The comparisons between how the coronavirus spread and the tidal wave of rumours and fakes which followed in its wake have been made repeatedly in recent months, but only because they are so accurate. In many countries, the misinformation has preceded the virus itself. The WHO declared an “infodemic” weeks before it declared a pandemic, and the response to both has often been similarly lacking.
Six distinct types of misinformation are emerging. They follow the same infectious pattern as the virus and escalate in sequence with confirmed cases in each country, like a shadow of rumours, an outrider to events before reality hits.
At First Draft we spend a lot of time talking about the tools and techniques for verifying dubious claims on social media but they’re no use if we don’t know when to apply them. Misinformation has a habit of slipping through our defences, waving a fake ID at the bouncers which normally stand guard in our mind and then making itself at home to become our assumed truth.
So the first step in dealing with any problem is to diagnose it. We all play a role in stopping the spread of the virus and viral misinformation. Here’s what you need to know.
Where the new coronavirus came from
Misinformation thrives when there is an absence of verified facts and it is human nature to try to make sense of new information based on what we already know.
So, when Chinese authorities reported a new strain of coronavirus to the WHO in December, social media users flooded the fact vacuum with their own theories about where it came from.
For conspiracy theorists, it was created in a lab by Microsoft founder Bill Gates as part of a globalist agenda to lower populations. Or it originated in the Chinese government as a bioweapon unleashed upon the world to undermine the United States. Or it was manufactured by the CIA as part of an economic hybrid war against China.
One of the most pernicious falsehoods comes in the form of a video from a market in Indonesia posted online in June 2019. The video is shocking by any measure, showing bats, rats, cats — you name it — cooked and ready for purchase.
Whether or not you blame the Wuhan market for starting all this, don’t fall for hoaxes like that “Wuhan market” video that isn’t Wuhan (in case the Bahasa on the signs didn’t give it away) https://t.co/NrGsyyxsGb
— Ky Chow (@KyBusiness) March 14, 2020
Dozens of enterprising YouTubers took the clip and removed the first few seconds which name the true location (Langowan, on the island of Sulawesi) and added “WUHAN MARKET”. The caption or title invariably connect the video to the coronavirus outbreak.
Like many rumours, this is wrapped around a kernel of truth. The seafood market in Wuhan, which stocked a wide variety of animals, was closed on January 1 and the Chinese government banned the sale and consumption of wild animals in late February, in direct response to the coronavirus. While some of the first cases in the region had connections to the market, many people who had no link whatsoever also became infected.
It is likely that we will never see a detailed timeline of where the virus came from but this is what the (current) science is telling us: The new coronavirus sweeping the globe is a mutation of another virus more commonly found in bats. It likely transferred to humans via another animal, possibly the armadillo-like pangolin. The scientific evidence shows that it is not man-made.
How the new coronavirus spreads
Again, many of these false claims have their root in very real confusion and fear. The currency of social media is emotion, and in the coronavirus crisis many users are trading what they think is useful advice for likes and shares, little hits of dopamine which confirm each person’s value as a member of their community.
This is especially true of the first category here, about the features of the virus which make it contagious. The WHO website is full of information countering some of these claims, including rumours that both hot weather and cold weather kill the coronavirus (they don’t), that mosquitoes can transmit the disease (they can’t) and that readers should use an ultraviolet disinfectant lamp to sterilise their skin (you shouldn’t).
The second category is more malicious, concerning how people are spreading the virus.
In one example, a number of outlets claimed the “patient zero” in Italy was a migrant worker who refused to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid-19, the disease this new coronavirus causes. Again, this holds a kernel of truth. A delivery driver was fined for doing exactly that, but there is no evidence he introduced the virus to the country. That detail appears to have been added by a website associated with the European alt-right.
Elsewhere, the WorldPop project at the University of Southampton published a study in February estimating how many people may have left Wuhan before the region was quarantined. When tweeting out a link to the study, someone chose a picture showing global air-traffic routes and travel for the entirety of 2011. You can probably guess what happened next.
Australian television and British tabloids published breathless stories about the “terrifying map” without verifying it. Although the WorldPop project deleted their tweet, the damage was done.
Symptoms of Covid-19
The new coronavirus is one of a family of viruses with similar features. Some cause symptoms similar to a common cold and others are more deadly. Covid-19 falls into the latter category. But this hasn’t stopped wild speculation about what getting sick will entail as social media users seek to reassure themselves and each other that they will be ok.
A prime example is a massively viral list of checks and symptoms which coursed around the world in early March. Depending who you were and where you received it, the list was attributed to Taiwanese “experts”, Japanese doctors, Unicef, the CDC, Stanford Hospital Board, “Standford” hospital, the classmate of the sender who had an uncle with a master’s degree and worked in Shenzen, and more.
Fact checkers at AFP dug into the details of one example with the central claim that “a runny nose and sputum” are not symptoms of Covid-19. Doctors have confirmed that these are symptoms.
