Can we continue to ensure high-quality COVID information? June 16, 2020 9:49 AM   Subscribe

The Mefi COVID FAQ requests that posters "Please link to pertinent information from high quality sources, and don't give top-of-the-head "it seems to me" sort of answers." I am regularly seeing Askmefi responses that do not adhere to this guidance and I worry that Askmefi is contributing to misinformation. I'm hoping we can have a conversation about what can be done.

I do not doubt that Mefites have good intentions in their responses, but I find it frustrating when I read COVID posts and I see a variety of different responses that range from off-the-cuff authoritative statements without citations, "I heard that..." type responses, and occasionally well cited answers.

I am asking that, as much as possible in this age of misinformation on COVID posts, we identify some way to get higher quality of responses there.

No linking to high quality sources
At minimum AskMefites and other people reading should be able to review and evaluate the quality of the sources being posted, but we're not even at that, because of there's a lot of COVID answers that are in the vein of:
"I have read that..." "my understanding is..." (where did you read it?)
"based on my research..." (what research? was it a research study or some website trying to sell you something?)

There have been times where posters have made claims I haven't heard before that lead me to research and in cases where I think I've found the actual article the poster says they had read I found that their Askmefi responses failed to capture the nuances of the paper or even outright misinterpreting the data.

I understand the irony of me asking for this but not linking specifically to the comments I think are problematic examples, but this is out an intention to not call out posters.

Hoping we can have a conversation on other ideas on how we can get higher quality responses that will result in action for future COVID posts.
posted by Karaage to Etiquette/Policy at 9:49 AM (34 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

Not sure how we can get more quality responses, but definitely flag problematic stuff when you see it come around.
posted by cooker girl at 10:46 AM on June 16


Is "needs citation" the right flag, or does it have too much Wikipedia baggage? Are we looking for "unsupported COVID-19 claim"?

I am in favor of this for both reading and posting about COVID-19.
posted by clew at 10:50 AM on June 16 [3 favorites]


I also wonder if it's possible for there to be an automod feature that reminds posters of the FAQ guidance (maybe it appears in relation to anything with a covid/coronavirus tag?) before they respond?

I'm actually not clear whether the guidance in the FAQ is a hardline rule for modding decisions or if it's meant as more of a best practices suggestion.
posted by Karaage at 11:02 AM on June 16


It's more best practices.

My feeling is, definitely people should aim for linking sources/evidence when possible, and definitely should avoid spreading overly-certain-sounding misinformation.

But at the same time, a lot of the things people have questions about are exactly things we don't have great evidence on yet. Too much is simply unknown, and people have to make practical decisions about how to live in the meantime. Decisionmaking in global uncertainty. That's a lot of what I'm seeing on AskMe now, people asking for more of a "what practices are prudent people following" kind of check in, with the understanding that the overall state of confirmed knowledge is tenuous and gappy. I don't think we can realistically have a policy that means just defer all covid questions for the future when we know the answers.

You're right that it would be good for people to link to where they are getting some factual idea from (eg if it's a claim like "I heard x is a good treatment" or "I read you can't get it from y", as opposed to something more like "in my household we're doing x"). It's ok to put a correction in AskMe if you've found a contrary piece of evidence, just frame your answer in a way that's focused on helping the asker find useful answers to their question.

That's my sense, but I'm interested to hear where other people are with this stuff right now. Thanks for posting this Metatalk, it's good to discuss it.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:26 AM on June 16 [20 favorites]


Someone pushed back against my crummy advice in a recent covid thread and I've now flagged my own comment for deletion. I agree with LobsterMitten that there simply is not enough info about the disease anywhere (least of all, seemingly, in the hands of our governments, ha ha), let alone at the fingertips of any given mefite.

It seems good to me that Ask can be a place to get a feeling of general practices and to touch in with "am I wildly off base here" queries about socialising, travel, etc. None of us has ever done this before and we're all learning daily, so having the hivemind as a source of pooled folk knowledge and resources seems helpful, even if every comment can't be referenced with hard evidence.

Afaik the Covid FAQ was set up when there wasn't a pandemic, this wasn't affecting everyone's daily lives, and there was a lot more wild scientific speculation flying around about the nature of the disease and its likely spread. We're in a different place now. Of course if someone is making a claim they should back things up, but that might be "my government says so" where even the government isn't providing quality scientific sources to reinforce their statements.

