Misinformation related to the 2019–20 coronavirus outbreak

After the initial outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online regarding the origin and scale of the virus.[1][2] Various social media posts claimed the virus was a bio-weapon with a patented vaccine, a population control scheme, or the result of a spy operation.[3][4][5] Facebook, Twitter and Google said they were working to address misinformation.[6] In a blogpost, Facebook stated they would remove content flagged by leading global health organizations and local authorities that violate its content policy on misinformation leading to "physical harm".[7]

On 2 February, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a "massive infodemic", citing an over-abundance of reported information, accurate and false, about the virus that "makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it." The WHO stated that the high demand for timely and trustworthy information has incentivised the creation of a direct WHO 24/7 myth-busting hotline where its communication and social media teams have been monitoring and responding to misinformation through its website and social media pages.[8][9][10]

Eating batsEdit

Some media outlets, including Daily Mail and RT, spread misinformation by promoting a video showing a young Chinese woman biting into a bat, falsely suggesting it was shot in Wuhan and that the cause of the outbreak was due to locals eating bats.[11][12] The widely circulated video features unrelated footage of Chinese travel vlogger Wang Mengyun eating bat soup in the island country Palau in 2016 as part of an online travel programme.[11][12][13][14] Mengyun stated in a Weibo post that she was inundated with abuse, and death threats, and that she only wished to showcase local Palauan cuisine.[13][14]

Human madeEdit

Biological weaponsEdit

In January 2020, the BBC published an article about coronavirus misinformation, citing two 24 January articles from the The Washington Times which claimed the virus was part of a Chinese biological weapons program, based at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).[1][15] The Washington Post later published an article debunking the conspiracy theory, citing U.S. experts who explained why the Institute was not suitable for bioweapon research, that most countries had abandoned bioweapons as fruitless, and that there was no evidence that the virus was genetically engineered.[16]

In February 2020, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) suggested that the virus was a Chinese bioweapon[17] even though his statements have been proven false by numerous medical experts.[18] In February 2020, The Financial Times reported from virus expert and global co-lead coronavirus investigator, Trevor Bedford, who said that "There is no evidence whatsoever of genetic engineering that we can find", and that, "The evidence we have is that the mutations [in the virus] are completely consistent with natural evolution".[19] Bedford further explained, "The most likely scenario, based on genetic analysis, was that the virus was transmitted by a bat to another mammal between 20–70 years ago. This intermediary animal — not yet identified — passed it on to its first human host in the city of Wuhan in late November or early December 2019".[19] 

Spy operationEdit

Some conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and fake news websites have alleged that the coronavirus was stolen from a Canadian virus research lab by Chinese scientists, citing a news article by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in July 2019.[20] The CBC claimed their early report was distorted by misinformation, and that the conspiracy theory had "no factual basis".[21][22][23]

Population control schemeEdit

Supporters of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory and the anti-vax community falsely claimed the outbreak was a population control scheme created by Pirbright Institute in England, and by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.[1][24]

Wuhan Institute of VirologyEdit

Accidental leakEdit

During January and February 2020, the Institute was subject to concerns that it was the source of the outbreak through accidental leakage,[25] which it publicly refuted.[26] In February 2020, the South China Morning Post reported that one of the Institute's lead researchers, Shi Zhengli, was the particular focus of personal attacks in Chinese social media who alleged her work on bat-based viruses as the source of the virus, leading Shi to post: "I swear with my life, [the virus] has nothing to do with the lab", and when asked by the SCMP to comment on the attacks, Shi responded: "My time must be spent on more important matters".[27] Caixin reported Shi made further public statements against "perceived tinfoil-hat theories about the new virus's source", quoting her as saying: "The novel 2019 coronavirus is nature punishing the human race for keeping uncivilized living habits. I, Shi Zhengli, swear on my life that it has nothing to do with our laboratory".[28]

Misinformation aside, concerns on accidental leakage by the WIV remain.[25] In 2017, U.S. molecular biologist Richard H. Ebright, expressed caution when the WIV was expanded to become mainland China's first biosafety level 4 (BSL–4) laboratory, noting previous escapes of the SARS virus at other Chinese laboratories.[29] While Ebright refuted several conspiracy theories regarding the WIV (e.g. bioweapons research, that the virus was engineered), he told BBC China that this did not represent the possibility of the virus being "completely ruled out" from entering the population due to a laboratory accident.[25]

