COVID-19: A Fake News Outbreak

The World Health Organization (WHO) has its hands full addressing the ongoing Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Beginning in China’s Wuhan province, the virus has spread around the globe and infected people on nearly every continent.

An “Infodemic”

COVID-19 threatens to reach pandemic status and WHO reports that it has already spurred an infodemic. The conversation around the outbreak has flooded the internet with information. While some of this info is useful and accurate, WHO has already had to go on the offensive against conspiracy theories and fake news.

While most recent health crises have inspired the spread of misinformation, WHO has expressed particular concern about COVID-19. The world has only grown more Internet-centric since SARS and MERS made headlines. With nearly 1 in 5 of the world’s Internet users, China could see an especially large amount of fake news travel exceptionally fast.

A 2018 MIT study found that fake news can spread more quickly than the real thing on social media. That’s partially because users are more likely to share a piece of news that inspires strong feelings of fear, anger, or disgust. These emotions are already common during events like a viral outbreak. Unchecked, disinformation can lead citizens to avoid taking necessary precautions and even hasten the spread of disease.

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WHO has seen fake remedies — sesame oil, garlic, drinking bleach — and outlandish political conspiracies make the rounds on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The organization’s Information Network for Epidemics is responding with graphics designed to debunk rumors. They are already collaborating with several American tech organizations to combat disinformation and hope to do the same with Chinese companies.

Facebook Cracks Down

Facebook is understandably wary of associating itself with fake news. Dubious posts on the site throughout the 2016 election helped popularize the term in the first place. This week, the world’s most popular social network announced that it would ban ads that promise to cure and prevent COVID-19 or otherwise incite panic.

A team of third-party fact checkers reviews new Facebook and Instagram posts around the clock. Once a post has been fact-checked, the site alerts anyone who has shared it or attempted to share it.

The new policy pays particular attention to ads that “create a sense of urgency” around COVID-19. If, for example, an ad implies that there are only limited supplies of survival gear or promises a cure, Facebook will remove it.

Real Safety Tips

Seniors are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and experiencing severe symptoms. Thankfully, protecting yourself against infection is simple. WHO advises seniors to follow many of the same health and safety protocol they’d follow during any cold and flu season. For now, regular hand washing, safe social distancing, and good respiratory hygiene should be enough to keep you infection free. Read WHO’s expansive COVID-19 guide for more information on avoiding the virus and recognizing its symptoms.