For me personally it's especially good to be able to see what's happening in different places around the world, which helps me make decisions in my own context (where the official guidelines don't feel sufficient or at all clear).
posted by Balthamos at 1:11 PM on June 16 [9 favorites]


It's also pretty hard to give good references to some things. Like what the Governor or Mayor or County Health Advisor said in a daily briefing maybe a couple of days ago. Or that interview with a doctor from the WHO's interview on that hour long COVID discussion. Not everybody is just reading and keeping a folder of references like they were writing a research paper. It sorta depends on what the actual question is.
posted by zengargoyle at 1:42 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Was that thread deleted, Balthamos? I tried to find an Ask I was reading this morning about how to safely segregate when living with a person who is sick with Covid, but it seems to be gone. I actually was interested in some of the information being discussed.
posted by blurker at 2:24 PM on June 16


blurker, was it this thread?
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 3:33 PM on June 16


Not everybody is just reading and keeping a folder of references like they were writing a research paper.

But there is the MeFi Wiki Disaster Planning & Recovery page, Medical / Pandemic section, which is designed to be a starting point resource for research. However, if we start from the assumption that because science takes time and can't provide certainty then it isn't worthwhile to even look for, then maybe it is more understandable why unsourced "it seems to me" answers can be so popular.

The coronavirus is confusing (Ed Yong, Atlantic (free coverage), Apr. 29, 2020), but according to Ed Yong, "[t]he idea that there are no experts is overly glib." More recently, Ed Yong writes about the patchwork pandemic in the US (Atlantic (free coverage), May 20, 2020), and I think some of the points made may also be relevant to the more international patchwork of pandemic experiences discussed in AskMe.
posted by katra at 4:37 PM on June 16 [3 favorites]


A standard I've been working with is that if I've read something recently enough for it to be relevant, I should be able to find it in my browsing history (which does sometimes mean checking across a couple of devices if I'm not sure whether I read read something on the computer or the phone). If I can't find it, even after resorting to Google, I figure that means I don't remember what it was saying well enough to be relating it to others.
posted by Lexica at 5:21 PM on June 16 [7 favorites]


Thanks, Serene Empress Dork, perhaps I didn't scroll far enough to find it again.
posted by blurker at 6:23 PM on June 16


The Daily (NYT podcast) has been doing regular updates, and they did one yesterday. Here's a 27 minute interview, and there is a transcript attached. It's the best most concrete information in a concise form I've had about where we are RIGHT NOW. And also where we might be going.
posted by hippybear at 8:13 PM on June 16 [6 favorites]


But at the same time, a lot of the things people have questions about are exactly things we don't have great evidence on yet. Too much is simply unknown, and people have to make practical decisions about how to live in the meantime. Decisionmaking in global uncertainty. That's a lot of what I'm seeing on AskMe now, people asking for more of a "what practices are prudent people following" kind of check in, with the understanding that the overall state of confirmed knowledge is tenuous and gappy.

This is what I appreciate about a lot of the answers/comments I have read. It's all really confusing, and not everyone has great evidence-based government (and even where there is, they are still needing to respond to the public imperative to reopen sooner rather than later, so it's not all that different sometimes). I'm in a place with relatively good policies, and still everywhere I go I see people doing things that seem really unsafe to me.

I appreciate less the times when people state with absolute certainty things that just aren't known for sure yet. That's where providing sources would help, I think.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:33 PM on June 16 [5 favorites]


I appreciate less the times when people state with absolute certainty things that just aren't known for sure yet. That's where providing sources would help, I think.

Excerpts from the transcript from The Daily.
Well, I don’t worry when there are crowds, outdoors, spaced 6 feet apart and wearing masks. I do worry when people are jammed up against each other, either confronting a police line, or on a dais while they’re making speeches, or something like that. I worry about anybody who’s pushed into the back of a police van. I worry about people who’ve been in cells together. I worry about the funeral ceremonies, which all took place indoors. You know, these are all potential super-spreader situations.
and
I always wear a mask when I am indoors with other people, as in the grocery store or pharmacy. I avoid going indoors with other people, basically, at all costs. If I were riding the subway, I would definitely wear a mask. I’m not riding the subway. I’m very worried about what’s going to happen in New York City when a lot of people have to go back to work. ... And, frankly, I think the M.T.A. ought to take the windows off the buses and subways. I know it’s crazy — and I know it’s going to be cold in winter, and hot and un-air conditioned in summer. But that’s the way to get breeze blowing through enclosed spaces. And if we want to go back into our offices, we’re going to have to find a way to have breeze blowing through enclosed spaces so that the virus does not hang in the air. We’re going to have to rethink our workplaces, or stay out of them, because they’re going to be too dangerous until we have a vaccine.
That's not exactly the uncertainty you're looking for, but if you read the full transcript or listen to the full half-hour, it's very obvious these are statements from someone who has been covering this since the very beginning for the NYT and who has been assimilating and absorbing information.

