(CNN)Your cousin knows for a fact that coronavirus vaccines have mind-controlling microchips. "Stop the steal" conspiracy theories maybe flooded your social media feeds during and after the 2020 US presidential election. Your friend shares an article about why 5G technology will harm everyone's health.
How to encourage family and friends to stop spreading misinformation on social media
"We even see misinformation about trivial matters," said Carl T. Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington, in an email. Bergstrom co-teaches a course that trains students on how to evaluate the onslaught of information in their lives. "Every year, a photograph of an adorable fuzzy rail chick goes viral as a picture of a 'baby crow.' (Newly hatched crows are blind, featherless and look nothing like this)."
An inaccurate story about wild animals might have limited repercussions, but misinformation about serious issues such as elections or the pandemic can be "deeply damaging," affecting people's motivations, beliefs and decision-making regarding their health, politics, the environment and more, said Bergstrom, the coauthor of "Calling Bullsh*t: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World."
"Sharing health misinformation and disinformation can get people killed," Bergstrom added. But "what if I share misinformation about something like the Afghanistan withdrawal? It's not like sharing vaccine misinformation, in that my friends and family who read it aren't in any way involved in making decisions about US foreign policy."
However, if we're flooded with false information about the Afghanistan withdrawal and other issues, we won't be able to collectively make the wise decisions we need to thrive as a society, Bergstrom said.
"Second, misinformation often serves or even drives political polarization," he added. "If we become convinced that half of our fellow Americans are irredeemably stupid, let alone evil, what does that do to our faith in the democratic process? I think it undermines this faith severely, and that is a grave threat to our society."
The problem's exacerbated when family and friends share misinformation, because we tend to trust what they're saying is true without verifying it. Confronting loved ones about the falsity of their posts isn't easy, but if you're ready to speak up, here's how to handle it.
It's worth remembering that people who share misinformation may have good intentions.
Some false posts related to the pandemic may fall into this category, Bergstrom said. "When we hear things around threats like this where there's a lot of uncertainty, it's very natural to try to get information and then share it with the people we care about to keep everybody safe."