Doxing of employeesEdit

On 29 January, financial news website and blog ZeroHedge suggested, without evidence, that a scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology created the COVID-19 strain responsible for the coronavirus outbreak. Zerohedge listed the full contact details of the scientist supposedly responsible, a practice known as doxing, by including the scientist's name, photo and phone number, suggesting to readers that they "pay [the Chinese scientist] a visit" if they wanted to know "what really caused the coronavirus pandemic".[30][20] Twitter later permanently suspended the blog's account for violating its platform manipulation policy.[31] Zerohedge has since claimed the article did not claim the virus was human-made and that it only publicised publicly available details of the scientist.[32]

Resident Evil logo memeEdit

In January 2020, Buzzfeed News also reported on an internet meme/conspiracy theory of a link between the logo of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and "Umbrella Corporation", the agency that made the virus that starts the zombie apocalypse in the Resident Evil franchise.[20] The theory also saw a link between "Racoon" (the main city in Resident Evil), and an anagram of "Corona" (the name of the virus).[33] The popularity of this theory attracted the attention of Snopes, who proved it as false showing that the logo was not from the Institute, but from Shanghai Ruilan Bao Hu San Biotech Limited, located approximately 500 miles (800 km) away in Shanghai.[33]

Size of the outbreakEdit

On 24 January, a video circulated online appearing to be of a nurse in Hubei province describing a far more dire situation in Wuhan than purported by Chinese officials. The video claims that more than 90,000 people have been infected with the virus in China alone.[34] The video attracted millions of views on various social media platforms and was mentioned in numerous online reports. However, the BBC noted that contrary to its English subtitles in one of the video's existing versions, the woman does not claim to be either a nurse or a doctor in the video and that her suit and mask do not match the ones worn by medical staff in Hubei.[1] The video's claim of 90,000 infected cases is noted to be 'unsubstantiated'.[1][34]

Trump-supporting evangelical leaders Frank Amedia (a former campaign advisor) and Stephen Strang (Charisma’s CEO) have promoted the idea that the actual death toll is in the tens of thousands rather than the officially given figure. The information was supposedly supplied by Chinese Christians, who also claimed that “swarms” of people were being supernaturally cured in house churches. Amedia also repeated the aforementioned claim about the virus being created as a biological weapon. [35]

Misleading World Population Project mapEdit

In early February a decade-old map illustrating a hypothetical viral outbreak published by the World Population Project (part of the University of Southampton) was misappropriated by a number of Australian media news outlets (including The Sun, Daily Mail and Metro) which claimed the map represented the 2020 corona virus outbreak. This misinformation was then spread via the social media accounts of the same media outlets, and while some outlets later removed the map, the BBC reported that a number of news sites still have not retracted the map.[36]

Vaccine and treatmentEdit

Vaccines existedEdit

Conspiracy theorists have claimed the virus was known and that a vaccine was already available. Politifact and Factcheck.org noted that no vaccine currently exists for COVID-19. The patents cited by various social media posts reference existing patents for genetic sequences and vaccines for other strains of coronavirus such as the SARS coronavirus.[37][3] The WHO reported as of 5 February 2020 that amid news reports of "breakthrough" drugs being discovered to treat people infected with the virus, there were no known effective treatments;[38] this included antibiotics and herbal remedies not being useful.[39]

Non-vaccine treatmentsEdit

Chinese health authorities promote the use of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) against the disease. Vaguely hopeful reports of studies from official facilities have translated into Shuanghuanglian-buying crazes and an official decree to put all of Wuhan's patients on TCM.[40][41][42]

Some QAnon proponents and anti-vaxxers have promoted gargling "Miracle Mineral Supplement" (actually an industrial bleach) as a way of preventing or curing the disease.[43]

In February 2020, televangelist Jim Bakker promoted a colloidal silver solution sold on his website, as a remedy for coronavirus COVID-19; naturopath Sherrill Sellman, a guest on his show, falsely stated that it "hasn't been tested on this strain of the coronavirus, but it's been tested on other strains of the coronavirus and has been able to eliminate it within 12 hours."[44]

African resistanceEdit

Beginning on 11 February, reports - quickly spread via Facebook - implied that a Cameroonian student in China had been completely cured of the virus due to his African genetics. While a student was successfully treated, other media sources have noted that no evidence implies Africans are more resistant to the virus and labeled such claims as false information.[45]

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

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