Misinformation about coronavirus is spreading fast
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
Misinformation about the coronavirus is testing governments, tech platforms and health officials — as well as a nervous public — in both the U.S. and China.
Why it matters: The new cycle of misinformation around the deadly disease is testing Big Tech platforms' ability to police rule-breaking content and China's ability to control domestic criticism.
Tech platforms — including Facebook, Twitter and Google — are scrambling to stop the spread of misinformation about the virus, much of which violates their own content rules.
- Buzzfeed News has documented several examples of misinformation about the virus, including fabricated government warnings and false information about the number of people affected in U.S. cities.
- Some of it's coming from private Facebook groups that popped up after the virus began spreading, The Washington Post reports.
The Chinese government is facing similar challenges — a change from past outbreaks.
- Some of the fastest-spreading misinformation about the crisis involves unfounded rumors that the Chinese government started the virus, according to an analysis provided to Axios from social media intelligence company Storyful.
- According to Storyful's Catherine Sanz, dozens of posts across Weibo, the Chinese messaging app, are making claims that the virus was engineered by either the Chinese or the U.S. governments, a narrative that exploits the already strained relationship between the two counties.
- According to the data, nearly 13,000 posts across Twitter, public Facebook pages, and Reddit between January 24 and January 27 have propagated conspiracy theories about the virus, including that it may be a bioweapon or a depopulation method.
Yes, but: The Chinese government is spreading some misinformation of its own in response.
- Storyful found that Chinese state media has tweeted photos purporting to show a new hospital, but which were actually stock images from a company that sells modular containers.
The big picture: Health care has long been a target of misinformation, because it plays into existing fears. This is especially true for disease outbreaks, which can spread faster than the news cycle is equipped to handle.
- Axios wrote last year that Russian efforts to sow discord ahead of the 2020 elections appeared to be focused on spreading inaccurate information about vaccines and 5G wireless technology.
- The Council on Foreign Relations wrote last year that online disinformation about the Democratic Republic of Congo's Ebola virus outbreak in 2018 and 2019 made the crisis worse, because it undermined confidence in the underlying science being used to stop the spread of the disease.