Mar 6, 2020 - Health

Coronavirus panic sells as alarmist information flies on social media

Data: NewsWhip; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: NewsWhip; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Many of the coronavirus stories getting shared the most on social media are packaged to drive fear rather than build understanding about the illness, according to NewsWhip data provided to Axios.

Why it matters: Social media greases and amplifies dramatic headlines, while more functional or nuanced information gets squashed.

Details: The English-language story shared the most on Facebook since the outbreak began was "Coronavirus declared global health emergency" from the BBC.

  • Some of the other top-performing articles featured largely debunked claims, such as that the coronavirus came from bats and that it might have leaked from a laboratory.
  • One of the biggest dangers during this outbreak is the misinformation that has been spreading about the virus, experts say. (Here's a Foreign Policy article debunking the myth that it came from bat soup, and a Poynter article about the three waves of misinformation about the virus.)
  • Other top pieces used selective information and quotes, like exaggerated death toll predictions and descriptions of Wuhan, China as a "zombieland".
  • Of the top 50 stories about coronavirus since it entered the news this year, more have come from the Daily Mail (eight) than any other publisher. Second is the New York Post (three). Both publications are known for pumping up social media engagement with sensational headlines.
  • Even the more trivial headlines are sensational. The story that has generated the most total interactions (likes, comments, shares) is "A Disturbing Number of People Think Coronavirus Is Related to Corona Beer" — but the increase in Google searches for 'corona beer virus' cited in the article refers to a relative increase from before the virus rather than an actual number.

The big picture: Interest in the coronavirus has taken off in the last two weeks.

  • Since Feb. 20, the interactions on stories on social media have increased 7x.
  • Google searches have increased 8x, according to Google Trends data.
  • The number of cable news mentions has increased 3x, according to the Internet Archive Television News Archive.

New research from scientists at Northeastern University suggests that contagions can spread faster in some cases due to misinformation spreading online. 

  • "A link between social contagions and real biological contagions are a feature of modern outbreaks because of misinformation and fake news," says Samuel Scarpino, a business professor of network science at Northeastern University College of Science. 
  • Information spreading online provoked the U.S. surgeon general to make a statement Saturday urging people to "STOP BUYING MASKS!" because they are ineffective for the general public and are needed by health care providers.

The bottom line: "Social media presents a mixed bag," says Scarpino. "We know social media is promoting panic, and people are taking advantage of that by spreading misinformation, but it's also helping to spread good, reliable information that empowers people to make the right decisions.

  • "You want an appropriate level of concern but not panic."

Go deeper: Coronavirus "infodemic" threatens world's health institutions

Go deeper