Jan 28, 2020

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.

Go deeper: 2020 misinformation campaigns take aim at the latest spook issues

Go deeper

Big Tech tries to curb coronavirus misinformation

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Big Tech companies are responding to the Chinese coronavirus outbreak in two main ways: limiting employee travel to China and trying to make sure their users have access to accurate health information.

Why it matters: Like the virus itself, the spread of misinformation is hard to slow.

Go deeperArrowJan 30, 2020 - Science

Facebook steps up effort to fight coronavirus misinformation

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Facebook said Thursday it will take further steps to ensure its social network is home to accurate information about the fast-spreading novel coronavirus.

Why it matters: The move comes as the World Health Organization has declared a global health emergency and amid the continued spread of misinformation through social media.

Twitter sets high bar for taking down deepfakes

Photo illustration: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Twitter on Tuesday announced a new policy aimed at discouraging the spread of deepfakes and other manipulated media, but the service will only ban content that threatens people's safety, rights or privacy.

Why it matters: Tech platforms are under pressure to stanch the flow of political misinformation, including faked videos and imagery. Twitter's approach, which covers a wide range of material but sets narrow criteria for deletion, is unlikely to satisfy critics or politicians like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi — who have both slammed platforms for allowing manipulated videos of them to spread.