COVID19: Combatting coronavirus misinformation

Author(s): Wendie Norris and Jesslyn Thay , Date: 20 March 2020

As the world’s media have been reporting on the global pandemic of COVID-19 there has been a rise in the misinformation surrounding this disease and the virus that causes it [SARS-CoV-2].  Misinformation and ‘fake news’ are damaging efforts to contain and treat the virus. They stop people taking simple practical steps that prevent infection (like handwashing), can pose a serious risk to an individual’s health, and are increasing public anxiety levels.

To find trusted and approved health information about COVID-19 go to the World Health Organization. To find health advice, professional resources and other information go to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine - coronavirus resource center.  [More links can be found at the end of this article]

Social media has accelerated the speed at which misinformation and rumours can spread

Many who share or take the advice of ‘fake news’ or false experts, are doing so in good faith and believing information they have been given is correct.  Others do so maliciously. There are a number of accounts which mimic official and trusted news sources, and yet more which seek to profit by offering fake cures, medicines and food supplements which have no credible effect on the disease at all.  

Self-published books

An article in the Guardian [12th March] describes how Amazon flooded with self-published coronavirus books, ranging from children’s stories to so-called “guides” to combat the infection.  The content is plagiarised, from news reports and elsewhere and of doubtful quality, written to profit from people’s fears. The general public trusts professionals and being able to buy a book on how to avoid the coronavirus written by “a scientist” is tempting. But the only things these books do is undermine public trust.

Whether well-intentioned, malicious or for commercial gain, the result is the same. Poor health information, misinformation, is costing lives and it travels faster than the virus!   

Tackling misinformation now – WHO, BigTech and DFID

Engaging Social media: despite tackling the myths - such as ‘cures’ by drinking bleach or rubbing mustard and garlic into your skin - on their own website,  the World Health Organisation knew they needed to engage the support of the BIgTech companies to contain this “infodemic”.  On February 13th, they met with Facebook, Youtube, Amazon, Google and others.

Since then big tech firms have been working hard to eradicate misinformation about COVID-19 online.  Now when searching on COVID-19 or coronavirus hashtags (#coronavirus) on Instagram, a pop-up directs people towards the NHS website – a trusted source of health advice. Facebook and Google respond to searches on coronavirus by headlining in RED, trusted sources.  Amazon removes “bad actor” listings artificially raising prices of hand sanitiser and face masks; it is acting to remove self-published books on coronavirus that do not comply with its guidelines (i.e. have plagiarised, inaccurate content).

Yet more needs to be done. Many ‘WhatsApp’ chats are flooded with poor health advice, which is often said to come from ‘a trusted source’, health expert or professional who is also a family friend … there is one doing the rounds now which we have received. According to Marianna Spring, a “disinformation reporter” interviewed on BBC’s coronavirus newscast [19th March, Stop going to the Pub], its origins lie in a post created in the UK.

Supporting accurate news in S.E.Asia and Africa: DFID has awarded £500K to the Humanitarian-to-Humanitarian Network (H2H) “to challenge misinformation in South East Asia and Africa, which is then spreading worldwide, and direct people to the right advice to help stop the spread of the virus”.  4 organisations: Internews, Translators without Borders, Evidence Aid, and BBC Media Action, are providing Connect:COVID-19, a weekly digest  to support busy newsrooms and fact checking organisations in these two regions.  

Misinformation that costs lives is not new

Misinformation has stopped life-saving polio vaccination programs & hampered the control of the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. The response to combatting the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been hampered by rampant misinformation causing mistrust of health professionals.  Violence fuelled by fake news and rumours has even led to the deaths of health care workers and journalists. Sadly, the deliberate killing of polio-vaccination workers still happens.

How YOU can combat misinformation

  1.     Link to Official health sites. such as the World Health Organization , European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or National Health Service.  Here you can find health information and pandemic updates linked to solid scientific advice and research. You can read about the myths!

  2.     Translate reliable health advice into local languages & make it accessible to those who are hard of hearing or partially sighted.  To learn more, Go To Translators without Borders.

  3.     Join an official health discussion forum such as Healthcare Information for All (HIFA).This global forum has over 20,000 members  and focuses on “improving the availability and use of healthcare information (and protection from misinformation) across all areas of health".  It is currently engaged in an ongoing 24x7 discussion on the information and communication aspects of the current pandemic. You can follow this through their  home page (www.hifa.org - see Trending discussion: Coronavirus) or directly here: http://www.hifa.org/news/coronavirus

  4.    Get regional updates: