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COVID-19: The Information Threats

16 March 2020 18:09

As the COVID-19 crisis escalates, many people are actively searching for updates and anticipating what they need to do to protect themselves and their loved ones. Disinformation is thriving amid the fear and uncertainty and it threatens to undermine efforts to protect the public.

In February, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that the overabundance of COVID-19 information, both accurate and inaccurate, has created an 'infodemic' whereby people struggle to identify reliable information. This underscores the importance of not sharing unverified information that can add to public confusion.

Currently, there is little evidence of an organised effort to spread COVID-19 disinformation by state actors. Instead, rumours and hoaxes are circulating through grassroots networks, primarily on WhatsApp, where 'a friend of a friend' claims to have inside knowledge.

The Need for Reliable Information

In Ireland, viral WhatApp hoaxes have spread fear about an imminent military lockdown while a fake message from 'Dr Tim' warned about the impact of anti-inflammatory drugs. These fake claims are loosely linked to factual news reports from other countries, which may explain why so many people found them credible enough to share.

Such stories spread because they trigger emotional responses and, in a time of heightened uncertainty, it can seem dutiful to provide advance warning to others. A recent BBC study found that people often share disinformation out of concern for others.

But it is important to recognise that sharing unverified information is harmful; it prevents people from assessing the situation and creates undue panic. Moreover, there is substantial evidence that repeated exposure to false claims — about cures and preventive measures — may override people's better judgement.

In response to the WhatsApp hoaxes, the Irish government — as with authorities elsewhere — have warned people to rely on authoritative information sources and to stop sharing unverified information.

Information Threats

As the outbreak intensifies in the coming weeks, we are likely to see an increase in alarming and dangerous disinformation including:

Hoaxes and Rumours: Around the world, this is a lot of disinformation — often attributed to medical professionals — about symptoms, cures, and preventative measures. Bogus cures include garlic, salt water, and bleach. In Iran, rumours about preventative measures led to the deaths of dozens of people from alcohol poisoning.

Cybercrime: Cyber criminals are exploiting the crisis to launch malware and phising attacks. Since the outbreak began, scammers have impersonated the WHO and the US Centres for Disease Control by using domain names that are very similar to the official websites. The UK's National Cyber Security Centre is urging the public and business to be aware of bogus emails and messages that impersonate official bodies and/or claim to offer important COVID-19 updates.

Conspiracy Theories: Major global events often give rise to conspiracy theories as some people demand dramatic explanations to make sense of what is happening. COVID-19 disinformation has already animated conspiracy theory sub-groups who have incorporated the virus into their existing narratives about vaccines, 5G networks, and biological warfare.

Scapegoating: Public health emergencies often fuel scapegoating and xenophobia. The initial outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan brought a wave of bias against Chinese people. As the virus spreads across Europe and the US — and as governments respond with strict travel bans — far-right actors are exploiting the crisis to advance their own agendas by linking the pandemic to immigration policies and celebrating the closure of national borders.

The Positive Side of Social Platforms

The need for social distancing means that online platforms will become even more vital to help people stay connected. We have already seen people using social media to organise support and express solidarity with those on the front lines. As part of that same spirit, it is vital that people hold back from sharing unverified information. The message from the Be Media Smart campaign is simple: stop, think, and check.