World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says that misinformation is “making the work of our heroic workers even harder”. “I would also like to speak briefly about the importance of facts, not fear,” Tedros is quoted in a BBC News report as saying. “People must have access to accurate information to protect themselves and others.”
He said misinformation around the new strain, 2019-nCoV, “causes confusion and spreads fear to the general public”. “At the WHO we’re not just battling the virus, we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theories that undermine our response,” he added.
According to the report he quotes a report in The Guardian: “Misinformation on the coronavirus might be the most contagious thing about it.”
The report says a number of false theories have been spread globally about the virus in recent weeks. Russia‘s Channel One, for example, has been airing coronavirus conspiracy theories on its prime-time evening news show Vremya (meaning “Time”). In one segment, the host links the virus to US President Donald Trump, and claims that US intelligence agencies or pharmaceutical companies are behind it.
Another debunked conspiracy theory, published in the UK and US tabloid media, linked the virus to a video of a Chinese woman eating bat soup. Reports claimed the clip was filmed in Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus, when the outbreak was first reported. However, BBC News reports that it was filmed in 2016 and was in Palau, in the western Pacific Ocean – not China.
And a now-widely-discredited scientific study released last month linked the new coronavirus to snakes – leading to global headlines discussing the spread of “snake flu”.
From claims the new coronavirus is part-HIV to conspiracy theories about bioweapons and reports suggesting the virus was linked to people eating bat soup, stories sparking fear seem to have overtaken the outbreak in real life. Adam Kucharski an epidemiologist says in a report in The Guardian, is misinformation really more contagious than the virus itself?
Kucharski writes that when tackling disease outbreaks, health agencies often work to identify potential superspreading events, isolating infected individuals to prevent further transmission. However, this isn’t the only way to stop an outbreak. As well as tracking down people who are infectious, it’s possible to target broader social interactions that might amplify transmission. For example, many cities in China have recently closed schools, which can be hotspots for respiratory infections.
He writes that tech companies are now adopting similar approaches to tackle health misinformation. Last year, Pinterest announced it had rewired its search results to make it harder to find vaccine misinformation. It had struggled to remove the content completely – the equivalent of finding all the cases during a disease outbreak – so instead focused on reducing how many people might be exposed to harmful content. During the current outbreak, Google is attempting to reduce people’s susceptibility to misinformation by displaying links to reputable health sources when users search for information about the virus.
Kucharski writes that ensuring the public has the best possible health information is crucial during an outbreak. At best, misinformation can distract from important messages. At worst, it can lead to behaviour that amplifies disease transmission.
He says the novelty of coronavirus makes the challenge even greater, because viral speculation can easily overwhelm the limited information we do have. “The scientific community is already making huge progress in understanding the infection, but we’ve had to start at the bottom, without stacks of earlier research to stand on. When it comes to stopping the outbreak, we’ll need ladders, not snakes.”Full BBC News report Full report in The Guardian