Fake news during the pandemic is thriving—and it’s targeting mothers

Here's how to spot disinformation and how to protect yourself.

misinformation pandemic conspiracy video

We have information coming at us 24/7, from every angle and every source—and sometimes those sources are not accurate, either because they are deliberately misleading us or because they have the best intentions but the wrong information.

That was the case earlier this month when a wave of mom influencers shared a debunked and false theory suggesting the homegoods website Wayfair is being used to traffick children (it's not).

A widely shared (and discredited) documentary-style video titled "Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind COVID-19" also falls into this category. The 26-minute video was removed from several social media platforms because the video's thesis (that the coronavirus pandemic was planned) has been proven false. Another video, by a group calling themselves "America's Frontline Doctors" made the rounds this week. It was seen and shared by millions before Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube removed it for featuring false information about cures for COVID-19.

Many of the mom influencers (and regular moms) who shared these debunked and discredited theories on their social media platforms did it with good intentions—but carefully crafted misinformation weaponizes good intentions and even very intelligent people can fall prey to false information.

"Conspiracy theorists always managed to spread their theories in the past, but the internet has made this much easier," Kathryn Olmsted, a history professor who studies conspiracy theories at University of California, Davis tells the Associated Press. "If you believe in one, you believe in another. You start collecting them."

Here's what we need to know to protect ourselves and our loved ones from misinformation:

Why false information is spreading among parents right now

"During a global pandemic, it's kind of the perfect storm of uncertainty," says Joanne Miller, a political science professor at the University of Delaware and co-author of a study about conspiracy theories and gender. "And so when we feel a lack of control, uncertainty or powerlessness, we seek out explanations for why the event occurred that's causing us to feel that way. And what this can do is it can lead us to connect dots that shouldn't be connected because we're trying to seek out answers. And sometimes those answers are conspiracy theories."

The false Wayfair human trafficking story and the debunked "Plandemic" video are both conspiracy theories that use connections that seem possible to draw conclusions that are not based in fact.

Kate Starbird is an Associate Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington who studies how communications technologies are used during crises. She has studied the "Plandemic" video, which amplifies the views of discredited scientist Dr. Judy Mikovits, and says the way false theories like it are packaged makes people with online followings particularly vulnerable to spreading misinformation.

"I've found that this mix of information types makes it difficult for people, including those who build and run online platforms, to distinguish an organic rumor from an organized disinformation campaign," she writes. And this challenge is not getting any easier as efforts to understand and respond to COVID-19 get caught up in the political machinations of this year's presidential election.

A new study published in the journal Politics and Gender this week found that men are more likely than women to endorse coronavirus related conspiracy theories, but misinformation is still thriving in some traditionally female online circles.

As Rolling Stone reports, some mom influencers with vast followings on Instagram have recently begun peppering QAnon content into their feeds, spreading the Wayfair and child trafficking misinformation as well as anti-mask rhetoric.

How to spot a conspiracy theory or misinformation

It is harder than ever before to distinguish between facts and misinformation, but it is possible if we look at everything in our feeds (even the stuff we are shown by trusted influencers) critically.

According to researchers who study how to counter misinformation and conspiracy theories, we need to be on the lookout for the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking when sharing information.

Before taking something you see online as fact, examine the post for the following red flags:

  • Contradictory beliefs: For example, the "Plandemic" video offers two different conflicting origin stories for COVID-19.
  • Overriding suspicion: It is healthy to be skeptical, but an immediate distrust of any official or mainstream information is a red flag for misinformation.
  • Nefarious intent: False information often assumes nefarious intentions before all other possibilities, a major characteristic of both the Wayfair controversy and "Plandemic."
  • Conviction: When theorists change their mind about how the conspiracy works but remain convinced that the official or scientific account still cannot be accurate, that false sense of conviction is a sign of misinformation at work.
  • Persecuted victim: If a piece of information presents those sharing as victims of a vast, organized deception but also paradoxically as heroes fighting victimhood, it's probably part of a conspiracy theory.
  • Immunity to evidence: Conspiracy theories declare themselves irrefutable and self-healing—they cannot be challenged with evidence.
  • Reinterpretation of randomness: If a piece of information suggests that unseen, scary connections exist everywhere, it's likely misinformation.

Moms are vulnerable right now to both disinformation + judgement

Moms who are spreading false theories online are most often doing it because they want to keep their family and other families safe. Judgement and name-calling is not the way to change their minds, say experts.

According to Jovan Byford, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at The Open University, pointing out the holes in someone's theory is not likely to change their mind, because "conspiracy theories are, by definition, irrefutable."

Instead, Byford recommends people be patient with conspiracy believers and recognize the emotional element driving the spread of so much misinformation.

