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Worried parents have become an easy target for online misinformation in this pandemic

Fearful parents are falling for — and spreading — bad information to each other about kids and Covid-19.

A young woman looks stressed while working on a laptop with a child at her side. Georgijevic via Getty Images

It’s the beginning of August, and I’ve spent nearly five months looking out my front door at my son’s desolate elementary school playground across the street. I never dreamed it would be sitting empty this long.

As the coronavirus pandemic swept through the nation and schools converted to Zoom lessons after shutting their doors, I thought nothing could be as frightening as those early days of lockdown this spring. With 1-month-old twins and a 4-year-old, those earliest days are already a jumble in my memory, a caregiving chess match to keep on top of the chaos. But it turns out there is indeed something scarier than being told to stay in your house as much as possible: being tasked to make all of our own risk calculations and decisions about a pandemic that’s still far from under control.

In early July, our school district in Durham, North Carolina, announced it was prepping an in-person option for elementary and middle school students at half capacity, five days a week; virtual-only instruction for high school; and an online option for anyone who wanted it. I was briefly elated at the prospect that maybe things would be more like “normal” this fall. But as the days went by, my certainty that sending my son back was the right choice started to waver.

Without many more details coming from our district or school about what the year would look like, I found myself doing way too much doomscrolling. “I know this is already all over FB and mom’s groups, but I’m really interested in this group’s perspective on what you are going to do about school,” one mom, an essential health care worker, posted in a smaller Facebook group I’m in. She admitted she was worried about being shamed in other, larger social media groups for considering in-person school. Another started: “How are you all dealing with this massive uncertainty right now? I am anxious about not going back to school in person because of the impact on our students and their families, and anxious about going back to school in person because of the impact on us ALL.”

Further anguishing parents is that there’s no universal formula in making a decision. Factors around local infection numbers, school board politics, family economics, mental health, learning loss, and a child’s age and affinity for online school create a complex personal matrix. And no parent alive today has been through this situation before. We can’t fall back on what we’ve always done, or what our own parents did for us. So many of us keep looking for answers that the parent internet has started to feel like one giant search party, everyone scrolling for the story, the argument, the expert opinion, the statistic, or the new data that will help us clarify the “right” thing to do.

As I dove further into these online discussions, I noticed that people were starting to share ideas and writing and statistics from people they thought had some special insight. There was a cut-and-pasted post, supposedly from an unnamed Covid-19 doctor at Duke University Hospital, about why she wouldn’t risk sending her kids to school, which I later found shared in multiple local Facebook groups. There was a long, ranty post about how we don’t know the long-term health effects of Covid-19. I first saw it shared with no author, and another time it was attributed to Dr. Anthony Fauci, for which I found no evidence.

Then there was a post shared by a Facebook friend who said reading it made her reconsider in-person school. It was written by a public school parent in a neighboring state who didn’t claim to be any kind of expert yet had calculated that if his school district reopened with in-person classes, several hundred students would die of Covid-19. Reading his post, I was both scared and puzzled.

As a journalist and former fact-checker, and as someone who has my local Health and Human Services website bookmarked, I knew something didn’t quite add up. It turns out the problem was his math. He made a bunch of errors in his calculation — the statistical likelihood of a child in his school district dying from Covid-19 was close to zero. I messaged him to point out the error, as did a few other commenters, but he declined to change anything in the post. As of this writing, it’s been shared 24,000 times and has more than 600 comments, with many parents thanking him for opening their eyes to the dangers of in-person school.

Since the uncertainty about the upcoming school year set in this summer, I’ve witnessed a steady stream of unsourced and unvetted information circulating among parents who are trying their best to make huge, anxiety-filled, life-altering decisions about school and day care. I get why. Every day we’re bombarded with contradicting information about Covid-19, kids, school openings, and risk as we try our best to tackle the complex pandemic decisions that lie in front of us. But why is it so hard to find trustworthy information? And how should parents navigate decision-making during this unsettling time?

The risks of spreading misinformation online

In mid-March I felt so overwhelmed by the news that I had to shut it off. I took the New York Times app off my phone, too upset to read stories about the overwhelmed hospitals and the death toll in New York, a city I once lived in for nearly 12 years. I removed Apple News from my welcome screen so I wasn’t hit with some shatteringly awful piece of information when I checked a text message.

The only news I allowed myself to consume was from my local paper, the Raleigh News & Observer, so that I could stay up to date on relevant state and local case counts, decisions, and issues. Since the pandemic started, hyperlocal news has never been more relevant as testing, hospitalization, and death rates vary wildly from state to state.

Yet the timing couldn’t be worse for the news industry. Over the past 15 years, more than 2,000 local newspapers have closed, according to a report from the University of North Carolina. Despite the fact that subscriptions and readership are up for some outlets during the pandemic, advertising and live event revenue has tanked, and some experts are calling the financial strain of the pandemic “an extinction-level event.” Nearly 36,000 journalists have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or had their pay cut since the start of the crisis. In the absence of multiple robust, trusted news sources, what thrives online is opinion — and misinformation.