The same post also claimed to be an authority on how the virus spread and gave a chronological progression of the symptoms from a sore throat through to feeling “like you’re drowning”, at which point it recommends seeking “immediate attention”. Many of the claims were knocked down with a little research from AFP.
Treatment of Covid-19
The same post suggested that drinking plain old warm water was “effective against viruses”, without any further explanation. Later, it recommended that gargling salt water will “suffice” in terms of a prevention.
Needless to say, neither of these treatments have been recommended by doctors as a way to rid the body of the coronavirus. Garlic, salt water, onions, lemon juice, alcohol, ginger, chlorine and hairdryers have all featured in viral posts as treatments from people who are often just looking out for their friends and family, hoping to give them the advice which will keep them safe.
Staying hydrated is always a good call, but it won’t flush down nor kill the #coronavirus.
The fight against #COVID19 is also a fight against disinformation.
— UNESCO (@UNESCO) March 23, 2020
Wrong advice about treatments and cures are by far the most common form of misinformation here, but they can have real, serious consequences. Aside from the fact they can prevent people getting the care they need, bad advice can kill.
In Iran, where alcohol is illegal and thousands have been infected, 44 people died and hundreds were hospitalised after drinking home-made booze to protect against the disease, according to Iranian media.
In perhaps the most famous example, President Trump claimed in a March 19 press conference that “chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine”, often used in malaria treatments, had been approved by the Federal Drug Administration for the treatment of Covid-19. The FDA had, at that point, not approved it for such use. Two days later, an Arizona couple in their sixties were hospitalised after taking chloroquine phosphate, according to Banner Health. The wife told NBC she had seen the press conference. The husband died.
Since this article was first published, the FDA has approved some forms of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as an emergency, experimental treatment for Covid-19 while tests are ongoing. Dr. Daniel Brooks, medical director at the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center, summed up the problem at the root of this issue in a statement announcing the death of the Arizona man.
“Given the uncertainty around Covid-19, we understand that people are trying to find new ways to prevent or treat this virus,” he said. “But self-medicating is not the way to do so.”
How authorities and public figures are responding to the pandemic
Many countries with a significant number of cases have gone into lockdown, urging businesses to close and people to stay in their homes.
With these new measures have come an outbreak of misrepresented pictures and videos used to claim police are getting heavy-handed with those who go outside, or that the army are roaming the streets to enforce new measures under martial law.
— TheJournal.ie (@thejournal_ie) March 24, 2020
It’s not just the security services which have been the subject of rumours and speculation. Various doctors, health authorities and public services or figures have had to refute bad claims, whether it’s been about the distribution of “rescue packs” or the closure of public transport.
Even footballer Cristiano Ronaldo has been drawn into the mire after a false claim from a sports journalist alleged he would be turning his hotels into hospitals to help treat patients.
The actions of authorities and public figures are often naturally newsworthy but, unless the information has come direct from the source, it’s always worth checking out before sharing.
How people are responding to the pandemic
One of the earliest phenomena of self-isolation and quarantine was the sight of dozens of Italians out on their balconies, singing together in a heart-warming display of community spirit.
But some of the internet’s practical jokers saw an opportunity. Pop stars Madonna, Katy Perry, Rihanna and Cheryl Cole were all tricked into thinking people were singing their songs from the rooftops after footage was cut together with old audio taken from live performances.
Poking a bit of fun at celebrities may seem harmless but, as the reality of self-isolation sets in, some fakes have graver overtones. An old video of a supermarket sale in 2011 was reshared and attributed to panic-buying in various cities across the UK, Spain and Belgium. Pictures of empty shelves in US supermarkets from 2018 have been shared as the current state of panic-buying in Sri Lanka, while old footage from Mexico was reported to show looting in Turkey.
In the UK, some social media users have used an old video to claim that Muslims in London are breaking social-distancing rules and endangering the public. Anti-hate crime group TellMAMA said the tweets were “generating anti-Muslim and Islamophobic responses”.
We encourage people to report this misleading tweet, the video, from our initial research, is several weeks old (if not older) and was filmed *before* the advice on social gatherings changed. This is not a new video. And is generating anti-Muslim and Islamophobic responses. pic.twitter.com/DMesZlLLHO
— TellMAMAUK (@TellMamaUK) March 25, 2020
Lockdown could last for months. It is likely this is only the beginning of a new trend in falsehoods as people come to terms with a new lifestyle.
We all play a role in keeping each other safe from the virus and the impact it has on our lives. The information we share plays a big role here too. Let’s apply the same level of care in not spreading viral misinformation as we do to the virus itself.
Clarification: We have updated this article to clarify that President Trump said the FDA had approved the use of “chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine” to treat Covid-19 at a March 19 press conference, when it had not been approved. It has also been updated to to reflect that the FDA has since approved the emergency use of hydroxychloroquine as an experimental treatment.
Check out First Draft’s coronavirus resource hub for reporters, with tools and guides for verification, newsgathering, effective reporting, and more.