"Conspiracy theories seduce not so much through the power of argument, but through the intensity of the passions that they stir," Byford writes for The Conversation. "Underpinning conspiracy theories are feelings of resentment, indignation and disenchantment about the world."

Moms have a lot to be disenchanted with right now. Burnout rates are soaring and our social infrastructure has failed to protect families from COVID-19. Meanwhile, in the absence of clear communication from political leaders about the pandemic, the average person is attempting to sort through mountains of data and crunch dozens of numbers to make everyday decisions about everything from grocery shopping to going back to school. Empathy and compassion is needed.

"Many people come to conspiracy theories through genuine, albeit misguided, curiosity about how to make sense of the world," Byford explains. "They sometimes see themselves as healthy sceptics and self-taught researchers into complex issues. Avoid criticising or mocking this. Instead, present it as something that, in principle, you value and share. Your aim, after all, is not to make them less curious or skeptical, but to change what they are curious about, or skeptical of."

Bottom line: Less judgement, more empathy + education

We can't fight misinformation by hurting those who take it as fact, but we can do our part to view these theories more critically and offer an empathic and patient counterpoint to friends and family members who perceive them as truths.

Everyone is just doing their best to get through these trying times, but as we rebuild our post-pandemic world we need to remember what happened in 2020 to ensure our education system is arming the next generation with the media literacy and critical thinking skills they need to separate fact from falsehood.

As Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine of the Baylor College of Medicine recently told Rolling Stone, the spread of misinformation through mom influencer culture is "the price we pay for underpaying high school science teachers."

These new arrivals from the Motherly Shop are *so* good you need them all

Noodle and Boo, Mushie and Plan Toys—everything you need, mama.

Motherhood is hard work—finding great products and brands to make the journey easier doesn't have to be. Each week, we stock the Motherly Shop with brilliant new products we know you'll need and love from brands and makers that really care.

So, what's new this week?

Noodle and Boo: Holistic baby skin care

Through working with chemists who specialize in natural and holistic skin care, Noodle and Boo has developed exclusive formulas that nourish, replenish and protect especially delicate, eczema-prone and sensitive skin—including laundry detergent. Their signature, obsession-worthy scent—which is subtly sweet, pure and fresh—is the closest thing to bottling up "baby smell" we've ever found.

Mushie: Kids' dinnerware that actually looks great

We're totally crushing on Mushie's minimalist dinnerware for kids. Their innovative baby and toddler products leverage Swedish design to marry both form and function while putting safety front and center. Everything is created in soft, muted colors from BPA-free materials.

Plan Toys: Open-ended toys that last

Corralling and cleaning up the toys becomes less stressful when you bring home fewer, better, more beautiful ones. Plan Toys checks all the boxes. Made from re-purposed rubber wood, they're better for the planet as well.

Not sure where to start? Here's what we're adding to our cart:

Mushie silicone baby bib

Mushie silicone baby bib

There's no going back to cloth bibs after falling in love with this Swedish design. The pocket catches whatever misses their mouths and the BPA-free silicone is waterproof and easy to wipe down between uses.


Mushie kids' square dinnerware plate set

Mushie kids' square dinnerware plate set

We're totally crushing on the soft muted colors that flow with our table aesthetics and the thoughtful high-sided design that helps babies and toddler who are learning to feed themselves.


Noodle and Boo nursery essentials kit

Noodle and Boo nursery essentials kit

Stocked with everything a new mama needs to care for her little one's delicate skin, Noodle and Boo's nursery essentials gift set is the perfect way to create a holistic and natural skin care routine from day one.


Plan Toys doctor set 

Plan Toys doctor set

Ideal for quiet time and imaginative role play, we love the gorgeous planet-friendly doctor kit from Plan Toys. The rubber wood stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, thermometer, syringe and reflex hammer pack up neat and tidy into the red cotton case should they need to dash off on a rescue mission.


Noodle and Boo instant hand sanitizer

Noodle and Boo instant hand sanitizer

Since we're buying and using hand sanitizer by the truckload these days, we're thrilled Noodle and Boo has made one we can feel good about using on little ones who cram their hands in their mouths 24/7. Not only does it kill 99.9% of germs, but it also leaves hands moisturized as well.


Plan Toys natural wooden blocks set

Plan Toys natural wooden blocks set

A toy box isn't complete without a set of blocks—and this set is one of our new favorites. The sustainable, re-purposed wood is eco-friendly, comes at a relatively affordable price point and are certain to last well beyond multiple kids, hand-me-downs and even generations.


