Coronavirus: Can you tell fake news from real information?

Falsehoods on the virus have sprung up on social media, causing panic and confusion

epa08248843 Commuters wearing protective face masks ride the underground or MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit) in Bangkok, Thailand, 26 February 2020. Thailand's Health Ministry is stepping up efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 after it reported three new cases of on 26 February, bringing the total number of infected people to 40. The Health Ministry is asking people to avoid unnecessary travel to 'At-risk countries' which include China, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Italy, Iran and Japan.  EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL
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There is much about coronavirus that remains mysterious and unknown. Consequently, a plethora of conspiracy theories, half-truths and speculation have sprung up across social media and other digital-age information sources. The authenticity of information in the current environment is already difficult enough to prove without fear further compounding one’s sense of uncertainty.

For instance, many unreliable sources have propagated ideas about the virus originating from exotic foods or even that it was manufactured in a laboratory. Moreover and possibly worse, there are scientifically unsubstantiated theories being circulated about how to prevent or even cure the coronavirus. Information that is not rooted in evidence is more than questionable. It is dangerous. As the medical and policy communities labour to establish better prevention methods, treatments and cures, it is imperative that authorities in virus-stricken countries do their best to inform the public and to combat falsehoods.

In Asia, some countries have taken a tough, sometimes even drastic line on the subject. In Malaysia, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong, at least 16 people have been detained for posting false coronavirus-related information. Singapore has used its “fake news” law to force individuals to add disclaimers on questionable posts.

It is critical to emphasise, however, that the most effective way to contain the spread of misinformation is to fill the space in the public discourse with real information, consisting of reliable facts and considered analysis. In China, the country where the spread of the virus originated, public health officials have been lauded by the World Health Organisation for sharing relevant data with international organisations to bolster efforts at containment. Other countries, too, are now going to similar lengths to create an environment of public-health transparency. After Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman reported cases of coronavirus in people returning from pilgrimage in Iran, Gulf countries initiated unprecedented precautions to regulate travel within the region.

In Iran, transparency will prove to be crucial in saving lives and helping the country’s healthcare sector draw the resources it needs, from home and abroad, to overcome the virus’s rapid spread there. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said, “All nations, including Iran, should tell the truth about the coronavirus and co-operate with international aid organisations.” Whatever Iran’s quarrels with the United States, this is advice worth listening to.

The most effective way to stop the spread of misinformation is to counter it with real information

At the same time, authorities must also take care with the information in their hands. In Lebanon, for instance, the first case of coronavirus was detected last week, and the patient’s personal information was divulged publicly in the press and social media. This level of carelessness only exacerbates the level of danger to the public. Transparency does not preclude a responsibility to treat individuals and their information with respect.

World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has acknowledged that, for as long as the coronavirus is not contained, it is a “potential pandemic”. To avoid such a scenario, we must take care and refrain from giving in to panic – including the intentional or unintentional propagation of misinformation. Instead, we should rely on the advice of healthcare professionals and verify suspicious claims by comparing them to that provided by established, reliable, and authoritative sources. When it comes to disease prevention and control, vigilance is about more than physical hygiene. Information hygiene is part of the solution, too.