Toxic Local Facebook Groups

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“Civic” or “Community” Facebook Groups have been poisoned.

Over the past few years local Facebook Groups categorized as “Civic” or “Community” have decayed into unproven conspiracy theories promoted by less than reputable “news” sites, memes, and people who say they heard it from someone or saw it someplace but can’t provide citation that can be vetted and claims verified.

Let’s look at a few of the more popular COVID-19 misinformation topics being spread by local FB groups currently …

Myth: Wearing a face mask is only helpful if the person wearing the mask has Covid-19

This is not true. Even if a person feels completely fine, they can still be infected and still be contagious. This is especially common during the first few days of infection, when a person feels normal before having symptoms. That means you can become infected by a person who feels healthy. But if that person is wearing a mask, it protects others around them by keeping their germs in. It’s important to remember that you can’t tell if a person is infected with the new coronavirus by how they are feeling. Wearing a mask lowers the likelihood of the virus being spread from one person to another.

Myth: If you test negative for Covid-19 that it means you definitely don’t have Covid-19

This is not true. With tests for Covid-19 there is always the possibility of a false negative test, meaning a person tests negative even though the virus is inside their body. This can happen for a number of reasons. First, if a person is having a PCR test, also known as a molecular test, this usually involves a long thin swab being pushed into their nose and to the back of their throat. But if this swab is not pushed far back enough this can cause a false negative. Second, the person might be infected with the virus but there might only be very small amounts of the virus in their body – this can happen early on in the infection – and if this is the case, a test might not detect those small amounts of virus. Third, there can be problems with the test kits themselves that cause some people who are positive to test negative. For these reasons, we have to interpret the results of Covid-19 tests with additional information about the patient, how the patient is feeling, who they have been exposed to, and if they live in an area where there is a lot of virus being spread.

Myth: Medicines such as hydroxychloroquine and Zithromax can cure coronavirus

This is FALSE. These medicines do not work against the virus that causes Covid-19. Hydroxychloroquine is an old medicine that works against malaria, lupus and some types of arthritis but studies in Covid-19 patients have shown hydroxychloroquine is not an effective treatment and in fact can cause heart problems and liver problems in Covid-19 patients. Zithromax – also known as a Z-pack or azithromycin – is an antibiotic that works against some bacteria. Antibiotics do not work against viruses. The reason azithromycin was tested in Covid-19 patients is because sometimes a viral infection leaves a person’s body vulnerable to a bacterial infection and in that case antibiotics can be helpful. But studies testing azithromycin in Covid-19 patients shows it does not help these patients. It’s really important to use the right medicine for a particular disease and hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin are not effective against Covid-19.

Myth: Coronavirus doesn’t carry or spread in the air, so face masks won’t protect you.

COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person through the air. It spreads through respiratory particles when an infected person talks, sneezes, coughs, laughs, sings, eats or breathes. (Often times, you don’t even see these droplets come out.) The respiratory particles can then be inhaled by a healthy person who is close by and they can become infected. It gets tricky when people have the virus, but don’t know it yet, and then spread it to unsuspecting people all around them. This can cause the virus to spread very quickly, especially if people aren’t adhering to safety protocols like wearing a mask or social distancing. Wearing a face mask provides protection to those around you from your respiratory droplets, and it also protects you from other people’s respiratory droplets.

Myth: There’s a 99% survival rate for COVID-19. It’s not a big deal if you get it.

The truth is, this virus can be deadly and can cause serious long-term effects – many of which we don’t know very much about yet. While the mortality rate for healthy individuals and younger age groups is low, there’s still a chance of becoming seriously ill with the virus, even if you’re an otherwise healthy person. With the flu, symptoms typically stick around for four or five days — maybe even up to seven days. But COVID-19 may last 10 days or longer and can cause serious long term complications, including: blood clots, neurological issues and damage to the heart, lungs and kidneys. In general, the mortality rate changes by age and depends on other medical issues.

Myth: I’m not sick so I don’t need to wear a mask.

Simply put, wearing a cloth mask helps decrease the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Research now has shown that a significant number of people with COVID-19 lack symptoms. These people do not know they are transmitting the virus to others when they talk, sneeze, cough or raise their voice (e.g., singing or shouting). Wearing a mask helps to lower the transmission of respiratory droplets to other people around you. You should wear a mask to protect others, and they should wear masks to protect you.

Myth: Masks will increase the amount of carbon dioxide I breathe and will make me sick.

For many years, health care providers have worn masks for extended periods of time with no adverse health reactions. The CDC recommends wearing cloth masks while in public, and this option is very breathable. There is no risk of hypoxia, which is lower oxygen levels, in healthy adults. Carbon dioxide will freely diffuse through your mask as you breathe.

If you feel uncomfortable in your mask, try to limit your talking and breathe through your nose. That will reduce the humidity level in your mask.

Myth: If I’m wearing a mask, I don’t need to practice social distancing.

Wearing a mask is one step in slowing the spread of COVID-19. In addition to wearing a mask, everyone should continue to practice recommended behaviors to such as:

  • Keep your physical distance: 6 feet or about two arms’ lengths apart from other people.
  • Limit in-person meetings.
  • Wash your hands often with soap.
  • Stay home if you do not feel well.
  • Get a test if you have COVID-19 symptoms. Call your local health care provider to schedule a test.
  • Self-isolate if you have been around someone who is sick or tested positive.

