The spread of coronavirus across China and the rest of the world has been met with an unfortunate barrage of false news. To counter this, an Australian health department has just released the facts debunking some of the most-shared fake posts disguised as facts.
As the deadly coronavirus continues to wreak havoc in China and around the world, several social media kingpins are fighting the outbreak on a different front: By curbing the spread of misinformation and fake claims online amid a public health emergency.
NSW Health has released information debunking the false coronavirus myths being spread through online platforms in an effort to quell the misinformation and, worse, disinformation.
"I ask the public to be aware of the facts about the novel coronavirus and take a moment to investigate unverified claims before they share them with others," Dr Kerry Chant, NSW's Chief Health Officer said in a press release.
Dr Grant debunked five myths specifically that have spread across Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. They include:
- You should avoid Chinatown/shopping centres/suburbs with high Chinese-Australian populations – FALSE.
While four cases have been diagnosed in NSW to date, patients have been isolated until no longer infectious and there is no evidence that community transmission is occurring in NSW.
- You can get the novel coronavirus from an imported package of food – FALSE.
The novel coronavirus does not appear to last very long on surfaces. Therefore imported products do not pose a risk of transmission of this virus.
- Garlic and sesame oil will stop me from contracting novel coronavirus – FALSE.
The best way to protect yourself is the same as you would against any respiratory infection. Practice good hygiene by:
- a. covering your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with tissue or a flexed elbow;
- b. making sure to clean your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub; and
- c. avoiding close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms.
- The virus has mutated into a more lethal strain – FALSE.
This was debunked by the World Health Organization (WHO).
- Can I catch novel coronavirus from my pet? FALSE.
While the 2019-nCoV may have come from animals, domestic pets do not pose a risk of transmission in Australia.
NSW has confirmed four cases of coronavirus with three of them already being discharged. Nationally, the total figure stands at 14 as of February 6.
With the virus not yet contained, those figures will likely change on the daily but it doesn't change the fact that official sources or journalistic reports are really the only ones that can be taken as truth. A conspiracy being circulated on Reddit or Twitter isn't going to be rigorously fact-checked and most, like the ones above, verge on outright ridiculous.
It's not the first NSW Health has been forced to come out and deny the misinformation and disinformation being circulated. In late January, a viral post claiming to be from the "Department of Diseasology Parramatta" falsely alleged suburbs of Sydney were infected with the disease and urged people to stay away.
NSW Health responded by tweeting that the claims had no basis in fact.
2/2 Further, there is no such entity as the “Department of Diseasology Parramatta”.
NSW Health would like to assure the community that the locations mentioned in this post pose no risk to visitors, and there have been no “positive readings” at train stations.
— NSW Health (@NSWHealth) January 28, 2020
In response to the rise of false information, Twitter has started putting links to official sources at the top of searches for controversial topics like the coronavirus outbreak.
"We've launched a new dedicated search prompt to ensure that when you come to the service for information about the #coronavirus, you're met with credible, authoritative information first," the post read.
"We're halting any auto-suggest results that are likely to direct individuals to non-credible content on Twitter. This is an expansion of our #KnowTheFacts prompt, which we specifically put in place for the public to find clear, credible information on immunisation and vaccination health."
Similarly, Reddit has introduced a tagging system on the coronavirus sub-Reddit to help readers easily distinguish official, verified sources from rumours and unsubstantiated claims.
These fixes aren't likely to suddenly stop the spread of false information and outright lies but they're baby steps on the way to making the internet's important repository of information is easier to navigate and less susceptible to manipulation.