Coronavirus US: How COVID-19 'infodemic' is infecting the internet with false information

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Sunday, May 3, 2020
How novel coronavirus 'infodemic' is infecting the internet with false information
It's not just COVID-19 that's spreading fast, but also misinformation online.

As the coronavirus spreads, something else is going viral: misinformation about it online, and it's threatening to make a bad situation worse.

Now, the World Health Organization is teaming up with social media firms to do something about it.

It's not just COVID19 - better known as the novel coronavirus - that's spreading fast.

There is a flow of misinformation online about the virus, which health officials are calling an "infodemic" and they are mounting a concerted effort to combat it.

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The ease with which conspiracies are shared and re-shared makes stopping something going viral online almost as difficult as stopping a biological viral outbreak in the real world.

After the deluge of misinformation around the measles outbreak that started in 2018, the World Health Organization is taking new approaches to tackle the problem.

"Would you call this the first social media epidemic," CNN reporter Hadas Gold asked Andy Pattison, the manager of digital solutions at WHO.

"I think there's probably been micro epidemics. We call them infodemics. I think that this one could well be the first global one," Pattison said.

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One of the big strains of the infodemic is misinformation about the virus' origins and how it spreads. Numerous sites and groups online have been falsely claiming that the virus is some form of "biological warfare" or "bioweapon" or was created by the pharmaceutical industry to sell more vaccines."

Another area of misinformation is fake cures and remedies. Some are harmless, like drinking garlic water or basic herbal tonics, but others are dangerous.

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"In our social media monitoring, for instance, we've come across proposed cures and prevention options for coronavirus for everything from, you know, you just need to pray to more harmful proposed treatments like drinking bleach," said Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project.

Health officials are taking this infodemic seriously. The WHO is working directly with tech companies on a daily basis to flag and take down bad information, and to ensure that facts from reliable sources get to users first.

Some companies are taking a more aggressive approach to taking down this content, while others are reacting differently.

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"I think it depends on the company's maturity with regards to their social impact and their social care for their users. So, if they've suffered reputational knocks in the past, they're much more likely to respond now to help us," Pattison said.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared a post about how his company is responding to the virus outbreak.

"Given the developing situation, we're working with national ministries of health and organizations like the WHO, CDC and UNICEF to help them get out timely, accurate information on the coronavirus," he said in his post. "We're also focused on stopping hoaxes and harmful misinformation. It's important that everyone has a place to share their experiences and talk about the outbreak, but as our community standards make clear, it's not okay to share something that puts people in danger. So we're removing false claims and conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations. We're also blocking people from running ads that try to exploit the situation -- for example, claiming that their product can cure the disease."

CNN contacted all the major platforms and they said they're taking measures to combat this flow of misinformation, but the measures don't catch everything.

"It's very difficult to just delete unless it's very clearly misinformation. They are, in fact, provoking questioning and doubt and you can't delete doubt," Larson said.

In today's online world there will always be misinformation. The challenge now for governments and platforms is how to fight a virus online.

ABC7Chicago contributed to this article.