January 29, 2020

As cases of the new coronavirus increase, social media posts with false information are also on the rise, demonstrating how social networks "quickly can become problematic echo chambers during health scares," Tony Romm reports for the Washington Post.

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About the coronavirus

Reports of the new coronavirus first surfaced in early December 2019 among people in Wuhan, China. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main symptoms of infection from the Wuhan coronavirus, called 2019-nCoV, are fever and lesions in both lungs. Some patients also have reported difficulty breathing, WHO said.

Reported cases of the virus have climbed quickly and extended beyond Wuhan. As of Wednesday, China's National Health Commission had reported 5,974 confirmed cases of the virus. Reported cases involve patients in Australia, Cambodia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Macau, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States. Officials in China also said there have been 132 reported deaths, all occurring in China, linked to the virus.

In the United States, five patients have been diagnosed with the new coronavirus, and CDC is monitoring 110 people across 26 states for possible infection from the virus.

Coronavirus outbreak causes spike in unsupported claims online

As the coronavirus continues to spread, news sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google-owned YouTube are seeing an increase in the presence of "pervasive conspiracy theories" and "outright falsehoods" about the outbreak, Romm reports.

Facebook and Twitter this weekend saw a rapid increase in popular posts that claimed the United States and other governments had patented the gene sequence for the coronavirus.

As of Monday on Twitter, a tweet claiming the coronavirus is a patented "fad disease" was shared 5,000 times, according to Romm. Some users have even spread unsupported claims that the virus spread to humans because of what people in China eat. 

On Facebook, thousands of users joined private communities where they can host discussions and trade news about the coronavirus, creating practically impenetrable "bubbles of potential misinformation," Romm writes.

In one group called "Coronavirus Warning Watch," which has more than 1,100 group members, Facebook users have swapped conspiracy theories about the disease as well as links to buy protective medical gear-like masks.

Other users in the groups have shared fake cures for the virus, Romm reports. On Facebook, a post titled "Oregano Oil Proves Effective Against Coronavirus," which linked to a 10-year-old article, was shared at least 2,000 times across multiple Facebook groups by Monday, despite statements from researchers that oregano cannot cure the virus, according to Romm. 

Some of the posts have links to videos on YouTube, including one clip that incorrectly states the virus has killed 180,000 in China. That video as of Monday had 20,000 views, according to Romm.

Misinformation is old news for these companies

Facebook, Twitter, and Google, in recent years have experienced similar upticks in dangerous health misinformation, especially surrounding disease outbreaks, Romm writes.

About four years ago, the tech companies worked to control inaccurate posts about the Zika virus, especially as posts with misinformation eventually became more popular than posts from trusted sources, Romm writes. 

Google last year changed its YouTube algorithms to prevent anti-vaccine content from appearing in users' search results. Twitter made similar changes to redirect users' who were searching for anti-vaccine content to more credible search results, Romm writes.

While all three companies have standing policies about health misinformation, lawmakers have long criticized the tech giants for not having faster responses to the uptick in the posts. Facebook, for example, did not crack down on posts linking vaccines to autism until it faced months of criticism, according to Romm, and still, multiple groups promoting natural cures are still on the site.

Tech companies respond

Meanwhile, the organizations have been making attempts to curb the spread of information about the new coronavirus.

Facebook's third-party fact checkers performed nine fact checks in recent days and found a huge number of claims about the coronavirus are false, the company said Monday. Facebook said it has flagged the inaccurate posts and ensured that they will not rank at the top of users' daily Facebook feeds.

Andy Stone, a spokesperson for Facebook, said the "situation is fast-evolving and we will continue our outreach to global and regional health organizations to provide support and assistance."

Twitter on Monday changed its algorithm so U.S. users who search for coronavirus-related hashtags are redirected to the CDC. Additionally, Twitter spokesperson Katie Rosborough said the company is employing a feature for users in the Asia-Pacific region that makes it so that "when an individual searches a hashtag they're immediately met with authoritative health info from the right sources up top."

Farshad Shadloo, a spokesperson for YouTube, said the company is "investing heavily to raise authoritative content on our site and reduce the spread of misinformation," by prioritizing credible sources in its search results. However, the company did not say if it was taking specific action against videos spreading misinformation related to the coronavirus, Romm reports (Romm, Washington Post, 1/27; New York Times, 1/29).

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