Two months after China first reported a deadly outbreak of a new type of coronavirus, the topic continues to dominate headlines the world over. The virus has now infected more than 95,000 people in 79 countries and killed more than 3,200.
The disease’s rapid spread has been accompanied by an outbreak of false claims and conspiracy theories on social and mainstream media, allowing misinformation on the origins of the virus and hoaxes on cures to travel as fast as the infection.
One study by the US State Department, reported on by the Washington Post, said roughly two million tweets touting conspiracy theories about the virus – such as claims it was caused by a bioweapon – had been posted outside the US over the three-week period when the disease began to spread outside China.
According to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), such claims hamper the effort to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.
“At WHO, we’re not just battling the virus, we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response,” he told reporters on February 8.
A group of 27 scientists from eight countries, including the US, Malaysia and Australia, also condemned misinformation around the virus, saying in an open letter on February 19 that conspiracy theories suggesting COVID-19 does not have a natural origin do “nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus”.
Some analysts say it is unsurprising false claims over the virus have flourished, mainly because it is a new strain about which little is known.
“An outbreak like this has many uncertainties, and when people don’t have answers, and scientists are not able to give them all the answers and assurances they need, they are likely to start speculating,” explained Marina Joubert, a senior science communication researcher based in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
“Also, understandably, people are scared and the images of people wearing masks and large cities that are deserted, cause further anxiety,” she added, referring to lockdowns imposed in several Chinese and Italian cities in an effort to contain the outbreak.
Andrea Kitta, associate professor at East Carolina University in the US, said the “narrative patterns” of conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak was identical to those in past epidemics.
“In previous pandemics like HIV or H1N1, there have been similar conspiracy theories on bioengineering, plots to cull certain populations, or that it’s linked to eating and sanitation habits,” she said.
A widely circulated theory linked the virus to a video of Chinese woman eating bat soup, which was shared widely on social media and eventually picked up by mainstream media sites including Russian state-owned network, RT, and British tabloid Daily Mail.
It later emerged that the clip was of a well-known Chinese vlogger eating the soup in Indonesia in 2016. While scientists believe bats are a carrier for the new virus, they suspect it may have jumped to humans via another animal host.
The bat soup claim is just one of the many reports linking what Chinese people eat to the new outbreak, and one among many peddling racially charged claims.
“Some of the stereotypes that have emerged are that Chinese people are ‘dirty’ and that they eat weird things. When we don’t have the information we need, we tend to speculate, but unfortunately, that’s also where our inherent racism and bias starts to come into play. We do this to make ourselves feel safe, but it’s really problematic,” said Kitta.
Such claims can be dangerous and have been linked to attacks and discrimination against Chinese nationals and people of Asian origin in countries such as Italy and against people evacuated from China in Ukraine.
What worries some observers is not just misinformation on social media but that some of these claims have made their way into more mainstream outlets, including in Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US.
In the early days of the outbreak, a columnist for popular Saudi newspaper al-Watan suggested on February 2 that the new coronavirus was part of an effort by Western pharmaceutical companies to profit by selling vaccines for it, while another columnist for the Syrian official al-Thawra daily wrote on February 3 that the virus was part of an economic and psychological war on China waged by the US.
Similar claims were also aired on Russia’s state-run Channel One. And on February 5, a news anchor suggested US President Donald Trump was to blame, linking the word corona, which means crown in Russian, to beauty pageants Trump used to preside over.
In the US, right-wing media have also peddled conspiracy theories of their own, with the Washington Times saying on January 24 that the new coronavirus may have originated in a lab linked to China’s “covert biological weapons programme”, a theory later backed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton.
Rush Limbaugh, a conservative radio host, said the “coronavirus was being weaponised as yet another element to bring down” Trump.
Geopolitics also played a role in the type of misinformation being spread, according to some analysts.
“Had the virus originated in a country not so significant, it would have been treated and seen in a different light,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Thai political scientist and director of the Institute for Science and International Security, in Bangkok.
“China has issues with a lot of countries, including economic rivalry and geopolitical tensions with the US. It is dominant globally, and Chinese tourists are the number-one source for a lot of Asian countries. All of this has impacted the way the pandemic has been reported.”
An article in Foreign Policy magazine on January 24 said Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “political agenda may turn out to be a root cause of the epidemic” and that his multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative has “made it possible for a local disease to become a global menace”.
Amid what WHO has described as an “infodemic”, social media companies have taken some steps to combat misinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have announced measures to steer users looking for information on the coronavirus to credible sources, such as the WHO.
But tech companies should do more, said Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of global digital media at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US.
“We’re engaging with this health epidemic at a different time from previous outbreaks like SARS or swine flu. In recent years, a lot of health disinformation and insidious fake news have been able to thrive online.
“This pandemic hits us at the moment when there’s much more rumour-mongering. Plus, there are many social media influencers who have been trying to promote various kinds of products. This is quite tough to challenge and combat,” he said.
“It’s important for conspiracy theories to be removed from online platforms sooner than has been. Claims around bat soup and bioengineering, for example, are still accessible,” he said. “Also, there’s been too much focus on nudging to legitimate information and not enough focus on taking down hate speech and slur.”
Meanwhile, pressure is also growing on mainstream journalists to ensure fair and reliable coverage.
Joubert, the science communication researcher, said: “I think many of the major media organisations have done a great job of providing updates responsibly and to put experts forward to speak to the public. Unfortunately, some smaller newspapers and radio stations may be guilty of helping to spread misinformation.”
She added: “The mass media should play an even bigger role in making people aware of misinformation and why it is so important to be critical, and think rationally when we consume information, especially in the online world.”