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Explained: Amid coronavirus outbreak, how information can be an epidemic too

This is not the first time that a global outbreak has been accompanied by misinformed claims on social media.

Written by Karishma Mehrotra | New Delhi |
Updated: March 7, 2020 4:25:04 pm
coronavirus, coronavirus death toll, coronavirus in India, coronavirus cases in India, coronavirus in China, COVID-19, Express Explained, Indian Express The World Health Organisation (WHO) is yet to label the coronavirus outbreak a “pandemic”.

The coronavirus outbreak has been accompanied by a spurt of information across social media, a lot of it false or misguided. While the World Health Organisation (WHO) is yet to label the outbreak a “pandemic”, it has labelled the spread of information a “massive ‘infodemic’ — an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.

This is not the first time that a global outbreak has been accompanied by misinformed claims on social media. But while this happened mostly on Facebook during previous outbreaks, the emergence of WhatsApp and the growth of Twitter have amplified such forwards and posts.

During the SARS outbreak in 2003, Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook were all non-existent. Between the swine flu epidemic of 2009 and the current coronavirus outbreak, Facebook’s base has grown seven times globally, Twitter has grown 11 times, and WhatsApp, which was just starting in 2009, has 1.5 billion users today.

Efforts to bust the myths

For the first time at such a scale, organisations such as the WHO have had to not only establish their own social media monitoring units and helplines to track the most rampant myths to debunk, but also coordinate with the social media companies to elevate authoritative information on those platforms. Even on the Pinterest platform, searches for coronavirus lead to a WHO mythbusters link; and on WeChat, WHO has a newsfeed in Chinese.

In an explanation on the topic in its March 5 “situation report”, WHO announced its “innovative communication initiative called the WHO Network for Information in Epidemics (EPI-WIN).” Through the project, WHO aims to amplify accurate information via “trust chains”, or channels through which people seek information.

Also read | Why China has emerged as the epicentre of global outbreaks of disease

One example of a chain WHO has leveraged is the employer-employee relationship, in which EPI-WIN has partnered with the International Labour Organisation’s Bureau of Workers Activities and the International Trade Union Council to disseminate trustworthy information.

Platforms have pitched in

Social media platforms have been adding to their lists of efforts to fight the spread of misinformation. Twitter has set up a “dedicated search prompt” in India with a link to the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare. The prompt reads “Know the facts”. The company also says it will stop any advertisers trying to exploit the outbreak with “inappropriate ads”. It has launched similar initiatives in other countries, too.

Google has an “SOS Alert” for those searching about the virus. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a March 4 post about the efforts that the company was making, including free advertising for WHO and removal of conspiracy theories. Amazon has banned more than one million products that claimed to prevent or cure infection with the virus.

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Andrew Pattison, digital solutions manager at WHO, told The New York Times that he was visiting and pitching to major companies about collaborative solutions, and gave the example of AirBnB offering advice about the coronavirus outbreak to travellers. The initiatives mark a distinct recognition that the tide of renegade misinformation can no longer be ignored.

Govts and leaders, too

It is not just user-generated content that causes the spread of misleading information. In the first days of January, the Wuhan Public Security Bureau dismissed the outbreak as “rumour mongering”. On the other side of the world, US President Donald Trump claimed on February 25 that “we’re very close to a vaccine” and the WHO mortality rate of 3.4 per cent was a “false number.”

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to Recode that the company would remove false claims even if they are shared by politicians or elected officials, if international health organisations flag them.

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