And I feel like his words of caution are worth heeding. I know, personally, as I move into the fall (even in this low-COVID-impact area) is going to be increased personal caution. PBS NewsHour tonight had a segment today of an interview with a doctor who had a bad case of COVID and I'd truly not rather roll those dice.
posted by hippybear at 8:46 PM on June 16 [6 favorites]


Hippybear, thanks for sharing, that transcript means I have a much better idea of what COVID is like in the USA, and something that I will be mindful of as I'm in Australia with a much different picture.

(Australian coronacast - has transcripts. )
posted by freethefeet at 9:26 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


That's not exactly the uncertainty you're looking for, but if you read the full transcript or listen to the full half-hour, it's very obvious these are statements from someone who has been covering this since the very beginning for the NYT and who has been assimilating and absorbing information.

That's a great link, and very much in line with the comments here that I most enjoy.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:38 PM on June 16


Dip Flash: I found listening to it today both alarming and reassuring in peculiar, conflicting ways. But it made me somehow Feel Better, like I had a more clear view through the fog. It will likely go aways quickly, but it was quite welcome.
posted by hippybear at 9:40 PM on June 16


I pretty much keep up with Saint Fauci every couple of days. I trust him. He's smart, and not just doc-smart; he's canny enough to have kept a platform in Trump World without selling his soul.

I get a daily email update from The Washington Post -- most of their stuff is behind a paywall but all of their coverage of COVID-19 is free for all to read. I trust their information, esp if it squares with information from Saint Fauci.

~~~~~

Thx for the links, hippybear, I'll check them out tomorrow, looks good.

~~~~~

Summer is upon us, it's been a beautiful spring. I see so many people wanting this whole thing to just be over, so they use magical thinking, go out without a mask, just basically throw any caution to the wind. I don't blame them, and in fact I envy them -- I also want to run around with friends, I also want this thing to be over, I also want to use magical thinking to delude myself that this thing isn't real.

But it's real as rain, and bad as I want to pretend, I want more to not risk getting this goddamned illness.Those death stats are real, and perhaps they are even low -- I've seen varying reports on that. But NYC, those desperate scenes in the hospitals there, that stays with me. The two people that I personally know who have had it got sick as hell and stayed sick 10-14 days.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:15 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


I keep seeing people *sort of wearing masks,* with their nose peeking out. Hi, thanks, you are not wearing it at all now. And plenty of people are not even trying anymore, bare faces. I don't know what would convince people to be safe at this point. Not sure one more article is going to help.
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:22 AM on June 17 [5 favorites]


It seems good to me that Ask can be a place to get a feeling of general practices and to touch in with "am I wildly off base here" queries about socialising, travel, etc. None of us has ever done this before and we're all learning daily, so having the hivemind as a source of pooled folk knowledge and resources seems helpful, even if every comment can't be referenced with hard evidence.

I want to acknowledge this, which is why I haven't called for any sort of banning or automatic removal of posts that fail to provide a citation. Dipflash's suggestion of maybe people could back off a bit of stating things with absolute certainty about things that aren't known for sure is probably where I'm at, or even a cursory "I don't know for sure, but here's how I'm approaching it" disclaimer could help.

Alternatively, I'd like to nudge people to think about taking the time to explain their logic in providing an answer or providing a link to a source so that it can be evaluated for quality. If people who want to reply aren't able to do that, then maybe a nudge of reconsider whether you need to provide your take right at this moment?
posted by Karaage at 7:35 AM on June 17 [4 favorites]


I am not optimistic enough in humans to go to any events. I'd like to go to a protest, but seeing all these videos of people dropping their masks -- seemingly to unlock their phones -- so they can get video footage, and then not putting them back on is too alarming too me. Too many chin masks and not enough face masks.

