Coronavirus outbreak: WHO, health experts fight 'infodemic' as rumors and myths spiral out of control
The World Health Organization (WHO), which is currently figuring out means to control the coronavirus epidemic, is dealing with yet another challenge, capable of harming public health: 'infodemic'.
"The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ — an over-abundance of information, some accurate and some not – making it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it," writes the WHO.
The WHO is doing everything they can to prevent myths and rumors from spiraling out of control, say experts. Their technical risk communication and social media teams are tasked with tracking down rumors and responding to them.
"WHO is making public health information and advice on the 2019-nCoV, including myth busters, available on its social media channels (including Weibo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest) and website," reads their Situation Report.
According to the agency, such myths and rumors propagate false prevention measures or cures, which could potentially cause more harm to the public.
Once the WHO team identifies myths and rumors that promise cures, they refute these with evidence-based information. For instance, the agency has tweeted information on the use of saline solution and antibiotics, both of which do not work against the coronavirus outbreak.
Q: Can regularly rinsing your nose with saline solution help prevent infection with #2019nCoV?— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) February 2, 2020
A: No. There is no evidence that regularly rinsing the nose with saline solution has protected people from infection with the new coronavirus.#KnowYourFacts pic.twitter.com/CgogiyQgx2
Q: Are antibiotics effective in preventing and treating the new #coronavirus (2019-nCoV)?— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 27, 2020
A: No, antibiotics do not work against viruses, only bacteria.
The 2019-nC0V is a virus and, therefore, antibiotics should not be used as a means of prevention or treatment. pic.twitter.com/F6qMz0ojoh
Besides WHO, several doctors and scientists have taken it upon themselves to battle misinformation. Among them is Dr Mikhail Varshavski, known online as Dr Mike, a Russian-American celebrity doctor and YouTuber.
Coming across a lot of misinformation on the coronavirus circulating online, he uses his YouTube channel to address them, reports BBC News.
"There is so much misinformation out there. They take statistics not validated by scientists and put them online. It causes anxiety among the public and creates panic," he told the BBC. "The reason it is so dangerous is it can lead people to make bad decisions for themselves and their families."
He requests people to look beyond the number of retweets and check whether the information is from a trusted source or a reputable organization such as the WHO.
What social networks do to stop fake news?
Fake news thrives on social media and organizations such as Facebook and Twitter are taking steps to clamp down on misinformation.
"As the global public health community works to keep people safe, Facebook is supporting their work in several ways, especially by working to limit the spread of misinformation and harmful content about the virus and connecting people to helpful information," says Facebook in its blog post.
To that end, Facebook is employing fact-checkers, who will review content and debunk false claims on the coronavirus outbreak. They will also take out false claims or conspiracy theories — that have been flagged by leading global health organizations — from appearing on their platform.
Further, the social media site will also provide links to accurate and trusted information. "For example, we will help people get relevant and up-to-date information from partners through messages on top of News Feed on Facebook; these will be deployed based on guidance from the WHO," they explain.
Similarly, Twitter put out a post, highlighting its efforts to curtail the spread of misinformation. The microblogging site has seen over 15 million Tweets on coronavirus in the past four weeks.
When Twitter users search for coronavirus, a large headline with the title, "Know the facts", appears. Here, people can find credible information, they add. "We do not permit platform manipulation and we encourage people to think before sharing or engaging in deliberate attempts to undermine the public conversation," says Twitter.
While YouTube said it was showing previews of text-based news articles along with a warning that developing stories can change quickly.
In China, the Chinese messaging app WeChat, which has 1.15 billion monthly users, was removing posts containing coronavirus-related misinformation, a spokeswoman for Tencent Holdings Inc’s (0700.HK) told Reuters.