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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Misinformation spreads faster than the coronavirus

Rajee headshot

Opinion writer Rajee Ganesan poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Rajee Ganesan.

The internet is infamous for its ability to spread information quickly and effectively across a wide range of populations. However, this exact ability allows for false information to proliferate in the news, journalism and different communities just as quickly. 

It is the reason that anti-vaccination claims in the media have been taken seriously, leading to the reappearance of conditions like measles and mumps that had already been eradicated in the past. And it is the reason that the medical journalism surrounding the disease caused by the coronavirus, named COVID-19 this week, has already faced criticism.

The virus has impacted UNC students in a multitude of ways; from the University banning all nonessential travel to China and potentially suspending study abroad programs, the virus has been in the news for weeks now. And the media has definitely done its part in making the virus something that can’t be ignored by any college administration.

In many of the initial reports on the virus, which said it was known to cause pneumonia, the statistics varied widely from source to source. There have been inaccurate reports of the death toll being 112,000 in China as of late January, when in reality it was only around 80 at the time. There have also been claims that Chinese people eating bats were the source of the outbreak, with photos circulating of individuals eating bats that weren’t even taken in China. There have even been accusations that the virus was engineered by China to be used as a weapon.

The misinformation has made its way across multiple media platforms, and has been shared extensively due to the mystery clouding the virus itself. Even esteemed professors have admitted sharing such articles because some of the statistics made sense, given the lockdowns of Wuhan and other Chinese cities. This, in turn, has paved the way for intense xenophobia towards individuals of Asian descent; it’s allowed for a flurry of racist jokes, memes and commentary to proliferate on nearly every social media site.

In response, certain social media sites have pledged to monitor content related to the virus in order to prevent conspiracy theories and false claims from being spread erratically. Facebook announced it plans to work with a network of third-party fact checkers to review information, and to also remove any content that undermines the authority of global health organizations and health agencies.

However, these false claims have not always been made out of malicious intent. In some cases, false reports have been released unknowingly, and been spread by people who didn’t know any better. Though, this isn’t something new that came with coronavirus; it’s been going on for centuries, from the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s to COVID-19’s ancestor, the SARS outbreak, in 2003. 

Providing information that oversimplifies the workings behind diseases like the coronavirus makes the virus easier to understand and share. But this can create a cycle of misinformation through two potential scenarios: individuals don't understand the gravity of the situation and the danger viruses like these pose, or they unnecessarily panic over the epidemic.

In times like these, with concerns about pandemics affecting huge global populations, it’s important to get information from sources such as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preprints of research are generally reliable, but even the most credible researchers can publish information that may not always be correct in the rush to come up with a solution. To do your part, it’s best to ensure that the source you’re retweeting, reblogging or resharing from is accurate and reliable.