As for the topic of the post, if you see something flag something. Use the Flag with note if need be. Relying on technology or the mods' may not be good enough. Help them and those receiving bunk info by either countering with facts or flagging so the mods can get to it.
posted by terrapin at 8:29 AM on June 17 [4 favorites]


I want to acknowledge this, which is why I haven't called for any sort of banning or automatic removal of posts that fail to provide a citation. Dipflash's suggestion of maybe people could back off a bit of stating things with absolute certainty about things that aren't known for sure is probably where I'm at, or even a cursory "I don't know for sure, but here's how I'm approaching it" disclaimer could help.

This isn't one of our strong suits, in general.
posted by bleep at 2:11 PM on June 17


... but why not lean into making it so with regard to this particularly vital issue?

When covid first became an unavoidable fact in the region where I live (back in March sometime), even though my comparatively isolated community wasn't directly affected (and still hasn't been), it nevertheless became issue #1. One immediate result was an eruption of chaos across the three (eventually two) local Facebook groups -- all manner of hypothesizing, politicizing, ARGUING. Finally, the local political representative threw a few bucks at the various moderators of the groups and requested they Zoom with each other at least once a week.

Almost immediately, one of the groups ceased to exist (for reasons) and the other two agreed to put a serious filter on people posting covid related "news". Specifically, if you were posting something that claimed to be a fact, it had to be either from the CDC, the WHO or one of the government health authorities (regional, provincial*, federal). Anything else was deleted with a request that, in future, the poster save such stuff for their own profile.

Long story short -- this single action quickly reduced strife and rancor on both pages, blood temps dropped all around, folks got back to discussing the weather etc.

* yes, this is Canada.
posted by philip-random at 7:51 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


Can we continue to ensure high-quality COVID information?

On mifi or the world in general? Has there been any actual research that has weathered a full cycle of peer review?

For instance, the 6' (2M) rule. Where did that come from? From my light and early reading it seems to be a rule of thumb that epidemiologists use in large aggregate estimations for very general large body statistics. The very minimal fast studies seemed to indicate that particulates travel up to 30 feet. 6' is a wag.

How do we actually think about all this in a non-proto-folklore way? The science will probably be great, in years and literally decades. There will very likely be a paper with new and important observations in the 2040s.

Isolation, social distancing and masking are clearly highly effective, how can that be communicated effectively to the virus moms?

(sorry to be pejorative but the extreme range from irrationally obsessive to utterly uncaring walk past every day)
posted by sammyo at 5:59 AM on June 18


For instance, the 6' (2M) rule. Where did that come from? From my light and early reading it seems to be a rule of thumb that epidemiologists use in large aggregate estimations for very general large body statistics. The very minimal fast studies seemed to indicate that particulates travel up to 30 feet. 6' is a wag.

I don't mean to call you out, but I think this is an illustrative example. Statements like these are exactly the places where I think a link to your "light and early reading" as well as the "minimal fast studies" would allow for us to examine the claims being made.

For example, PBS provides an overview of the science so far on social distancing, and discusses an MIT study that talks about it being potential up to 30 feet.

One study published by MIT in March suggested that “turbulent gas clouds” released by infected patients could travel upwards of 23 to 27 feet. The “locally moist and warm atmosphere” within those clouds, researchers explained, allow respiratory droplets to “evade evaporation” and persist for a longer period of time compared to isolated droplets.

The report concludes that, for health care workers specifically, the use of “appropriate personal protection equipment is vitally important” when caring for COVID-19 patients, even if they remain more than 6 feet away from those patients.

But Efraín Rivera Serrano, a virologist and cell biologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that even if the respiratory droplets released by a patient can travel those distances in the air, the MIT research doesn’t provide evidence that they remain infectious under those conditions.

In other words, he suggested, there is no need to stay 20 feet away from your fellow shopper at the grocery store.

Fischer noted that 6 feet is by no means a “magic number,” and that droplets likely do spread farther under some conditions. But that metric remains our best estimate yet when it comes to how much distance you should keep between yourself and others in public spaces.


So yes, we don't know for sure, but the studies have limitations and lack evidence that aren't being captured in claim. I recognize that PBS isn't infallible either, but at least it's trying to show some context and how to understand the studies.
posted by Karaage at 7:01 AM on June 18 [8 favorites]


The actual definition of 'contact' required for contact tracing (and I've also done a few studies for Johns Hopkins) is:

"Based on our current knowledge, a close contact is someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before illness onset until the time the patient is isolated. "

Johns Hopkins defined it slightly differently, for a minimum of 10 minutes, and included potential physical contact in their definition.


