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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

The apocalypse scenario

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Democratic lawyers are preparing to challenge any effort by President Trump to swap electors chosen by voters with electors selected by Republican-controlled legislatures. One state of particular concern: Pennsylvania, where the GOP controls the state house.

Why it matters: Trump's refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, together with a widely circulated article in The Atlantic about how bad the worst-case scenarios could get, is drawing new attention to the brutal fights that could jeopardize a final outcome.

Federal judge rules Trump administration can't end census early

Census workers outside Lincoln Center in New York. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

A federal judge ruled late Thursday that the Trump administration could not end the 2020 census a month early.

Why it matters: The decision states that an early end — on Sept. 30, instead of Oct. 31 — would likely produce inaccuracies and thus impact political representation and government funding around the country.

Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals
2 hours ago - Health

Where bringing students back to school is most risky

Data: Coders Against COVID; Note: Rhode Island and Puerto Rico did not meet minimum testing thresholds for analysis. Values may not add to 100% due to rounding; Cartogram: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Schools in Southern and Midwestern states are most at risk of coronavirus transmission, according to an analysis by Coders Against COVID that uses risk indicators developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The big picture: Thankfully, schools have not yet become coronavirus hotspots, the Washington Post reported this week, and rates of infection are lower than in the surrounding communities. But that doesn't mean schools are in the clear, especially heading into winter.

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