The Coronavirus and the Spread of Disinformation
In late December 2019, news outlets first reported an outbreak of a new coronavirus (COVID-19) in Wuhan, China. By early February, 2020, health experts had identified cases of coronavirus in over 25 countries, including Canada. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak to be an emergency of “international concern,” and scientists and healthcare professionals are working hard to contain the virus from spreading further.
News of a new virus often leads to fear and anxiety among the public. People are hungry for the most up to date information so they can better understand the situation, but accurate information can take time to emerge.
In these conditions, it is very common for rumours and false information to spread. This is especially true on social media where an abundance of information can easily travel around the world before it is verified by a credible source.
Millions of posts about the coronavirus have been shared on social media. While many of them contain accurate information from reliable sources, others are spreading false information.
Disinformation about the coronavirus has taken a number of forms. Some posts spread conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus — like the fake story that the virus was made in a Canadian lab and stolen by Chinese spies. Others spread false information about supposed miracle cures, ranging from salt water and Vitamin C to nicotine. Even social media influencers were sharing photos of themselves wearing masks or suggesting misleading uncertain practices to prevent the spread (example).
Online disinformation can even lead to an increase in xenophobic attitudes. One widely shared misleading story about the coronavirus suggested that people in Wuhan contracted it by eating bat soup, which led to the creation of a number of racist memes about Chinese eating habits. This type of disinformation can influence behaviour among the general public. For example, Chinese restaurants in the Greater Toronto Area are reporting a large drop in sales in weeks after coronavirus outbreak and many businesses fear bankruptcy.
While it is natural to want to consume as much information as possible during an outbreak of a new disease, it is important to wait for information to be verified and to rely on credible sources. Stick to the facts as communicated by public-health agencies or medical professionals, such as World Health Organization, Public Health Agency of Canada and provincial health associations.
As the case of the coronavirus demonstrates, in times of public uncertainty, online disinformation can spread even more widely than the disease itself.