CIP researchers promote trustworthy sources on COVID-19

By Doug Parry Thursday, March 12, 2020

Center for an Informed Public researchers and affiliates have been prominent voices in the media in recent weeks as the COVID-19 pandemic has developed, demonstrating the type of public engagement envisioned for the University of Washington’s new center.

“We are a research center with a public facing mission,” CIP Director Jevin West (pictured above, at left) said. “That means talking to the public around issues surrounding misinformation. The COVID-19 situation is no exception.”

CIP affiliate Carl Bergstrom (pictured above, at right), a professor in the University of Washington Department of Biology, has been among the most outspoken advocates for “flattening the curve” of the virus’s spread. The idea is that by implementing immediate measures such as “social distancing,” we can prevent the health-care infrastructure from being overwhelmed.

He co-created a widely shared graphic that illustrates why this outcome is important, and explained the concept in an appearance on BBC World News:

View the full BBC News appearance here. Bergstrom has spoken to numerous major media outlets about “flattening the curve,” including The Guardian, World Economic Forum and Vox.

Bergstrom and West, an associate professor at the Information School, spoke to several media outlets during the early stages of the outbreak, when it became clear that the epidemic would be accompanied by an “infodemic” — a cascade of misinformation from people trying to undermine trust in governments or the fact-based media, or from opportunists seeking to make money off a worldwide panic.

Both spoke to Axios in late February about these developments, as well as The Washington Post and Agence France-Presse for a widely circulated story. Bergstrom was quoted in The Christian Science Monitor and was a guest on NPR. He spoke to Self magazine for a piece advising readers about where to find good information. Meanwhile, West spoke to WCBS radio in New York:

"There's lots of rumors about how to treat it if you get coronavirus like drinking bleach or some new elixir that someone's selling or some vitamin,” West said. “Really be aware of those kinds of things like the magical fix."

Bergstrom has also spoken to several media outlets about the spread of misinformation about the novel coronavirus on social media platforms.

“This is the first social media pandemic, if you will,” he told The Washington Post for a story published in late February. Similarly, Google battled misinformation campaigns during the early stages of the epidemic, he told the Los Angeles Times.

Mike Caulfield, a CIP affiliate researcher from Washington State University Vancouver, has responded to the “infodemic” by launching an Infodemic blog and Twitter handle intended to educate people about how to sort good information from bad about COVID-19.

Caulfield organized a model for verifying information called “SIFT,” an acronym for:

  • Stop
  • Investigate the source
  • Find better coverage
  • Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context

OneZero, a tech and science journalism publication on Medium, posted a writeup about Caulfield’s approach.

CIP co-founder and researcher Kate Starbird, an associate professor in the UW Human Centered Design & Engineering department, has taken a reflective tone over managing an abundance of information in a crisis. In a blog posted to Medium, she offered a set of recommendations based on her experience as a crisis informatics researcher. Among them: she urged individuals to slow down and vet their sources of information; she said crisis communicators should rely on experts and aim for a consistent message; and she implored political leaders not to contribute to the problem by spreading misinformation.

Starbird shared some of these thoughts during an appearance on KUOW radio’s “Seattle Now,” and, along with West, in The UW Daily.

Learn more about the CIP’s research and engagement efforts at