SHOOTING THE MESSENGER

The moment these conspiracy theories and myths are challenged the person spreading the misinformation goes on the attack, attacking everything about the person who disagrees using school yard bullying tactics: Name calling, derogatory language, and personal attacks, but never providing a reputable citation for their claims such as a peer reviewed journal or news article from a reputable source or journalist. On the flipside, when pro-mask/pro-vaccine provide verifiable citations for their claims they are immediately attacked by those with opposing views, and still fail to provide a reputable source or citation for their position.

ADMITTING YOU HAVE A PROBLEM

Group Owners and Moderators need to take some critical distance, checking the source, reading content before they let be shared, and retaining their own critical judgement about content that they see online.

Conspiracy theories are being targeted at the under educated and those who subscribe to cult like beliefs of groups like Qanon and White Nationalist groups like the Proudboys. Conspiracy theories can affect some people’s beliefs and choices, such as with the El Paso shooter or with anti-vaxxers.

DEFINIING THE CONSPIRACY THEORY

People — even smart and savvy ones — mix up conspiracy theories, falsehoods and myths. Here is the key difference: A conspiracy — and by extension a conspiracy theory — must involve a group of people conducting secret deeds that disadvantage or infringe on the rights of others.

“Conspiracy theories lack public, objective and verifiable proof.”

For instance, linking vaccines to autism is a false belief. If you think vaccines cause autism because health officials deem it so, then you believe in a conspiracy theory. Another falsehood is that fluoride is harmful to your body. A conspiracy theory is that fluoride is harmful to your body and a form of mind control perpetuated by government officials.

The central component of conspiracy theories — the difference between them and real conspiracies — is proof. Conspiracy theories lack public, objective and verifiable proof.

This may be hard to fathom, but conspiracy theories are essential to a well-functioning society. Investigative journalism thrives on exposing conspiracies — or what experts call the process of epistemology. That applies to the Panama Papers, the Flint water crisis, the Edward Snowden revelations about domestic surveillance, the CIA’s role in the cocaine epidemic in the 1980s, or President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Many of those events started as conspiracy theories until their underlying evidence was discovered and made public.

A step-by-step guide to debating conspiracy theories in local facebook groups

1. Accept that you probably won’t change their mind. If a conspiratorial belief is foundational to a person’s identity or understanding of a certain subject, it will be extremely difficult to displace. “After debunking, we often see what we call the ‘continued influence effect,’ where [that] original false belief persists,” Brashier said. That can happen even if a person knows and can recount the actual facts.

Moreover, there is a hot debate right now in cognitive science over whether repeating misinformation in order to correct it makes things worse. That’s known as the backfire effect, and there is support both for and against it.

If the backfire effect exists, then people might forget or ignore the context of a fact check and be left with a stronger belief in a conspiracy theory. Some recent research in neuroscience shows that people’s brains can store an original piece of misinformation and a correction at the same time, but the memory of the correction fades at a faster rate.

2. Be kind. That said, if you’re going to try to correct a conspiracy theorist, one important thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want to ostracize them. Ostracism actually encourages people to believe in things like superstition and conspiracy theories in the first place, Brashier said.

3. Do your homework. Correcting someone’s thinking can work if a piece of misinformation can be replaced with something concrete, Brashier said. But the need for replacement facts also explains why some popular falsehoods can be so hard to combat.

Scientists have shown repeatedly that vaccines don’t contribute to autism, but they also aren’t entirely sure what actually causes autism, so it becomes hard to replace ‘vaccines cause autism’ with something else, despite loads of evidence supporting vaccine safety.

4. Push the objective truth, whenever you can and as early as possible.

Take more time than a single dinner to make your point about the objective truth. Remember, consistency is one of the reasons people trust an idea, even if that idea includes misinformation.

Conspiracy beliefs are hard to switch back and forth, If somebody has a strong belief in something, you’re not going to change their belief just by giving them one piece of information or having one conversation with them.

The ideal scenario is preventing our friends and families from falling prey to misinformation in the first place. In news media and academic publishing, corrections seldom — if ever — reach as many people as the initial publication of a falsehood. But we can train our friends and family to be less vulnerable to fake news.

Taking a little more time to rethink ‘gut’ reactions improves accuracy. Some of my recent work suggests that we should ask ourselves, ‘Is this true?’ Or, ‘Does this fit with facts that I know?’ This prompts people to internally fact check, by comparing a claim against facts stored in memory.

This task may be as simple as telling your relations to seek better information, or by pointing out that most conspiracies are revealed by journalistic endeavors or legal investigations — and not in chatrooms nor on social media.

DOING GROUPS DIFFERENTLY

At Gorge Connect, we implement all of these rules, and when misinformation is reported by users or discovered by our team, immediate corrective action is taken against the post and the person posting misinformation that has been debunked either by external fact checking sources, someone from our team, or a Group Admin/Moderator. Visit us at www.gorgeconnect.com and create your own civic or community group and get your communnity focused on the greater good.

Sources: Mayo Clinic, Cleaveland Clinic, CDC, FDA, Associated Press, Factcheck.org, PBS

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