Coronavirus and our duty to fight fake news: 10 simple rules

By David Shaw

Arsonists in the UK have attacked at least 40 mobile phone masts in recent weeks because they believe that they spread coronavirus. This sounds ridiculous, but it is deadly serious. The latest fire affected the mast at the new Nightingale hospital built for virus patients in Birmingham, putting important communication channels at risk. As the head of a UK phone company put it, “It’s heart-rending enough that families cannot be there at the bedside of loved ones who are critically ill. It’s even more upsetting that even the small solace of a phone or video call may now be denied them because of the selfish actions of a few deluded conspiracy theorists.”

Why did these people believe this particular theory? Because of fake news circulating on Whatsapp and other social media. The last thing we need when dealing with a novel coronavirus is conspiracy theories, yet thanks to a few foolish citizens, these and other misinformation are going viral on social media (pun intended), spreading deceit and sowing uncertainty through the population at a time when people are already experiencing great stress. In this blog I explore how we can all do our bit to help fight back against fake news.

Potentially even more dangerous than the 5G theory are subtler examples of misinformation being spread on social media. One post purporting to be from a member of staff at St George’s Hospital (in the UK; such fake news often substitutes local names to appear more convincing) advised of a test for the virus: “Breathe in deeply and hold your breath for 10 seconds. If this can be done without coughing, without difficulty, this shows that there is no fibrosis in the lungs, indicating the absence of infection.” This might seem harmless, but it is not: many people who have the virus will have only mild symptoms and thus will be easily able to hold their breath for 10 seconds without coughing. If they believe this fake medical advice, they will be less likely to self-isolate and obey lockdown restrictions, potentially spreading the virus to others. And in any case, as many as 50% of those with the virus may have no symptoms will certainly be able to pass the test. The same post advised that consuming lots of hot water could kill the virus, posing further dangers.

Fake news is dangerous at the best of times; during the coronavirus crisis the fight against it has become even more important. Social media companies have already taken some positive steps. Before January this year, Whatsapp messages could be forwarded to an unlimited number of contacts; a limit of 5 was then imposed, resulting in a drop of 25% in the number of forwarded messages. In April, this limit was lowered to 1 for any message that has already been forwarded 5 times. However, users are still able to forward messages one at a time if they so wish, though it will take longer with the new restrictions.

But we should not leave it up to social media companies to police the spread of fake news on social media: we can help too. Many of us are stuck at home with more time on our hands, and the least we can do to help society fight the virus is help fight back against the tide of fake news. Here is an example.

Earlier this week a video was posted on our local community’s Facebook page. Almost an hour long, it provided an expansive explanation of how Covid-19 was engineered in a military bioweapons lab in China and then released on an unsuspecting world. Apart from having little to do with our local community, this post had the added disadvantage of being entirely untrue: it was another conspiracy theory with no evidence to actually back it up. (It appears that one third of Americans believe the theory about the virus’ engineered nature, indicating the power and reach of fake news on social media; 1% do not believe the virus exists.)

I was able to engage with the person who posted the video, linking to a Snopes page that debunked the claim as well as to the Nature Medicine paper that illustrates the virus’ non-engineered status. Even then, the person responded saying he found it hard to believe that China with a population of 1.3 billion had just under 9000 deaths while the UK had 10000. When factors explaining this were pointed out (including extent of restrictions and population density) he replied “why believe the links you show? The truth could be somewhere in between the two.” This is typical of many responses regarding conspiracy theories; those sharing them also distrust scientific expertise, and only engaging with them can change this. Hearteningly, most other responses to the post indicated that other members did not believe its content. (A few days later, Facebook flagged the video has containing false information, but the engagement was still worth it as it encourages critical thinking among those reading it.)

But the more open nature of Facebook makes it easier to fight fake news on groups; private message groups (on Facebook or Whatsapp) are much harder to reach. If you do receive a message or read a post that makes a new claim about the virus (or indeed any health issue), you can and should do something about it. Here are a few simple steps – the first three concern fact checking, with the rest covering more proactive steps that should also be followed:

  1. Don’t just believe and forward something because someone you trust forwards it to you. Forwarding information is a type of endorsement, and one that is only reinforced by the relationship with the person that receives it. If someone receives information from a close friend it will be perceived as trustworthy. So…
  2. Engage your critical faculties: is the claim supported with a link to reputable source? If there’s no link, why trust it? You should also watch out for poor English and outlandish claims, and “my brother/nurse/girlfriend who works at X Hospital said” claims.
  3. If you suspect it’s fake, google a key phrase from it – you’re quite likely to find an article debunking it. If you do, you know it’s fake, but don’t stop there.
  4. Reply to the friend who sent or posted it saying it’s fake and sending link showing that.
  5. If it’s a post on Facebook or in a group on Whatsapp suggest that your friend deletes it.
  6. If they forwarded it to others suggest your friend contacts them to correct the mistake.
  7. Enter into dialogue if required, engaging the person who posted the fake news and posting further links if necessary.
  8. Don’t simply dismiss fake claims with statements like “that’s nonsense” as that may only antagonize people, and reinforce their beliefs in the accuracy of fake news.
  9. If someone points out to you that you’ve shared fake news, take it with good humour and point out your mistake to those you’ve shared it with.
  10. Share this blog with your contacts too: hopefully these 10 rules will help fight this pandemic of fake news.


Author: David Shaw

Affiliation: Care and Public Health Research Institute, Maastricht University; Institute for Biomedical Ethics, University of Basel

Competing Interests: My wife once received fake virus advice from a friend on WhatsApp, and I have a vested interest in people following rule 10.


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