WHO warns of ‘Infodemic’, acts to decrease online misinformation

WHO warns of ‘Infodemic’, acts to decrease online misinformation

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been taking action and releasing short, sweet, and ‘shareable’ bits of information about the Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), in order to combat the rampant spread of misinformation on the new virus. WHO is referring to it as an ‘infodemic.’

With social media forming parts of our daily lives, this has been spreading locally as well. Bad claims range from the obviously dubious to anyone with an ounce of critical thinking, to things that may sound like sage advice, based on alternative or traditional remedies for the cold and flu. Even a local government official unintentionally played into this by offering holistic health advice.

WHO is urging the big tech companies to be more proactive in battling fake news concerning the new coronavirus. WHO representative Andrew Pattison recently travelled to Silicon Valley to meet with Facebook representatives at its headquarters. Other firms in attendance included Google, Apple, Twitter, and YouTube.

He had also met with Amazon representatives earlier that week. Other WHO representatives have also contacted social media influencers in the same effort. The BBC quoted Pattison as saying the misinformation is "spreading faster than the virus".

Social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok have already taken steps to remove the false claims and promote accurate information, directing searches to the WHO or local health organisations.

While Amazon is not in the business of spreading information, the e-retailer has books “not based on science,” and quack cures popping up on its site, such as vitamin C boosters, Pattison pointed out.

According to an article in The New York Times, “The groundwork for the coordination around the coronavirus was laid two years ago, when Mr. Pattison went to the WHO general director, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and suggested a full-blown effort to connect with social media titans to combat health misinformation.

“Now about a half-dozen WHO staffers in Geneva are working on the issue, building relationships with digital and social media sites. Over time, the cooperative efforts have grown. For instance, last August, Pinterest teamed up with the WHO to link to accurate information about vaccines when people search the service for that topic.”

“Sarah E. Kreps, a professor of government at Cornell University, considers the people deliberately spreading distortions to be practitioners of ‘algorithmic capitalism,’ in which people scare up traffic and sell against it,” The New York Times explains.

Examples of False Claims

- One of the most widely circulated rumours is that it all started with someone eating bat soup. “The origins of the coronavirus are believed to have been from illegally sold wildlife at a seafood market in Wuhan, and bats could potentially have been the source, but the video was not filmed in a Wuhan restaurant as some had claimed, but in Palau, Micronesia, for a travel video in 2016.” (The Guardian).

- Eating or drinking hot concoctions of ginger, garlic or onions. The garlic cure has been especially widespread. Similarly, there is no herbal/bush tea, or even medication that is shown to help prevent infection.

- Oregano oil, vitamin C, and salt water can prevent or cure the virus (pushed by natural medicine and anti-vaccine groups).

- A “miracle mineral solution” is being pushed amongst prominent QAnon conspiracy followers, according to a report by The Daily Beast. The concoction can actually cause liver failure and was summed up as “a dangerous bleach” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The concoction is also pushed as a cure for autism. A woman died in 2009, following this ‘remedy’ to avoid contracting Malaria (ABC News).

- Colloidal silver. It is one of the ingredients of an “immune gargle” promoted by a major conspiracy theory website, Infowars, which has been banned by numerous social media platforms for pushing dangerous misinformation. There is no evidence to support the claim.

- 5G makes you more susceptible to the virus (promoted by anti-5G groups on Facebook).

- Food products, or other packages from China should be avoided, including Wuxhang rice, fortune cookies, migoreng noodles, Yakult, and Chinese Red Bull (The Guardian).

- Other, politically motivated theories are also in circulation, claiming it’s man-made or intentionally spread. Recommended read: ‘Bat soup, dodgy cures and ‘diseasology’: the spread of coronavirus misinformation’, by The Guardian.