Evaluating Digital Sources During an Epidemic

Evaluating digital sources is an important component of being digitally literate. During an epidemic, this skill can literally mean life or death.

But how do you sift through sources to evaluate them when you are fatigued and stressed out from the information itself?

NSE: Never Stop Evaluating Digital Sources

You must look at the source of the information that you consume. Can you trust everything that the nightly news reports? Can you trust things your friends post on social media?

This exercise is great to template for evaluating digital sources:

  • Who wrote the article/post? Just because they have a title such as doctor, are they really a doctor? Use Google to find out!
  • Who do they quote? Sometimes articles will have great quotes from credible people, but they don’t link to the original source. Google the person’s name and the context of the quote to be sure it hasn’t been taken out of context.
    Extra Credit: Be careful about clicking on highlighted words. Many times these are ads, and the website is making money on every click you make.
  • What is the site’s purpose? Are they sharing information to enforce their point of view? This is important when you are looking at claims. Do they back their claims up with links to original sources like congressional hearings, interviews, and research?
    If you google the claim word-for-word, do other sites agree come to the same conclusion?

Disinformation is Warfare

Here’s is how Miriam Webster defines disinformation:

false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.

Miriam Webster.com

Lea Gabrielle is the Special Envoy & Coordinator for the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center. She testified before the Senate Relations Subcommittee on State Department and USAID Management, International Operations, and Bilateral International Development on March 5, 2020 (10 days before this blog post was written, testimony transcript here).

She explained her mission, which is “leading and coordinating the interagency to decisively expose and counter foreign state and non-state disinformation and malign propaganda”. In her testimony, she discussed how China provides misinformation via censoring information:

Beijing attempts to censor the sheer extent of this global public health crisis – from downplaying the number of casualties, limiting criticism of the CCP’s response, and silencing Dr. Li Wenliang’s initial red flags about the deadly outbreak.

From testimony transcript, available here.

She also discussed the disinformation techniques that Russia uses:

These include cyber-enabled disinformation operations; propaganda campaigns that seek to rewrite history; coordinated social media swarms that inflame existing fault lines of societies, and an array of other actions that fall within the scope of their malign information operations.

From testimony transcript, available here.

The Guardian ran a story about several thousand Russian bots that had been “previously identified for airing Russian-backed messages on major events such as the war in Syria, the Yellow Vest protests in France and Chile’s mass demonstrations – are posting “near identical” messages about the coronavirus”. The goal seems to be to sow seeds of distrust between the US and China.

Fight Information Fatigue

Lexico.com is a mashup of dictionary.com and Oxford University Press. This is how they define Information Fatigue:

Apathy, indifference, or mental exhaustion arising from exposure to too much information, especially (in later use) stress induced by the attempt to assimilate excessive amounts of information from the media, the Internet, or at work.


I don’t know about you, but this is exactly how I feel currently about the information available for the COVID-19 pandemic. I think the term information overload applies here as well. The danger with information fatigue is the same as any fatigue – it keeps you from taking action.

Right now there is so much information – and disinformation – about COVID-19 that getting fatigued can mean you don’t pay attention to the information you need to survive. After all, it takes time and effort to evaluate sources. Can you afford to get so fatigued you don’t evaluate your sources, and get sucked into reacting to disinformation?

Here’s how I’m trying to fight this fatigue:

  • I’m limiting my information intake to a couple of times a day, and timeboxing the time I spend on it.
  • If I get a direct message from a friend, I look critically at what they send me. It usually sets off a spirited text conversation or phone call (we love each other, so that’s ok).
  • I’m taking care of my mental health in my normal ways: yoga (most studios in Austin are teaching classes via Zoom), eating properly, getting enough sleep, walking my dog, working, and creating. I am always creating for work, which is incredible But bright side to social distancing: I’m home for the first time in a decade in the spring. So I have a REAL GARDEN going and I’m so happy about that.
    Bottom Line: take care of yourself so you have the strength to determine what information is important for you and your loved ones.

Real Talk

During a global epidemic you have to make sure you’re getting the information you need to survive, even if you’re overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information.

Be sure to take care of your mental and physical health so that you can avoid information fatigue. And NSE – never stop evaluating digital sources.

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