Uncertainty is at the heart of disease outbreaks. There is so much we don’t know. Which pathogen is the culprit, how deadly is it, how many people are infected? New information comes in small pieces, and needs to be verified. But how? In early February, news spread on Twitter that a doctor — one of the eight who had been reprimanded weeks earlier by Chinese authorities for sounding the alarm about a new disease — had died. But was it true?
Sadly, it was. Fact checkers were weary at first, because the initial source was unclear, and because there had already been so much misinformation: The wave of false claims about infection rates as high as 2.8 million people, for example. Or the persistently shared falsehoods that the virus was a) a biological weapon that had leaked from a bio security laboratory in Wuhan or b) smuggled out of Canada by Chinese scientists. (See this Buzzfeed story for more on the early hoax mayhem.)
Outbreaks always attract fear-mongering, rumors and conspiracy theories. Political realities, such as China’s all-encompassing grip on information sharing and thorough censorship, always play a role. (MIT’s Technology Review has an important story about how Chinese crowdsourcers are fighting coronavirus censorship to chronicle the outbreak.)
But by all accounts, 2019-nCoV is the first major epidemic in the age of misinformation; and it is not going well.
In fact, there is so much misinformation, disinformation, alternative treatment peddling, xenophibia and hoax creation that social media platforms are scrambling to keep up. This Vox Recode story has examples, as do this Reuters piece about Facebook’s efforts to remove posts and this Vice story, aptly titled: “The Coronavirus is an Exciting Opportunity for Conspiracy Theorists.” Quartz adds important perspective about how xenophobia and rumors are starting to hurt China Towns.
In response, the WHO runs a 24/7 communications team working to detect and discredit the most damaging rumors and misinformation campaigns, and is now partnering with Google to ensure those who search for ‘coronavirus’ find reliable sources, not fake news.
On this page, we will follow up soon with some tips on how to navigate emerging news on the outbreak with an eye for questionable sources and ways to look for consensus among expert observers. In the meantime, if you are looking for context on emerging story lines, we recommend following these science & health journalists and subject matter experts on Twitter:
Helen Branswell, Senior Writer, Infectious Diseases at STAT news: @HelenBranswell
Julia Belluz, health correspondent, Vox: @juliaoftoronto
Jon Cohen, reporter, Science: @sciencecohen
Ezra Cheung, part-time reporter atNew York Times and CNN: @ezracheungtoto
Onisillos Sekkides, Editor-in-Chief, Lancet Microbe: @onisillos
Lena Sun, health reporter, Washington Post: @bylenasun
Ramy Inocencio, CBS News Asia correspondent: @RamyInocencio
Laurie Garrett, science journalist and author: @Laurie_Garrett
Amy Maxmen, science reporter at Nature news: @amymaxmen
Devi Sridhar, Professor and Chair of Global Health at Edinburgh University, and director of the Global Health Governance Program: @devisridhar
Isabella Eckerle, Professor, Geneva Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases: @EckerleIsabella
Rebecca Katz, Director, Global Health Science and Security, Georgetown University: @RebeccaKatz5
Mark Lipsitch, Professor, infectious disease epidemiologist and microbiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health: @mlipsitch
Maria Van Kerkhove, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist; MERS-CoV Technical Lead, WHO: @mvankerkhove