Misinformation about the coronavirus is proliferating across the internet, despite efforts by the major players to stamp it out.
According to New York-based NewsGuard, which has launched the Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center, dozens of sites are publishing false and potentially harmful stories about the origins and impact of the virus, as well as the related science.
Some claim the virus was engineered by China as a bioweapon, or stolen by Chinese spies from Canada. Others promote dangerous ‘cures’ for the virus, including colloidal silver, bleach, and high doses of Vitamin C.
“Many are enormously popular, with their posts being exponentially more widely shared on social media than some of the world’s most reliable health care information websites,” says Tracking Center co-leader John Gregory.
NewsGuard rates each site based on nine criteria, including whether a site repeatedly publishes false content, whether it regularly corrects or clarifies errors, and whether it avoids deceptive headlines.
One Italian journalist, for example, made a video for the TV network Tgcom24, claiming that an anonymous source had told him that the virus was ‘engineered in a military laboratory where experiments were carried out to modify the SARS virus for war purposes’.
The major internet companies are scrabbling to try and make sure that misinformation like this isn’t shared on their platforms. Facebook recently pledged to start removing content with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged as dangerous by leading global and local health authorities.
“We’re focusing on claims that are designed to discourage treatment or taking appropriate precautions. This includes claims related to false cures or prevention methods — like drinking bleach cures the coronavirus — or claims that create confusion about health resources that are available,” says Facebook head of health Kang-Xing Jin.
“We will also block or restrict hashtags used to spread misinformation on Instagram, and are conducting proactive sweeps to find and remove as much of this content as we can.”
YouTube, meanwhile, says it bans ‘content promoting dangerous remedies or cures, like videos which claim that harmful substances or treatments can have health benefits’; and Twitter’s been tagging searches on ‘coronavirus’ with a label urging users to visit official sources of information first.
However, in many cases, misinformation is spreading faster and more widely than official information.
“While the virus spreads, misinformation makes the job of our heroic health workers even harder. It is diverting the attention of decision makers. And it causes confusion and spreads fear to the general public,” WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently warned.
“At WHO, we’re not just battling the virus; we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response.”
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