Coronavirus Fake News: the Essential Guide, Updated 29th April 2020 – In this article I have put together what I consider an essential guide about Coronavirus Fake News.
By reading this blog post you will learn about the top fake news concerning COVID-19 and what tech giants like Google, Facebook and Microsoft are doing to protect you.
If you like this article, you may also like my comprehensive guide about Coronavirus Phishing Scams.
In its Novel Coronavirus (2019 nCoV) – Situation Report 13 the WHO uses the word infodemic to describe ‘an over-abundance of information’ about COVID-19 (source: who.int):
The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ – an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.
In a joint industry statement, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other tech giants acknowledge the risk of fraud and misinformation around Coronavirus and commit to put in place measures to elevate authoritative content and share critical updates:
The technology industry is working closely together in coordination with government healthcare agencies around the world on COVID-19 response efforts. Read our full statement. pic.twitter.com/Xn0fhyJLXm
— Google Public Policy (@googlepubpolicy) March 17, 2020
Fake news is a form of news or story created to deliberately share misinformation around a topic of public interest.
The purpose of fake news is often to influence people’s views and gain an advantage over a third party.
Fake news is generally spread on social media but it can also affect traditional media like TV channels and newspapers.
In its entry Misinformation related to the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic, Wikipedia lists the following categories of Coronavirus fake news (source: wikipedia.org):
In the words of Wikipedia again (source: wikipedia.org):
A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.
For practicality, I am going to follow the Wikipedia categorisation of Coronavirus conspiracy theories. These see Coronavirus as a(n):
The two main conspiracy theories see COVID-19 as a form of biowarfare by either China or the US.
There are also other conspiracy theories but these have not had as much traction on the general public and mostly come from renown conspiracy theorists or isolated individuals. These are:
For more details on these, please refer to the already-cited Wikipedia entry on misinformation related to Coronavirus.
The main conspiracy theories about Coronavirus as a Chinese biological weapon concerns the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
Several media, including The Washington Times and ZeroHedge, claimed COVID-19 was part of a Chinese program for developing biological weapons.
While these claims were successively debunked by numerous reputable sources including The Washington Posts, The Financial Times and some US politicians, some level of concern remains around potential and accidental leakages from the WIV.
In a number of countries, conspiracy theories of Coronavirus being a US biological weapon are being spread more or less officially. These are:
A number of conspiracy theories about the size of the COVID-19 pandemic have been circulating since January 2020.
These mostly concern the ‘real’ number of Coronavirus cases in China and Wuhan in particular, and Taiwan. According to these conspiracy theories, the number of people infected would be much higher than the official statistics in China show.
Although these theories were referenced by a number of social and traditional media, including Taiwan News (Taiwan) and The Daily Mail (UK), they were soon debunked as fake news.
This has probably been the most dangerous type of fake news, and it is the one most tech giants including Google, Facebook and Twitter are acting against.
Since the early start of the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a significant number of medical fake news related to the Coronavirus. The main medical disinformation has been about:
Currently there is no vaccine ready for treating COVID-19.
Coronaviruses have already caused two epidemics, SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012. Vaccines for these two viruses already exist but these are different from the current Coronavirus.
COVID-19 shares 80-90% of its genetic materials with the virus that caused SARS (for this reason it’s called SARS-COV-2).
Some companies like Novavax are trying to repurpose the vaccine used for SARS for the treatment of COVID-19 patients.
They say they have already a number of human trials lined up (source: theguardian.com).
No, snorting cocaine doesn’t protect from COVID-19.
The French government had to publicly confirm that cocaine doesn’t protect against COVID-19 after a number of Twitter accounts reported fake news on this topic.
#Coronavirus | Désinfox
❌ Non, La cocaïne NE protège PAS contre le #COVID19 .
✅ C’est une drogue addictive provoquant de graves effets indésirables et nocifs pour la santé des personnes.
👉 https://t.co/ajSGwecauL pic.twitter.com/4GZ01Qmg5X
— Ministère des Solidarités et de la Santé (@MinSoliSante) March 8, 2020
No, African people are not immune to COVID-19.
The rumours started to spread (again) on Twitter with some posts being retweeted over 2,000 times.
Although African people tend to respond differently to infections due to genetics (source: pasteur.fr), this doesn’t mean they are immune to Coronavirus.
5G is not responsible for COVID-19.
This conspiracy theory, which was also mentioned by The Daily Start, claims that the ‘electromagnetic radiation from 5G suppresses the immune system, helping the virus to thrive’ (source: fullfact.org).
Currently, there is no evidence between 5G Wifi networks and Coronavirus.
Face masks are effective at capturing droplets, which are the main form of transmission for COVID-19.
Some studies show a fivefold protection against the virus as opposed to no barrier (source: theguardian.com).
