The Other Epidemic: Misinformation

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 wary 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, COVID-19 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 are curating key stories and 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. Scroll to the bottom for a list of science & health journalists and subject matter experts who provide excellent, evidence-based updates on Twitter.

The Latest

Amazon bars one million products for false coronavirus claims

Reuters | Jeffrey Dustin | Feb 27, 2020 Inc has barred more than 1 million products from sale in recent weeks that had inaccurately claimed to cure or defend against the coronavirus.

  • 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