Tech giants are struggling to control the spread of misinformation about the novel coronavirus — and in some cases, even profiting from it.
ABC Science found ads for brands including KFC and Elevit vitamins on YouTube videos that suggest the disease is a bioweapon targeting China, among other conspiracy theories.
Social media companies and messaging platforms like Weibo and WhatsApp have long struggled with the spread of health misinformation, especially during disease outbreaks.
The coronavirus situation is evolving quickly, which means lies can outpace official sources as we search for answers and solutions — all abetted by technology platforms designed to send content, well, viral.
The spread of misinformation about the coronavirus is unsurprising, suggested Rod Lamberts, deputy director of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science.
“People want to know what to do. People want to know if they should be worried, which is all very reasonable.”
The spread of hoaxes is most troubling for those who need immediate help, including Chinese-Australians trying to leave Wuhan.
On Tuesday, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warned an online evacuation form circulating online was not an official document.
But most common so far is misinformation about the origins of the virus, as well as its presence in Australia and how to cure it.
Rumour: The coronavirus has infected food in Australia
Earlier this week, a social media post warned that food originating in China such as fortune cookies and wagyu beef could be “contaminated” by the coronavirus.
It also claimed the “Bureau of Diseasology Parramatta”, which does not exist, had found positive cases of the virus at Sydney train stations.
The post was quickly debunked by NSW Health, which said none of the areas mentioned posed a risk, however other iterations of the message were shared on WhatsApp.
Professor James McCaw, an infectious diseases epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne, said he has seen no evidence that consumption of food from China purchased in Australia would be problematic.
Rumour: Bill Gates created the coronavirus
One conspiracy theory being shared on Facebook and other sites suggested Bill Gates predicted the coronavirus several months ago, and was involved in “patenting” it.
On Twitter, a post suggested the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also funded an institute that had patented the virus. It has been retweeted more than 12,000 times.
A Facebook spokesperson said the Gates hoax had been rated as false by several third-party fact checkers.
“We are dramatically reducing its distribution and people who see it, try to share it, or already have, are alerted that it’s false,” she added.
In fact, there is not only one coronavirus — and confusion may arise because other strains have been patented as part of research.
The term refers to a large group of viruses that cause illnesses such as the common cold and gastrointestinal infections, and more recent diseases including SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).
They’re named for the corona, or crown, of surface proteins that the virus uses to penetrate the cells of its host — in other words, the human who’s been infected.
New virus strains emerge relatively frequently because the genetic structure of most viruses is so prone to mutating and changing.
Rumour: The coronavirus is a bio-weapon
Another conspiracy theory circulating on social media claims the coronavirus is a bioweapon.
On the video app TikTok, for example, one account suggested the Chinese Government started the coronavirus to decrease the country’s population size.
The idea that diseases are deliberately created by governments or other bad actors is longstanding among conspiracy theorists.
Kanishk Karan, a research assistant in the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said both medical misinformation and deliberate disinformation about the coronavirus was being spread online.
“The same was noted around Ebola virus disease,” he said.
“Some conspiracy theorists weaponised the issue to make a belief that a secret plot is behind the origins of the virus.”
On YouTube, ads for top brands have been shown on videos claiming coronavirus is a bioweapon, earning money for both the content maker and the video platform.
Google, which owns YouTube, and TikTok were contacted for comment.
Rumour: You can protect yourself by drinking bleach
On Facebook, a number of private groups focused on the disease have emerged in recent days.
While some users in these spaces are asking for advice about masks and protective measures, others are sharing erroneous theories about both the cause of coronavirus and potential solutions.
Posts on Weibo, Twitter and Facebook have suggested people rinse their mouths with salt water solution to prevent infection, which is not recommended, according to AFP Factcheck.
The Daily Beast also found promoters of the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory dangerously advising fans to drink bleach in an attempt to ward off the illness.
What can be done to stop misinformation
Some social media companies have taken steps to prevent the spread of bad information.
Twitter, for example, now points local users that search “coronavirus” to the Australian Department of Health.
However, that information doesn’t emerge if you search for “wuflu”, for example — another way the disease is referred to online.
To avoid being misled, look for information from trusted media and government voices, and avoid information that appears be unsourced or inflammatory.
We must recognise that there are some questions about coronavirus that we don’t yet know the answers to, Dr Lamberts said.
For that reason, social media companies, government and science communicators should share “simple, clear, straightforward messages” about the outbreak, he suggested.
“It affects these people … You’re at risk if … These are the things you should do … You don’t have to worry if you’re ‘x’.”