Before the pandemic: County Executive Chris Holman at the Jan. 21, 2020 county board meeting. (Metro Wire photo)

County: Stick with legitimate news sources during crisis

By Brandi Makuski

Portage Co. leaders are encouraging the public to maneuver the COVID-19 pandemic by using one simple tactic: relying only on legitimate sources of news.

Inaccurate, or partially accurate, information isn’t uncommon on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but Sheriff Mike Lukas said it often does more harm than good.

“There’s no point in posting or sharing information on Facebook unless you know it’s accurate,” Lukas said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “And accurate information comes from the county health department, the state, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), legitimate news companies, places like that. If you’re reading a news story about the coronavirus, you’ll probably see information cited from one of those sources, and that’s how you know it’s accurate.”

(Courtesy Portage Co.)

Lukas said social media is “can be one of the biggest problems during a time of crisis,” adding it can take just one inaccurate post to create a panic.

It’s a catch-22, Lukas said, because local agencies—like the Portage Co. Health Dept. and sheriff’s office—often use the same social media channels to quickly distribute their messages to the widest possible audience, as do local news outlets.

“But all it takes is one person who wants to be the hero, the ‘bringer of news,’ but they don’t have the full story, or they have totally false information, or they’re guessing,” Lukas said. “All you’re doing is getting people riled up.”

County Executive Chris Holman on Thursday also said he’s observed inaccurate information on social media, and he joined Lukas is warning the public against posts that don’t cite their sources.

Portage Co. provides an update on the COVID-19 crisis on its website, and Holman this week said he planned to increase communication with local media outlets.

“We encourage people to seek out that information on the county’s website, or the Wisconsin Department of Public Health Services’ site because we want people to have that accurate information,” Holman said. “Things are changing very quickly, sometimes every hour, so it’s a good idea to get your information directly from the source.”

The county also placed a statement on its website advising the public to avoid sharing rumors and assumptions.

“We recognize that social media makes it incredibly easy for misinformation to be shared,” the statement reads. “Please know that while seeing rumors on social media is concerning, you should not make assumptions from things you may see from sources outside of our communication channels.”

The statement goes on to say that sharing misinformation or assumptions can lead to “confusion and fear” in the community.