Another Epidemic: Coronavirus Misinformation


Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last weeks, you’ve probably heard about coronavirus, which is threatening to become this decade’s first global pandemic. Initially surfacing in Wuhan, China in late 2019, it is already estimated to have spread to 20+ countries, infecting 25,000 people and killing 500*.

Unfortunately, one of the few things that seems to be more viral than 2019 nCoV disease is the digital misinformation about it online.

This misinformation has run the gamut from extreme over-estimation of the infected population (as many as 2.8 million, according to a widely debunked report from the Hal Turner Radio show); to bizarre theories about its cause (infected bat soup in a Wuhan market, Chinese chemical weaponry, Corona beer); to even more bizarre supposed treatments, such as drinking bleach or eating garlic. (Hey, if it works on vampires, it should work on this, right?)

Perhaps most unsettling are the many conspiracy theories related to coronavirus, such as the idea that there is a vaccine being intentionally held back, that Bill Gates somehow invented it, or that someone secretly holds a patent for it. Many of the conspiracy theories are either nationalist (such as Russian social media speculating that the U.S. created it) or racist, with several suggesting that the Chinese government created it. While Wuhan residents have indeed been quarantined, several outlets have encouraged people to avoid contact with anyone Chinese, including bogus reports credited to the Australian Bureau of “Diseaseology.” (Never heard of that term? Neither has the Australian government.)

Since the 2016 US presidential elections, social media platforms have come under increasing criticism for aiding the spread of misinformation, via fake news reports, bogus websites and automated bots. In most cases, Silicon Valley has shrugged off this criticism by pointing out that their platforms are not technically media outlets and citing First Amendment rights – all while raking in gobs of cash from advertisers benefitting from the massive exposure clickbait-y hoaxes inevitably receive. While most regulate hate speech and violent threats on their platforms, they do not consider misinformation a violation of their user guidelines. Caveat emptor, all the way to the bank…

However, in an unusual display of human empathy (or perhaps pragmatic acceptance of PR reality), Facebook and the other social media channels have now cracked down on coronavirus misinformation. Using legions of fact checkers worldwide, Facebook says it will begin removing “false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations,” acknowledging such content could lead to “physical harm.”

While seemingly obvious, this is nonetheless a huge stride for Facebook, which generally restricts search results and advertising related to misinformation, but allows the original false posts to stay up. Other platforms are taking similar steps, including Twitter (which will route searches to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control); Google (which will feed searches a notice from the World Health Organization); Google-owned YouTube (which will steer searches toward public health organization videos); and Facebook’s own Instagram, which will serve a public-health org pop-up to coronavirus hashtags.

So, can these actions stem the tide of coronavirus misinformation? Well, they certainly will help. However, it is hopelessly naïve to pin all the blame on Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk. Convincing a conspiracy loving public not to blindly forward salacious, shocking information is much like trying to convince a hardened alcoholic not to drink; while it seems reasonable in theory, in practice…well, it usually just feels too good to stop. Nonetheless, we all need to try.

Remind your buddy, your spouse, your co-worker (and yourself) to not share information unless they’ve vetted it. Look for verified sources (like CDC or WHO) and well-established media outlets. Cross-check the article, if possible, and look for suspicious cues like old datelines, strange URLs or altered photos. And remember that in today’s Wild, Wild West of armchair journalism, clickbait headlines and #fakenews, things that look fishy or seem outlandish are very likely both.

*CNN (citing WHO) February 3, 2020