False News Spread More Rapidly Than Coronavirus 2019-nCoV

In a globalized world, viruses have the potential to spread rapidly across the human population in all continents. However, these pathogens spread at a rate that pales in comparison with the speed at which false news on those very pathogens is disseminated online.

The recent outbreak of the Coronavirus 2019-nCoV is not an exception to this rule. Regardless of the fact that many Western countries have experienced very low numbers of cases, social media users have been posting alarming news regarding outbreaks in their own country.

At the same time, conspiracy theories related to the origins of this virus have been created. Some of these have been translated and shared by websites that are known for profiting on disinformation. Others have been, unfortunately, spread by legitimate news outlets.

That is why SOMA – the European Observatory Against Disinformation – has decided to collect and debunk the most common (and dangerous) false news that has spread in relation to the outbreak of Coronavirus 2019-nCoV.

 (Un)healthy advice

 «Keep your throat moist, do not let your throat dry up» and «Drink 50-80cc warm water, 30-50cc for children, depending on age». These are the pieces of advice that – according to numerous Facebook posts – the Canadian Ministry of Health has (allegedly) suggested to its citizens as a precautionary measure against Coronavirus 2019-nCoV. However, this information is completely false.

The Canadian government has released on its website suggestions on how to prevent infections from coronavirus, but none of these implies drinking hot water or keeping one’s throat dry up. In fact, the suggestions are: «wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds»; «avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands»; «avoid close contact with people who are sick».

As our Greek colleagues of Ellinika Hoaxes have reported, this message has started to be shared online prior to the outbreak of coronavirus 2019-nCoV. In particular, these fake suggestions have been circulating at least from 2018 in Taiwan, when the Ministry of Health and Welfare officially dismissed the validity of these measures to fight seasonal flu.

Lack of official support has not stopped this falsehood from spreading. Since then the message has been translated and posted in different countries, such as Italy, Greece, and India.

Besides this, other false, and dangerous, even lethal, advice has been posted and spread among online communities. Proponents of QAnon, a pro-Trump far-right conspiracy, have been openly recommending a bleach-based type of “medication” as a cure-it-all. Called “Miracle Mineral Solution” or MMS, it supposedly kills any virus, and effectively treats and kills Coronavirus, while public news media openly warn against it.

Coronavirus delivery

Another common falsehood that is being reposted across countries regards the possible shipping of the virus through online purchasing from China.

As explained by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – body of the U.S. Department of Health –, «because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures. Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread most often by respiratory droplets».

Moreover, the CDC states that currently «there is no evidence to support transmission of 2019-nCoV associated with imported goods and there have not been any cases of 2019-nCoV in the United States associated with imported goods.»

Nonetheless users on social media are warning of this possible avenue for contagion, depicting it as highly likable.

Racial prejudice amidst the outbreak

Closely connected to the diffusion of falsehood on the virus is racial prejudice towards Asian people. Sinophobia have been publicly reported, and Twitter hashtags related to individuals’ exposure to that kind of prejudice have been trending in various languages (e.g., #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus in France, with similar ones in other languages).

A widely shared racist tweet depicts the Chinese influencer Wang Mengyun eating a traditional dish referred to as “bat soup”, and states «When you eat bats and bamboo rats and s— and call it a “Chinese delicacy”, why y’all be acting surprised when diseases like #coronavirus appear?». The tweet was shared over 10.7k times and got replies that show clear racist tendencies.

However, the video is from 2016 and wasn’t shooted in China but in Palau and, therefore, does not have anything to do with the diffusion of the new Coronavirus.

The (fake) US involvement

A prevalent idea that has also started circulating in various forms is that the US government is somehow involved in the creation and dissemination of the virus. This theory is not supported by reliable sources.

An early example of this were viral postings by members of the previously mentioned supporters of QAnon, claiming that the US government created 2019-nCoV in a laboratory on the basis of a virus isolation patent entry, which clearly was filed for an earlier strain of Coronavirus, SARS.

A prominent supporter of QAnon, Jordan Sather, shared on Twitter another conspiracy theory, stating that the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, UK — which also gets donations from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – had already a patent registered for the virus when this started to spread. According to Sather, the outbreak was therefore a deliberate action in order to attract funding for a potential vaccine. However, the patent was filed for a different virus strain altogether, which was meant for a vaccine for animals.

Finally, as reported by BBC, a series of conspiracy theories related to the US government’s involvement in the engineering and spreading of the virus were nurtured by Russian media outlets, hinting at a possible connection while at the same time claiming to debunk these theories.

Written by Pagella Politica (a fact-checking organization from Italy) and Stephanie Winkler (Independent contributor to SOMA).