Some hygiene tips for Facebook posting in the era of COVID-19

If your Facebook newsfeed is anything like mine these days, it is filled with COVID-19-related posts, some of them good, some of them bad, and some of them downright ugly.

For that reason, I thought I’d step in and offer some advice. You should keep in mind that I’m no expert when it comes to either public health or social media communications. But there appears to be a vacuum that I can fill, that is until someone with qualifications steps up to the plate. To the extent that that person has already weighed in, please link to their expert social media tips in the comments.

First and foremost, when it comes to posting about COVID-19, don’t give into Facebook’s siren song “what’s on your mind?” This question is fine for many purposes, but it encourages people to post reflexively, without thinking about the consequences. So, before you post, ask yourself the following questions:

(1) What am I trying to accomplish with this post?
In other words, am I simply raising an alarm as an expression of my own fear or anxiety? If that’s the case, what good will come from making other people more fearful and anxious? Of all the things we lack, we are not suffering from a shortage of COVID-19 Paul Reveres. Consider whether someone reading your post will take away information that they can put to use to help them prepare themselves and their communities to respond to the pandemic. Fanning the flames of COVID-19 fears is not the same as helping.

(2) Will my post add something useful to the COVID-19 conversation?
There’s so much posting going on about COVID-19 right now, you should decide to add to its increasing weight only if you feel you have something new or different to say or share, or at least new or different to your circle of Facebook friends. Keep in mind, there is critical, reliable COVID-19 information in circulation, but it’s easy for it to get lost in the avalanche of me-too posting. This “newsfeeding frenzy” of posting for the sake of posting may be our biggest social media challenge. While we’re flattening curves, let’s flatten this monstrous wave of TMI.

(3) Can I trace my post to a trusted public health source?
Here’s an example. I’ve been doing battle the last few days with a traffic-light-themed infographic that purports to give advice about what’s permitted (green), what’s to be considered with caution (yellow), and what’s to be avoided (red) when it comes to exercising proper social distancing. It is full of errors, some of its recommendations are out-and-out ill-advised. Not surprisingly, this advice comes without any attribution whatsoever: no URL, no Twitter handle, no institutional or journalistic source. Nothing.

The sad irony here is that the people who shared this infographic meant well. They thought they were doing something useful. But by not exercising a little due diligence — asking where did this information originate — they weren’t doing anyone a favor. In fact, they were probably doing more harm than good.

As far as information sources go, the gold standard for me are institutions like the CDC or the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health or your own state’s department of public health. There are more. Trusted COVID-19 media sources like STAT News, the New York Times, and the Washington Post are also at the top of my list. And, yes, your mileage may vary in your estimation of what constitutes a trusted media source.

I, personally, am inclined to stay away from secondary sources like news consolidators and the tabloid press ; at best, they simply recycle news reports from higher-quality outlets, but sometimes they omit important information and slap an overheated clickbait title on the final product, to boot.

(4) Is what I’m sharing an opinion that could be confused for an authoritative statement of fact?
There is a divergence of responsible opinion around the COVID-19 crisis. Fair enough. But be sure to let people know if what you are saying, either in your own words in the link you are sharing, is an opinion so it not be confused with the accepted advice or analysis of bona fide public health experts. Of course, you’re entitled to your opinion. And you are entitled to sharing your opinion, as well. But what you’re not entitled to is representing your opinion — or someone else’s — as authoritative when it is not.

(5) What’s the take-home message behind the article or video I’m sharing?
Since so much sharing on Facebook is little more than link-slinging based on nothing more than seeing a headline that evokes outrage or feeds into one’s confirmation bias, it’s important to make sure that you have carefully read the article or watched the video you’re sharing.

Probably the best test of this kind of circumspection is whether you can write a one or two sentence precis to accompany your otherwise bare, naked link. And when you do, be sure to ask yourself whether your summary is faithful to the original source and not a confirmation-bias serving take on what’s actually being communicated. Keep in mind, many people won’t click through to read the article or watch the video you post, so they’ll be relying on you for an accurate summary.

That about covers my posting tips for the time being. I genuinely believe that social media platforms like Facebook can be an important, even a critical, tool in our fight to respond to and vanquish COVID-19. But that is only the case if each of us commits to practicing responsible Facebook hygiene with the information we share. If we aren’t diligent, the COVID-19 discussion could become another social media La Brea Tar Pits where critically important ideas get trapped and die. Let’s make sure that that doesn’t happen. Now more than ever, we need to put our very best ideas forward.

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Marc Merlin

My interests include science, politics, philosophy, and film. I am the Executive Director of the Atlanta Science Tavern a grassroots, public science forum.