Noodle and Boo family fun pack cleansing set

Noodle and Boo family fun pack cleansing set

Because their products were developed for delicate and eczema-prone skin, Noodle and Boo's full line of skin care has become a favorite among those with sensitive skin of all ages. This set is the perfect way to pamper the entire family.


Mushie kids' round dinnerware bowl set

Mushie kids' round dinnerware bowl set

No need to sacrifice safety or design with the sustainable dinnerware from Mushie. Their minimalist, functional dishes are perfect for serving up meals and snacks to your tablemates who might hurl it to the floor at any point. They're made in Denmark from BPA-free polypropylene plastic mamas can feel good about and dishwasher and microwave-safe as well.


Plan Toys geo stacking blocks

Plan Toys geo stacking blocks

The best engaging, open-ended toys are the ones that are left out and available, inviting little (and big!) ones to play. These beautiful gem-like blocks make for addicting coffee table play for the entire family.


Plan Toys wooden green dollhouse

Plan Toys wooden green dollhouse

Energy-efficient design isn't just for grown-up real estate. This green dollhouse includes a wind turbine, a solar cell panel, electric inverter, recycling bins, a rain barrel, a biofacade and a blind that can adjust the amount of sunlight and air circulation along with minimalist furniture we'd totally love to have in our own houses.


We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.


Products that solve your biggest breastfeeding challenges

Including a battle plan for clogged ducts!

When expecting a baby, there is a lot you can test-run in advance: Take that stroller around the block. Go for a spin with the car seat secured in place. Learn how to use the baby carrier with help from a doll. But breastfeeding? It's not exactly possible to practice before baby's arrival.

The absence of a trial makes it all the more important to prepare in other ways for breastfeeding success—and it can be as simple as adding a few of our lactation aiding favorites to your registry.

MilkBliss chocolate chip soft baked lactation cookies

MilkBliss lactation cookies

Studies have shown the top reason women stop breastfeeding within the first year is because they are concerned about their milk supply being enough to nourish baby. Consider MilkBliss Lactation Cookies to be your secret weapon. Not only are they wholesome and delicious, but they were formulated specifically for breastfeeding moms based on the science of galactagogues—also known as milk boosters. They also come in peanut butter and wild blueberry flavors.


Evereden multi-purpose healing balm

Evereden multipurpose healing balm

Also up there on the list of reasons women stop breastfeeding: the toll the early days can take on nipples. Made from just five ingredients, this all natural healing balm is ideal for soothing chafed nipples, making for a much more comfortable experience for mama as her body adjusts to the needs of a breastfeeding baby.


Lansinoh milk storage bags

Lansinoh milk storage bags

For a breastfeeding mama, there are few things more precious and valuable than the milk she worked so hard to pump—and it's the stuff of nightmares to imagine it spilling out in the fridge. With these double-sealed milk storage bags, you can be assured your breastmilk is safe and sound until baby needs it.


Belly Bandit bandita nursing bra

Belly Bandit bandita nursing bra

Nursing a baby is a 24/7 job, which calls for some wardrobe modifications. Because Belly Bandit specializes in making things more comfortable for the postpartum mama, they've truly thought of every detail—from the breathable fabric to the clips that can be easily opened with one hand.


boob-ease soothing therapy pillows

Boob Ease soothing therapy pillows

For nursing moms, duct can quickly become a four-letter word when you suspect it's getting clogged. By keeping these soothing breast pillows in your breastfeeding arsenal, you can immediately go on the defense against plugged milk ducts by heating the pads in the microwave or cooling them in the freezer.


Belly Bandit perfect nursing tee

Belly Bandit perfect nursing tee

A unfortunate reality of nursing is that it can really seem to limit the wardrobe options when you have to think about providing easy, discrete access. But by adding functional basics to your closet, you can feel confident and prepared for breastfeeding on the go.


Bebe au Lait premium cotton nursing cover

Bebe au Lait cotton nursing cover

Nursing in public isn't every mama's cup of tea. But babies can't always wait until you've found a private place to get down to business if that's your preference. That's where a nursing cover comes in handy. This one is made from premium cotton and features a patented neckline that allows for airflow and eye contact even while you're covered.


Lactation Lab basic breastmilk testing kit

Lactation Lab breastmilk testing kit

Curious to learn more about the liquid gold you're making, mama? The testing kit from Lactation Labs analyzes your breast milk for basic nutritional content like calories and protein, as well as vitamins, fatty acids and environmental toxins to help boost your breastfeeding confidence.


We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this


20 baby names to set your child up for success

What do Jacqueline, Morgan, Madison and Parker all have in common?

They say picking a baby name is an art, not a science. But when it comes to figuring out which baby names have been linked to successful futures, there has actually been some scientific work on the subject.

Keep reading Show less