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It’s been about a month since a novel strain of coronavirus popped up in China’s Wuhan province and proceeded to spread to more than 20 countries. And in the outbreak’s wake, panic is spreading on social media worldwide.
As of January 31, the Wuhan coronavirus has infected more than 9,700 people. More than 200 people have died and at least six cases have been confirmed in the United States, including one man who was infected by his wife after she returned home to Chicago after a trip to Wuhan. And as people online search for information about the coronavirus outbreak — which the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed a global health emergency — they can easily encounter a barrage of misleading and potentially dangerous information.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok all told Recode that they’ve been working to promote factual content and some are deprioritizing misinformation on their platforms. Twitter went so far as to put a warning label linking to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when users search “coronavirus.” Still, efforts by these social media platforms have not managed to stop the spread of misleading or outright false hoaxes about the outbreak in the form of posts and videos that have racked up thousands of clicks, “Likes,” and shares.
While we’re seeing a wide variety of false coronavirus posts across these platforms, it’s still hard to say how widespread the misinformation problem is. It’s significant enough that well-regarded institutions, including Johns Hopkins University and research centers in England, have had to issue statements debunking claims that have been floated online. Advocacy groups such as Media Matters have also been busy tracking down false and misleading posts.
Although there is a seemingly endless stream of sources spreading misinformation about the Wuhan coronavirus around the web, we’ve identified and debunked a few of the most pervasive hoaxes.
False: China built a biological weapon that was leaked from a lab in Wuhan
Right now, it’s not clear where this new strain of coronavirus originated. Early on, officials originally believed it might have been linked to a seafood market, but scientists still aren’t exactly sure how or where it developed.
On social media, however, there are many other completely unproven theories about its origin that imply the outbreak of the virus may be linked to bioweapons research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research institute that houses the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory. This Facebook post that’s been shared more than 4,000 times says that it’s “believed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is where the disease may have originated.”
This idea appears to be based, in part, on comments a former Israeli military officer shared with the Washington Times, a right-wing outlet whose past articles have suggested that President Barack Obama might be Muslim and have spread conspiracy theories. Jim Banks, a Republican congressman from Indiana, even tweeted out a link to the Washington Times article. His tweet has been shared more than 1,000 times. (Rep. Banks did not respond to a request for comment.)
As shocking as the biowarfare lab theory might be, experts told the Washington Post that there’s no evidence to support it.
False: Chinese spies smuggled the virus out of Canada
Social media posts are pushing the unproven premise that the novel coronavirus found in Wuhan was smuggled from a lab in Canada as part of China’s clandestine quest for a bioweapon, a theory debunked by Politifact. It’s a theory that seems to be somewhat related to the Wuhan lab conspiracy. One tweet by Republican Party official Solomon Yue, who has more than 100,000 followers, wrote “#coronavirus is stolen from Canada by espionage & sent to Wuhan to be weaponized to kill foreign enemies.”
Although a Chinese researcher working in Canada is under investigation for a possible policy breach after she was invited to the Wuhan lab twice a year for two years, according to Politifact, there’s “no evidence” to support the claim that she “stole coronavirus samples and gave them to the Wuhan lab to create biological weapons.”
False: A coronavirus vaccine already exists
Another popular theory is that a vaccine for the novel coronavirus already exists, and some are even suggesting that the vaccine was previously patented. While researchers in several countries are working to develop a vaccine, no such vaccine has yet been developed, according to FactCheck.Org and Politifact. But this hasn’t stopped people from going online and claiming otherwise.
A recent post on Facebook claims that the coronavirus was a “set up” to sell vaccines and includes screenshots claiming to show a patent for a new vaccine. In this particular case, because Facebook’s fact-checkers verified the post as containing false information, a handful of “related articles” show up below the post, pointing users to verified sites that debunk the vaccine conspiracy theory. If you try to share the post, Facebook issues a warning saying that independent fact-checkers have said it contains false information.
But even though Facebook has placed warnings on some vaccine hoaxes related to the Wuhan coronavirus, the content isn’t flagged as false on every platform. On Twitter, for example, one tweet that’s gained close to 2,000 “Likes” suggests that a vaccine for the coronavirus is owned by the Pirbright Institute, an English infectious disease research institute that focuses on farm animals.
This claim is false. The Pirbright Institute issued a statement shared by fact-checking organization FactCheck.org, clarifying that they don’t work with human coronaviruses, and that a patent that they hold is unrelated to the current coronavirus linked to Wuhan.
False: Scientists predict the virus will kill 65 million people
In October 2019, a Johns Hopkins research center ran an “exercise” that aimed to model the global response to a potential epidemic. Many people online have misinterpreted the study and erroneously linked its predictions to the possible death toll of an outbreak similar to what we’re currently witnessing with the Wuhan coronavirus. In other words, the Johns Hopkins study had nothing to do with the Wuhan coronavirus, although the scenario studied might seem similar.
This is a popular line of misinformation on Twitter. There are several tweets, including one that’s still up with over 140,000 “Likes,” claiming that scientists have predicted that the Wuhan coronavirus will kill 65 million people. That’s not accurate.
