This Op-ed was originally published in Policy Options Magazine on April 14, 2020.
You can put away the cocaine, save the bleach for your white clothes and have a sip of your hot lemon water – none of these things will cure you of the coronavirus, despite what you may have seen online.
As we go into yet another week of physical distancing, health officials around the world and here in Canada are grappling with both a pandemic caused by a new coronavirus, COVID-19 and a deluge of misinformation about the virus in the media and on social media. The World Health Organization has dubbed this phenomenon as an “infodemic” – “an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
The term infodemic is new, but misinformation is not. Long before there was social media, there were pamphleteers who plastered their cities and villages with what were then considered blasphemous or treasonous ideas. In recent years, we have watched misinformation metastasized and weaponized by the anti-vaxxer movement. We saw it popped up after the downing of Ukraine flight 752. And of course, everyone is now familiar with the disinformation campaigns waged by Russian Internet Research Agency during the 2016 US presidential election.
With cities and provinces declaring states of emergency and authorities urging us to practice physical distancing, social media is now an indispensable lifeline for us to connect to friends, families, classmates and co-workers. But that is also a potential problem.
False narratives about COVID-19 have gone global and are spreading almost as fast as the virus itself. As social media researchers studying misinformation, we have been monitoring COVID-19 related misinformation as part of a Government of Canada funded research project. Since Canada’s first “presumptive positive” case was announced January 25, there have been nearly 2000 false and unproven claims recorded by the Google Fact Check Tools. From examining the data, different themes of COVID-19 misinformation have emerged:
- Promoting Fake Tests and Cures: This includes unlicensed COVID-19 tests, home remedies and natural medicines as a “cure” to or as a “preventive” measure from contracting the virus: everything from drinking lots of water, to taking cocaine, to drinking bleach.
- Speculation on the Origin: This is straight out of conspiracy thrillers and it panders to nationalism or xenophobia, claiming that the virus is the work of government labs. This theme includes claims that either Chinese, Canadian or US scientists created the coronavirus in a laboratory or that 5G technology somehow caused the sickness.
- Speculation and/or Diminishment of the Virus Severity: This consists of unproven information about the virus, for example, about how warmer weather would kill the virus, an unproven claim which was propagated by numerous sources including U.S. President Donald Trump.
- Scamming and Playing on People Fears: Scammers are setting up website posing as government entities and using social media to drive unsuspecting people to these websites in the hope of stealing people’s personal information or infecting their devices such as smartphones or computers.
- Maligning Brands: Some post false claims related to businesses, like a claim that Corona beer sales have dropped sharply due to fear about the coronavirus, or that supposedly the new coronavirus is transmitted through Coca Cola
- Rumours about Celebrities: There are also various false reports about celebrities, elected officials or other influential people contracting the virus or even passing away because of it, such as a recent claim about the death of the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
- Race-baiting and Racist Remarks: False accusation of people of certain religion or ethnicity intentionally spreading the virus like a false claim that Muslims in India licking plates and spoons to spread coronavirus or that Chinatowns all over the world are a petri dish for the virus.
Social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter are making efforts to police COVID-19 misinformation on their platform. But we should not rely on them alone. We can develop and practice “digital hygiene,” similar to how we develop routine and practices for personal hygiene.
For example, locate and bookmark online sources of credible health information such as the World Health Organization (WHO), WebMD, and the Government of Canada’s @GovCanHealth Twitter account for the latest and most accurate information about the spread and prevention of COVID-19. We also suggest reviewing claims that have been fact checked by news organizations. This will help you learn to recognize potentially false claims as they tend to be similar or use similar techniques to get your attention.
Our lab has developed a new COVID-19 Misinformation Portal that features a range of resources that are designed to help Canadians to inoculate ourselves against COVID-19 misinformation. In addition to a curated directory of provincial-level resources, the portal features a COVID-19 misinformation dashboard showcasing debunked coronavirus claims by professional fact checkers and a Twitter dashboard that tracks the types of links shared on Twitter and possible bots accounts that are tweeting about the virus.
If we allow COVID-19 misinformation to spread unchallenged, it will undermine the work of public health officials and put the public and front-line medical workers at risk. We all need to do our part and adopt a “digital hygiene” regime.