So getting within 6 feet of someone for 30 seconds at a store, protest, or out jogging is not an contact worthy of contact tracing and relatively unlikely to spread COVID. Especially if mask use is decent. Sitting near them for 1 hour in a college class or on the bus is. Any physical touching (like visiting a relative or going on a date) increases that significantly.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:32 AM on June 18 [4 favorites]


FYI, two metres or 6 feet is far from universal. Here in the Netherlands, that's not a thing: we use 1,5 metres.
In other words, even Covid-19 is a land of contrasts... and in places in the world that aren't the USA, we may do things differently.
This is your regular reminder that the world is a large and varied place. *beep*
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:50 AM on June 19 [4 favorites]


Where does that choice come from in the Netherlands? Curious to see the source.
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:06 AM on June 19


one of our local doctors told me that they say six feet (slightly less than two meters) because if they said three feet (slightly less than a meter), people would stand one and a half feet apart. "So the actual safety distance is three feet?" I said. She shrugged and said, "We don't know anything for sure yet, but the closer you get, the more dangerous. I opt for six myself."

As for the Netherlands opting for 1.5 meters, maybe it's a Dutch thing to take doctors orders a little more seriously than we do here Pac-North-West Canada.
posted by philip-random at 8:16 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


Sources are the point of this meta so just wondering how they chose that.
posted by tiny frying pan at 8:45 AM on June 19


Where does that choice come from in the Netherlands?

Germany is using the same distance of 1.5m, but I couldn't easily find a reasoning behind it. The Robert Koch Institut is responsible for the advice, in this case, and while I'm sure they do have a basis for it, it's buried somewhere in their Epi­demio­lo­gisches Bulletins, or in their pandemic plans. (The latter did include various studies for some of the measures that might be taken, but there doesn't seem to be anything about social distancing per se.)
posted by scorbet at 8:53 AM on June 19


People have all sorts of reasons for travel. A friend travelled the length of the country a few weeks ago, when the strictest lockdown was still in place, to visit and stay with a relative who'd just been told he had terminal cancer and lived on his own with no one to support him through an impossibly difficult time. If you view the world through the lens of "only preventing the spread of Covid-19 is important, everything else can wait" then that trip wouldn't have happened. If my friend had been a MeFite and asked the question, you can guarantee that some people would have gone "no! you're killing the good people of Southampton by doing that!".

But is that always happening? Recently, AskMe appears to have been quite kind and helpful both to the Asker and future social science researchers studying the popularity of misinformation in a question by someone who is traveling for reasons that include mental health and made that clear in their question and tailored their question to logistical advice. AskMe does seem much less supportive of someone asking for "any thoughts or opinions" on the wisdom and risk of a trip that is framed as a "hang out" and with demographics and infection rate data raised as apparent factors in the Asker's question. I am a big supporter of adding sources to answers, but a question asking for "any thoughts and opinions" also seems to be trying to take the temperature of AskMe's opinion.

I also think it is, at least in the US, becoming more clear as the data develops that a focus on individual risk has the potential to ignore community harms that are not equally distributed, e.g. "It's not possible to understate how neatly the increased clamor from conservatives to end restrictions coincided with the growing awareness that the communities hardest hit by COVID-19 in the US have disproportionately been people of color." So yes, maybe things are different in the US and that is influencing the perception of some of the questions and answers. I also don't think it's fair, or that it has ever been fair to suggest that expressing concern for the community translates into a hard line against meeting essential needs during the pandemic, or that when people express concerns for public health that this means they are advocating against individuals doing what they need to do.
posted by katra at 8:55 AM on June 22


Quite a number of businesses, notably pubs and restaurants but also smaller shops, have warned that with a 2m distancing rule in force they won't be able to run a viable operation. Restaurants with space for 80 people can't operate with 15 diners and loads of empty space on a busy night.

As this a thread asking for actual documented things about COVID, here is an article published by the CDC about apparent COVID transmission in a restaurant along the path of an air conditioner near the table with infected persons. The illustrations down along the right a bit might be of particular interest.

Restaurants will have to figure this shit out, because a zillion people won't be going back out again for a long while. Personally, until a vaccine.
posted by hippybear at 8:05 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


Another bit of actual documented things about COVID, from the CBC: Asymptomatic COVID-19 findings dim hopes for 'herd immunity' and 'immunity passports'
posted by hippybear at 12:03 PM on June 28 [1 favorite]


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