Nora Benavidez, director of US free expression programs at PEN America and an expert on media literacy and misinformation, says part of the pernicious effect of misinformation is that it plays into two psychological phenomena — illusory truth and confirmation bias — that are currently thriving as parents search for answers and make high-stakes decisions. Illusory truth is the idea that repeated exposure to an idea makes us more likely to believe it, such as when we see a post being shared multiple times on social media. “This illusory truth effect can occur despite being aware that the source of a statement is unreliable, despite previously knowing that the information is false,” Dr. Joe Pierre writes in Psychology Today. In other words, seeing multiple people share something that says hundreds of kids in one school district will die could make us more likely to believe that Covid-19 kills a lot of children — even if we know that math is wrong.

Confirmation bias is when we seek out and better absorb information and opinions that validate either our existing worldview or something we hope is true, such as deciding in-person school is the vastly superior choice for your family and then paying attention only to information that validates that belief. “We constantly have to actually undo those passive reactions where it’s just our instinct to want to believe more of what we’ve seen,” Benavidez explains.

Beyond social media, the complexity of the news landscape means it can also be difficult to know which news sources are trustworthy. “Not all local, or national news, for that matter, is created equal,” Viktorya Vilk, director of digital safety and free expression programs at PEN America and lead author of the PEN America report “Losing the News: The Decimation of Local News and the Search for Solutions,” explains. She advises asking yourself a series of questions about a news source. “Have you heard of it? Is it local? Do you trust it? Does it have a masthead? Can you find out who’s actually the leader of it? Do they say anything about an ethics policy or fact-checking policy? Do they correct things when they’ve made mistakes?”

However, even going to “reliable” news sites doesn’t always provide easy answers. I asked Brown University economics professor Emily Oster, co-creator of the COVID Explained website and writer of the ParentData newsletter, about a spate of recent scary-sounding headlines (including “Nearly a Thousand Covid-19 Cases Reported in California Day Cares,” published by an NBC TV affiliate.

“One thousand out of what?” Oster counters. “One of the problems with many of these articles is that there is a lot of reporting of cases and almost no reporting of rates. Remember, the US is big. California is big.” Although it may sound like obvious advice, Benavidez recommends reading beyond headlines, especially before you share, and making sure the articles provide relevant context with regard to numbers.

Benavidez and Oster also recommend primary sources, such as medical institutions, state health department dashboards, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization, as more reliable sources of data. Of course, we don’t always have the time, resources, or expertise to become amateur public health officials or epidemiologists digging through government websites. One easy way to be a more sophisticated consumer of information is to check the credentials of the poster. Can you confirm with a quick search that they’re actually, say, a professor of public health? Take cut-and-pasted text that’s not tied to an original author or news story with a serious grain of salt, and be wary of unsourced numbers, screenshots, or viral memes, even if they “sound right” and echo your own hunches or beliefs.

Not succumbing to panic and actually confirming something is true with additional sources before sharing potentially unreliable information are important parts of the solution.

“We can’t control what others say or do online, but we can control our reactions and if we share it,” explains Benavidez. ”Media literacy is a constant and ongoing process that you’ll get better at as you do it.”

Once you find particular news outlets that meet your standards and that you trust, “Keep going to those sources and ideally pay for them, because if you don’t, they’ll go away, to put it bluntly,” emphasizes Vilk.

How to make a decision when there are no good choices

Although learning about how to find reliable information is important, information alone doesn’t do the toughest part for parents faced with pandemic schooling choices. On the topic of school and day care, Oster cautions that “people should try not to think about this until they are able to actually think about it concretely. Until your school district has said what they’re doing, you can’t develop contingency plans. The first step is [to] just wait until you know what some of the options are. And then start to think about what you see as the alternatives.”

Oster also points out that, despite some drawbacks, social media can be very helpful in connecting with people and sharing resources. Building community and a “kitchen cabinet” of trusted advisers to be sounding boards for ideas as we navigate these uncharted waters can be crucial for parents, and social media platforms can help foster those discussions. “We need to have a community of allies that we’re weighing all of these issues [with], including how to evaluate trustworthy information,” Benavidez points out.

I get how hard it is to sort through the news avalanche right now. My brain is constantly humming with new information and anxieties, fear, and dread that rises and falls with each new headline. Remember back in March, when the surgeon general begged people not to wear masks? Remember when not spending two hours wiping down your groceries after you brought them home was seen as highly reckless? But it’s worth it to slow down, read carefully, evaluate, and avoid panic-sharing as we all do our best to search for solutions to the near-impossible choices we’re being presented with.

As for my decision about in-person kindergarten for my son? After long discussions with my husband, my parents, and a few friends, our choice ... was no choice at all. Our school district changed course and decided to go all-virtual for all students for at least the first nine weeks.

I know there is a moment coming, someday, where I’ll have to decide whether to send him back to school. But it’s not today. And in the meantime, my babies will grow older, and I’ll spend many more weeks staring at that empty playground.

Katherine Goldstein is a journalist and the creator of a reported podcast called The Double Shift about a new generation of working mothers. Find her on Twitter @kgeee or sign up for her newsletter.