In a time of unprecedented crisis, when people are worried, scared and unsure of what the future holds, disinformation can exacerbate these emotions, causing further panic and anxiety, and that has been the case surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
Governments and health bodies have been scrambling to provide accurate information to the public but these efforts have been undermined by the spread of misinformation and fake news online.
WhatsApp has been a breeding ground for rumours and conspiracy theories regarding the coronavirus crisis. A spokesperson for the Defence Forces had to officially debunk a voice message that was doing the rounds in WhatsApp groups purporting to be someone sending information to fellow members of the Defence Forces. The message claimed that the country was going into a “Status Red” emergency lockdown.
Irresponsible behaviour like this can lead to widespread panic if rumours and lies can gain enough traction. Users of such apps need to be more vigilant and aware as to what information is real and what is fake. This means being more critical towards information received on WhatsApp that is not from a truly credible source. WhatsApp voice messages are not gospel.
These types of misinformation are usually a mix of sound advice and false claims or inaccurate advice. One of the more absurd claims is that drinking warm water every fifteen minutes can get rid of the virus. Another popular voice message claimed that the UK government were to cook a gigantic lasagne the size of Wembley Stadium to counter food shortages. The latter would be deemed too silly by most to be believable, but you’d be surprised.
Those who have a mission to protect the public, such as organisations like WHO, are the best sources for information about the virus. Major news outlets with deep expertise in health reporting are also a good source. However, certain political leaders are making people skeptical about trusting government officials.
According to CNN, US President Trump made 33 false claims about the coronavirus crisis in the first two weeks of March. His most egregious false claim was surrounding the availability of coronavirus tests. He said: “Anyone who wants a test can get a test. That’s what the bottom line is.” In reality, people in the US are having trouble accessing tests, even with a doctor’s authorisation.
EU observers of the Russian media say it seems like Russia is using the coronavirus pandemic to cause unrest in the West by spreading fake news and misinformation. The Russian news outlet Sputnik reported that biologists in Latvia created the coronavirus while another source close to the Kremlin claimed it was invented in the British military’s Porton Down facilities, according to Lithuanian Radio and Television.
It is important for the public to scrutinise and be critical of any information coming from non-official sources, particularly when using apps such as WhatsApp. This situation also shows the need for independent fact-checkers. Those in power must counter the spread of misinformation by being transparent, timely and accurate when providing information about the crisis. In a time of unprecedented confusion and anxiety, we must seek out and provide real information.
By Ryan Carrick