Canindia News

How we help spread fake news about the coronavirus and other things

Sabrina Almeida

What’s spreading along with the coronavirus, and at an equally deadly pace, is fake news about the superbug!

Recently a man in his seventies was very disturbed by a video forwarded to him on social media and insisted that I watch it. I tried to explain that since little was known about the new strain called 2019-nCoV any video on it was suspect. But he got upset that I wasn’t paying attention to what he was showing me. So, I had to endure the gross video of a worm being pulled from an individual’s lips which had made its way to social media around three or four years ago. Obviously, the senior hadn’t seen it and believed it was the new virus. He reluctantly acknowledged the possibility of it being fake news when a friend reiterated what I had said. All I could think about was the number of people he had forwarded this to. Did they believe this and pass it on?

Later that evening a friend called to say two Ryerson students had been diagnosed with the virus and that there was a possibility of the area being quarantined. Having just seen a media briefing in which Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa confirmed one case at Sunnybrook and another presumptive one (his wife) in isolation at home, I was skeptical about this latest information. On probing a bit,  I learned that my friend’s source was a colleague.  He wasn’t happy when I questioned its authenticity or said it was probably not true as he was hoping to work from home the next day… Then radio and television reports about the fake coronavirus alerts at Ryerson, McMaster University and Durham college vindicated my doubts. What motivates individuals to do this and cause panic?

Social media is one of the biggest culprits of misinformation and it is time to acknowledge our role as its enablers as we thoughtlessly forward pictures and posts.  Passing them on is endorsement! This encourages the recipients to believe the content and do the same. A few clicks and the fake news spreads across the world in minutes.

We also love conspiracy theories as they give us something to chew on. So online stories about China stealing the virus from Canada to create a biological weapon and that the US government agency CDC created and spread it in Wuhan, kept the rumour mills about the origin of the coronavirus working overtime.

Media too fuels fears, promotes conspiracies and makes us suspicious of information coming from government channels. Like recent reports from the New York Post and Daily Mail about a YouTube video of a whistleblower (allegedly a nurse in Wuhan) claiming close to 90,000 people have been infected by the virus in China. The Post also refers to ‘other horrifying videos showing dead bodies covered in sheets lying in hospital hallways’.  This news is fairly easy to come by and popped up during a search for  coronavirus which many must be doing.

True or not, given this scenario, any government campaigns to combat misinformation are bound to meet with some suspicion and resistance. Having said that officials too are likely to play down casualties to avoid panic.

The fear of racism, xenophobia and backlash against the Chinese is also real. It happened during the SARS outbreak which also originated in China. Chinese businesses including grocery stores and restaurants are likely to face the brunt of it. Several people I know are talking about avoiding these establishments they would previously frequent. This feeling is amplified by social media videos allegedly of the Wuhan market with rats and what have you on sale. This reaction is not limited to Canada and includes countries like Australia and the US with diverse immigrant populations. Members of the Chinese community can also be seen wearing masks which is common in China but draws attention here.

At a special World Health Organization (WHO) meeting on Thursday a public health emergency of international concern was declared, acknowledging the risk the virus poses to countries beyond its origin in China and of the need for a more coordinated international response. Earlier Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, told press on Wednesday that the outbreak was still centred in China, especially in Wuhan. But according to another media report Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, who works in emerging diseases and zoonoses (diseases originating in animals) with the WHO said, officials don’t have enough information to determine anything like a death rate yet!!!

What would help combat the misinformation and fear is regular communication from government health channels which Toronto is currently doing a good job of. We also require honesty and transparency. It’s no point telling us we have nothing to worry about when officials don’t really know what they are dealing with. In the absence of proper answers, people turn to the Internet and social media is always happy to oblige. -CINEWS


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