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Viral Media

The Coronavirus and the Spread of Disinformation

Grade Level: Secondary 

Background

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.

Activity 1

  • Watch CIVIX Explains: Information Pollution, and review the difference between ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation.’
    • Misinformation is false information, but the person sharing it believes it to be true. While misinformation can be damaging, its intent is not to cause harm.
    •  Disinformation is false information that is deliberately created and shared to cause harm. It has the goal of confusing people about what is true and influencing how they think and act.
  • Watch this video by CBC’s The National that discusses disinformation around the coronavirus.
  • Initiate a class discussion about how rumours and conspiracies can spread about new viruses.

    Guiding Questions:

    • Is the coronavirus an issue that concerns you? Why? Why do you think the story of the coronavirus is so popular in the news?
    • Why do you think the coronavirus is leading to the spread of so much misinformation and disinformation? What are some of the reasons people might spread false information about the virus? Do you think it matters if people intend to spread false information or not?
    • Why do you think that so much of the disinformation about the coronavirus is xenophobic is nature?
    • Facebook Inc. has stated that they will remove posts that spread disinformation from Facebook and Instagram (which Facebook owns). Do you think it is the responsibility of social media companies to remove known disinformation from their platforms? Or should individual users should be left to decide which information they choose to believe and share?

Activity 2

  • Watch CIVIX Explains: Forms of Misinformation, and review the 5 major types of mis- and disinformation.
  • Skim this article by BuzzFeed News listing 25 examples of disinformation spreading about the coronavirus.
  • Select a handful of examples (or use the examples in this slide deck [PPT]) and initiate a class discussion about the types of disinformation spreading about the coronavirus. You may also ask students to locate their own examples to discuss in class. 

    Guiding Questions:

    • Which of the five forms does each example take? 
    • What emotion do you think each example is trying to make you feel? Explain how you think each example appeals to your emotions.
    • Which of the examples do you think would be most likely to convince someone to share it? Why?

 

Additional Reading

 

 

 

 

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