The virus also spreads through the eyes and tiny viral particles (aerosols) so wearing a face mask is no guarantee you will not catch the Coronavirus.
A Chinese study showed how pets are ‘highly-susceptible’ to Coronavirus and that this can easily be transmitted between them (source: independent.co.uk).
Having said that, at present there is no evidence that pets can spread COVID-19.
No, lemon doesn’t protect against Coronavirus.
The fake news first appeared on a Youtube claiming lemon can cure or protect agains COVID-19 because it contains vitamin C.
Currently, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim.
In a blog post by CEO Sundar Pichai on March 6th, Google shared some of the initiatives in place to protect ‘people from misinformation’ (source: blog.google.com):
Our Trust and Safety team has been working around the clock and across the globe to safeguard our users from phishing, conspiracy theories, malware and misinformation, and we are constantly on the lookout for new threats. On YouTube, we are working to quickly remove any content that claims to prevent the coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment. On Google Ads we are blocking all ads capitalising on the coronavirus, and we’ve blocked tens of thousands of ads over the last six weeks. We are also helping WHO and government organisations run PSA ads. Google Play also prohibits developers from capitalising on sensitive events, and our long-standing content policies strictly prohibit apps that feature medical or health-related content or functionalities that are misleading or potentially harmful.
In a post on their help centre, Facebook confirmed their commitment to fight fake news on their platform:
We are committed to reducing the spread of false news on Facebook. We remove fake accounts and disrupt economic incentives for people that share misinformation.
In the same post, they also give users some tips on how to spot fake news:
Before the Coronavirus outbreak, Facebook had already put in place a system to help identify and remove fake news.
The system is a mix of technology and human reviews, including third-party fact-checkers ‘who are certified through the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network to help identify and review false news’ (source: facebook.com).
These third-party fact-checkers are:
For the full list of third-party fact-checkers used by Facebook, please refer to this post.
Facebook also gives users the option of reporting a post as fake news by following this online procedure.
On April 16th Facebook published an update on how they are dealing with COVID-19 misinformation (source: about.fb.com):
We’ve now directed over 2 billion people to resources from the WHO and other health authorities through our COVID-19 Information Center and pop-ups on Facebook and Instagram with over 350 million people clicking through to learn more.
Facebook has partnered with ‘over 60 fact-checking organisations that review and rate content in more than 50 languages around the world’ (source: about.fb.com).
They have also announced a $1 million grant programme to support these organisations.
Facebook is also going to show messages to people who have interacted with fake news about Coronavirus:
We’re going to start showing messages in News Feed to people who have liked, reacted or commented on harmful misinformation about COVID-19 that we have since removed. These messages will connect people to COVID-19 myths debunked by the WHO.
In a post published on March 16th, Twitter acknowledges the effect COVID-19 is having on their platform (source: blog.twitter.com):
The effects of COVID-19 on Twitter have already surpassed any event we’ve seen, and it’s possible that as the pandemic continues, we will see additional stress on our service.
In response to the increase in the number of tweets with Coronavirus fake news and misinformation, Twitter is broadening their definition of ‘harm to address content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information’ (source: blog.twitter.com).
More specifically, they are asking people to remove tweets about the following topics:
Note from the author: from the post it’s not clear whether Twitter would single-handedly remove such tweets or it would simply rely on the user’s good will. It seems safe to assume so as in the same post they state they are ‘building systems that enable our [Twitter’s] team to continue to enforce our [Twitter’s] rules remotely around the world’.
Asked about videos of Trump’s latest suggestion about inserting light or disinfectant into COVID-19 patients, a spokesman for Twitter confirmed they ‘did not violate its COVID-19 misinformation policy’ (source: itnews.com.au).
Twitter later blocked the trending hashtags ‘InjectDisinfectant’ and ‘InjectingDisinfectant’.
On March 20th Microsoft published a blog post highlighting what they are doing to protect their customers against ‘Coronavirus-themed attacks’ (source: microsoft.com):
First, 91 percent of all cyberattacks start with email. That’s why the first line of defence is doing everything we can to block malicious emails from reaching you in the first place. A multi-layered defence system that includes machine learning, detonation, and signal-sharing is key in our ability to quickly find and shut down email attacks.
If any of these mechanisms detect a malicious email, URL, or attachment, the message is blocked and does not make its way to your inbox. All attachments and links are detonated (opened in isolated virtual machines).
Microsoft also gives users advice on what they can do if they come across a suspected case of phishing. They can:
The team at Bing, Microsoft-owned search engine, put together a Coronavirus live tracker, which you can access at this link:
Pasquale is Founder at Increasily.com, a digital strategy agency based in Dublin, Ireland; and Co-Founder at luxury ecommerce marketplace Thesidebe.com. Pasquale has +15 years of experience in Digital Marketing and Account Management. He currently lives in Dublin with his wife, stepdaughter and cat.