicked on something similar," she said.
"And that is not a way to get trusted scientific information."
There is a financial motive behind sharing the information.
The best information comes from groups without a profit incentive, like government sources or reliable journalistic sources, because they're focused on "integrity" rather than driving clicks, said Bliss.
The post is out of date or has a false information flag.
Facebook and Twitter now explicitly label false information, so look out for those. Also make sure the information is current by checking the date.