“We modeled a fictional coronavirus pandemic, but we explicitly stated that it was not a prediction,” the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security said in a statement. “We are not now predicting that the nCoV-2019 outbreak will kill 65 million people.”
False: There are 100,000 confirmed cases
Chinese officials and the WHO say that over 9,700 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed as of Thursday. One public health expert told the Guardian, however, “Almost certainly many tens of thousands of people are infected.” He added, “My best guess now is perhaps 100,000 cases right now.” This big scary number is misleading because it’s a guess and that number is not confirmed.
Nevertheless, many popular posts on social platforms are spreading more statistics that serve to scare people with numbers that do not match the official count. Some of these posts cite medical workers in Wuhan, without evidence. For instance, one YouTube video with nearly 800,000 views shows someone identified as a nurse, who says as many as 90,000 people are infected with the disease in China alone. Similarly, on Twitter, an account disguised as a news outlet shared an audio clip claiming 100,000 people have been infected.
It’s worth noting that there’s legitimate doubt about whether the Chinese government is accurately reporting the extent of the virus’ impact. At least eight people have been arrested by the Chinese government for spreading hoaxes, according to the Poynter Institute. On the popular Chinese social media app WeChat, some say that frontline reports by medical workers are being taken down. Still, the exact number of people infected by the coronavirus remains unknown. The most dependable sources put that number closer to 10,000 than 100,000.
False: A teen on TikTok is the first case in Canada
On TikTok, some teenagers are pretending to be infected with the virus. One student in Vancouver posted a popular video falsely claiming his friend had the first Canadian confirmed case of coronavirus. The video showed a teenager vomiting in school trash cans and wearing a mask around campus. In an interview with the Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Department of Health confirmed that the video is fake. The only confirmed case of coronavirus in British Columbia, at the time of the video was posted, was a man in his 40s.
TikTok appears to have deleted the original viral video which had over 4.1 million views, but a similar video, posted by the same user, showed a teen alleging a classmate had contracted the virus remained up as of Thursday. That morning, the company said it released a feature directing users to trusted sources of information, like the WHO, when they search for coronavirus-related content in the app.
False: The Chinese government built a hospital overnight
It’s worth noting that the Chinese state media has also been spreading false information. As BuzzFeed News first pointed out, two state media outlets — Global Times and People’s Daily — circulated an image of a newly constructed building and claimed it was a hospital in Wuhan that was constructed in just 16 hours. In fact, the building in the image was an apartment building more than 600 miles away.
This is just one example of how the Chinese government and state-backed organizations have used false or misleading information to portray the outbreak as being under control.
How tech platforms are responding
Every social media company Recode reached said they were working to reduce the impact of false information about the coronavirus in some way, to varying extents.
In a statement, Twitter said that there had been more than 15 million tweets about the coronavirus in the past four weeks. The company added it had not seen “significant coordinated attempts to spread disinformation at scale about this issue.” This doesn’t mean that there’s not false information about coronavirus on Twitter, as the hoaxes we mentioned earlier prove. Twitter’s response simply indicates that the company hasn’t found any evidence of intentional disinformation campaigns by someone, like a state actor or political group.
The situation is slightly more complex on Facebook, as third-party fact-checkers are involved. A spokesperson for Facebook told Recode that the platform is reducing the distribution of posts rated false by its third-party fact-checking partners and setting alerts on false posts. Facebook also says that, before or after some posts are shared, users will be notified if it has been fact-checked. While fact-checkers don’t have access to private groups, those who try to share previously flagged content into a private group will see an alert.
On Thursday, Facebook announced that it would take additional action against coronavirus-related misinformation, including removing false content that’s been debunked by health authorities.
Twitter placed a warning label linking to the CDC when users search “coronavirus.”
Meanwhile, starting Thursday morning, TikTok is issuing a notification for users when they search for the “coronavirus” hashtag in the app. The alert encourages users to look to “trusted sources” like the WHO for accurate information and to report content that might violate its community guidelines. TikTok told Recode in a statement that its guidelines “do not permit misinformation that could cause harm to our community or the larger public,” adding that “[w]hile we encourage our users to have respectful conversations about the subjects that matter to them, we remove deliberate attempts to misrepresent authoritative sources of news.”
YouTube has its own version of an advisory. Starting Thursday, the video platform is showing short previews of text-based news articles about the coronavirus in search results. If you search “coronavirus” on YouTube, for example, you’re linked to a New York Times article about the Wuhan coronavirus.
YouTube told Recode that false information generally does not violate the platform’s rules unless it involves hate speech, harassment, scams, or inciting violence. YouTube also said it aims to reduce the recommendations of what YouTube deems “borderline content” or videos that could misinform users in harmful ways — including false information about coronavirus.
Despite these efforts, it’s seemingly impossible for these platforms to take down every false coronavirus post as soon as one pops up. As with any kind of misinformation, it’s a game of never-ending whack-a-mole. But the continued prevalence of false info about the outbreak, one month into its existence, shows how essential it is to contain the spread of misinformation, especially with serious health consequences involved.