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Survey: One-third of Americans have seen misleading information about COVID-19 on social media

There are new viral claims every week. Here's how you can protect yourself against false and misleading information about coronavirus.

Roughly a third of people in six countries have seen misleading information about COVID-19 posted on social media, according to a new report.

The report comes from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Researchers polled more than 8,500 people in the last week of March and the first several days in April in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Argentina and South Korea.

While the highest levels of false or misleading information were reported in Argentina and Spain, 33 percent of Americans polled in the survey said they had seen "a lot" or "a great deal" on social media.

The people polled were asked how they accessed news and information about coronavirus, how they rate the trustworthiness of different sources and platforms, how much information they have seen and their own knowledge of and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

News consumption is up in all six of those countries, but so is the level of misleading or fake information circulating. There are new viral posts every week that claim to have cures, treatments and ways to protect against coronavirus. 

Some attempt to downplay the severity of the pandemic while others aim to insight fear or panic. Some of this misleading information can be dangerous or deadly.

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Researchers and journalists around the world have been fact-checking claims about coronavirus since January. Some of the first viral posts had to do with out-of-context videos and photos reportedly coming from China or the U.S. 

Another claim, which still circulates months later, is about coronavirus allegedly originating from bat soup in Wuhan, China. Scientists still don't know exactly where this novel coronavirus came from, but wild animals are a possibility.

Recent posts on social media have recommended sanitizing fabric face masks by putting them into a plastic bag and microwaving them for a few minutes. The CDC says the best way to sanitizing fabric masks is to put them in the washing machine. Some experts say microwaving masks could melt parts of them or start a fire.

Another viral post, from a family doctor in Michigan, advised soaking fresh fruits and vegetables in soapy water before consuming. That advice is dangerous. Dawn has said ingesting their dish soap can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. 

One claim that persists is the coronavirus' effect on young people. Medical experts around the world agree that COVID-19 can be worse and even deadly for elderly and immunocompromised people. However, that doesn't mean young people and children are immune.

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One young mother from Missouri said she was "one of those people" who thought the pandemic was made to be a bigger deal than it needed to be. The 27-year-old spent weeks in and out of the hospital after testing positive for COVID-19. She said she "would have not left my house, gone anywhere, if I knew how miserable this was."

Six Florida students from the University of Tampa also tested positive for coronavirus after a spring break trip. One student had been traveling internationally while five others were together on spring break in mid-March.

A group of 53 spring breakers from Texas also tested positive for coronavirus after coming back from a trip to Mexico.

On its Myth Busters page, the World Health Organization said people of all ages should take steps to protect themselves against COVID-19. Practicing good hygiene and social distancing can protect yourself from the virus and help stop the spread to others.

Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking organization owned by the Poynter Institute, shared a misinformation handbook on how social media users can avoid falling for false or misleading posts.

Here's how you can guard against misinformation on social:

  • Learn the basics of the disease
  • Be skeptical of claims about the disease's origin
  • Fact-check images and videos
  • Double-check numbers of cases and deaths
  • Understand and be wary of attempts to downplay or incite panic
  • Don't share treatments or preventative measures without checking official sources
  • Ask what's still not known

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