Coronavirus misinformation kills
Public must not be misled in the midst of the greatest global health emergency of the last century
Technology has brought us closer together at a time when most of the world is under some form of lockdown. People are connecting, now more than ever, with their loved ones through phone calls and emails, video conferencing, social media and mobile messaging services.
It is important to be aware, however, that in times of crisis the increasingly virtual nature of human connection can also be used for malevolent ends. False information, hoaxes and miracle cures for the coronavirus are routinely shared online and through messaging apps. The false claims being widely circulated range from the conspiratorial – for instance, the idea that 5G telecommunications networks are somehow propagating the virus – to the elevation of traditional remedies, such as ginger tea or garlic, in the absence of scientific evidence.
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Of course, none of the aforementioned claims, along with many others like them, have any merit. Nonetheless, misinformation about coronavirus abounds.
In response to this dangerous phenomenon, WhatsApp, the mobile messaging service, announced on Tuesday that it will allow users to forward messages that have been identified as “highly forwarded” only to a single other person. “Highly forwarded” messages are those that have already been sent through a chain of five or more individuals. The move is intended to help slow the spread of misinformation – a particularly notorious issue among the service’s users.
Any steps to curb misinformation about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are welcome. There is no time for the public to be misled in the midst of the greatest global health emergency of the last century. Allowing inaccurate claims to spread, moreover, puts added pressure on public health bodies, such as the World Health Organisation, which must devote some of its resources to combating them.
Most gravely, those who act on false information can put their lives at risk. In Iran, for instance, at least 300 people have died and a thousand more have been poisoned after drinking industrial alcohol, which is fatal to humans, in the mistaken belief that it can cure or prevent Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Technology companies, whose services are a substrate for misinformation, bear a responsibility for preventing these consequences. The current pandemic is not the first time that responsibility has been recognised, and acted upon. In 2015, for instance, at the height of ISIS’s reign in Syria and Iraq, an anonymous group of activists compiled tens of thousands of Twitter accounts suspected of generating propaganda on behalf of the terrorist group. These were reported to Twitter, which took swift action. Since then, the company has erased more than 1 million terrorism-related accounts, a move that has gone a long way to slowing down the spread of ISIS’s extremist ideology through social media. Last year, Telegram, a personal messaging service that has also been exploited by ISIS, launched its own campaign to detect and delete its accounts.
Technology companies, whose services are a substrate for misinformation, bear a responsibility for preventing these consequences
There is little reason not to employ the same tactics against accounts that undermine public awareness about the causes and effects of Covid-19, whether the motivations of individuals behind them are nefarious or simply born of ignorance. Some countries have put forward legislation to penalise those spreading rumours about coronavirus online.
If big technology companies, authorities and the public work together to discourage the spread of misinformation, social media and personal messaging applications can remain effective places of refuge and human connection during these difficult times. Communication is crucial for mental health during periods of lockdown and times of increased isolation, but our need for connection should never be used as a medium for fearmongering and promoting conspiracies.
Updated: April 8, 2020 06:00 PM