'Infodemic' - The fight against fake coronavirus news
By Daniel Harries

Hoaxes about the novel coronavirus outbreak have spread widely online. Promoted by conspiracy theorists, fake news websites and unsuspecting members of the public, the fake news compounds the struggle to contain the virus, which has already claimed hundreds of lives and infected thousands.  

"The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive 'infodemic' - an over-abundance of information, some accurate and some not - that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it," according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report. 

The sentiment was echoed by China's ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, who took aim at reports which contain "malicious slander and disinformation," adding that "rumors and panic are more frightening than the virus itself."

What fake news stories have been spread?  

While certain falsehoods or myths around the novel coronavirus are relatively harmless - the WHO recently debunked the idea that the illness could be cured by garlic, sesame oil and vitamin C - many more of them come from sites and networks with a history of spreading fake news.  

The anti-vaccine movement and far-right conspiracy theorists are said to have been been partly responsible for spreading falsehoods and misinformation has been published on sites that pose as news outlets. 

The false stories have taken aim at a range of targets, from Bill Gates and the Chinese military to online influencers in Wuhan "eating bats." 

The misinformation on Bill Gates, published on InfoWars and spread by QAnon conspiracy theorists, stems from a 2015 patent request for a form of coronavirus, which was issued from a disease research facility. The facility, based in the UK, is partly funded by the Microsoft founder.  

In an attempt to stifle the misinformation, the facility in question issued a statement noting that the patent related to the infectious bronchitis virus (IBV), which only affects poultry.  

Conspiracy theories can emerge from audiences having "seen the word coronavirus out there and assume that must be [referring to] the new coronavirus," says Jessica McDonald, science writer at factcheck.org - a partner of Facebook. 

"People have twisted these existing patent documents to say 'oh OK, these companies knew about it or governments knew about it,'" McDonald notes. 

Misinformation often originates from people with ulterior motives, but its proliferation is dependent on the prejudices of audiences.  

A video of a woman eating bat soup was shared widely across social media in the first weeks of the outbreak. The video was promoted by fake news sites and international media alike, with many linking the eating of bat soup to the outbreak - an unproven theory which has only been speculated on by scientists. 

Researchers from The Observers, a fact-checking operation for France 24, discovered that none of the six videos shared were linked to the outbreak, many were filmed several years ago, and five of them were recorded outside China, mostly in Palau or Indonesia.   

Infections from a new virus surpassed 20,000 (Credit: Andy Wong/AP)

Infections from a new virus surpassed 20,000 (Credit: Andy Wong/AP)

Unique challenges of fake news on coronavirus

To understand the novel coronavirus requires a depth of knowledge that many journalists and audiences do not have. McDonald says it can be hard for audiences who "don't have a basic scientific background," who are then presented with stories that "are making claims that may seem plausible. 

"If you know anything about it you can tell that they've twisted this into something that's not related at all and you don't need to worry about it. But for people who are just looking at it online, they might be browsing online - it's not immediately obvious. 

"A lot of this misinformation is more challenging in that regard, it appears scientific, or can be, even when it's not based in fact."  

How are big tech companies reacting? 

As with previous cases of widespread misinformation, social media platforms are being pressured to identify and remove fake news on the novel coronavirus.  

The largest platform with some 2.9 billion users, Facebook, which also owns Instagram, announced it would remove "false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations and local health authorities."

The move represents a change in policy for the social media giant, which has come under sustained criticism for allowing misinformation to proliferate on its platform. 

The company has previously removed vaccine misinformation in Samoa, where a measles outbreak killed dozens late last year. The spread of illness there was so severe that the company classified anti-vaccination content a risk of physical harm.  

The decisions indicate that Facebook is expanding its understanding of "physical harm," a ground for a post's removal on the platform, to include misinformation around an illness.   

Twitter, which has been more active in tackling fake news than many of its rivals, said it had not been "seeing significant coordinated attempts to spread disinformation." In an attempt to assist users they have developed a "dedicated search prompt," so users searching the #coronavirus will be met with "credible, authoritative information first."

Google has prominently displayed information from the WHO in search results, while YouTube, which is owned by the search engine, said it was promoting videos from credible sources.   

In China, where accurate information about the virus is more crucial than anywhere else, social media is also battling fake news. A spokeswoman for WeChat, which has 1 billion Chinese users, told Reuters the company was removing posts containing coronavirus-related misinformation. 

Researchers and medical officials have noted a trend of stories urging readers to purchase medicine claiming to be able to fight the novel coronavirus. McDonald warns that "One thing we are seeing now especially these ideas of miracles cures for the virus, which do not exist. If anything is asking you to buy something, that should be a red flag."

McDonald urges audiences to be patient when it comes to consuming news. Stories breaking on Facebook or Twitter don't automatically mean they're false, "but if you don't hear about it eventually from a major news organisation then there's probably reason to believe that it's not real."

Remember to sign up to Global Business Daily here to get our top headlines direct to your inbox every weekday