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The spread of fake coronavirus news has dangerous consequences

Last week we reported on the growing phenomenon of racist jokes surrounding coronavirus. Now another trend has emerged: viral hoax videos which spread misinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus.

As if coronavirus itself isn’t daunting enough, these videos prove the terrifying reality of how hysteria can become its own epidemic in the digital age.

coronavirus

Social media platforms are currently battling fake videos and conspiracy theories about coronavirus as they negotiate global outbreaks in the digital era.

The videos in question are mostly appearing on the video-sharing platform TikTok. The popular app, which has 500 million users, is coming under fire for enabling the spread of false information.

The problem is particularly worrisome as almost half of TikTok users are aged between 16 and 24, an age group particularly susceptible to fake news.

Coronavirus was declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday. There are currently 17,459 confirmed cases with 362 deaths and 489 recoveries. Reported cases span countries including in France, the US, the UK, and Australia.

In some videos, users can be seen pretending to be doctors or victims of the virus, sharing fake health advice. In one since-deleted TikTok video, a man can be seen posing as a doctor, displaying a vial of blood which he claims is from someone infected with coronavirus called “patient zero”.

“This is from patient zero, the one we treated yesterday,” the man describes. “I haven’t opened it yet. I’m going to get it out on some paper here and show you guys, but that doesn’t look right to me. Something’s not good about that blood.”

@sierrabeckerr#duet with wright.mitchr #fypage♬ Ominous – Zilverhill

On TikTok’s #coronavirus page, one article describes that “coronavirus is spread through the EYES making surgical masks useless”, whilst another claims, “Coronavirus is turning into something else.”

Other users on the site are pretending to have the virus. Last week, a Canadian teenager posted a video of a boy wearing a breathing mask in a schoolroom, along with a screenshot of a news article: “First presumptive case of coronavirus confirmed in B.C. (British Columbia).”

Text within the clip then read: “Our friend was being monitored for coronavirus. He had to call 911 if he started coughing violently. Turns out he had it (grimacing emoji).”

The video has since been debunked by a spokesperson for the British Columbia Department of Health.

Conspiracy theories pertaining to the virus are also rife. One such theory claims that the virus was patented years ago by Jacob Rothschild – a member of the banking family that conspiracists often link to the Illuminati. The theory asserts that the virus was made so patents could profit off a vaccine.

@loveyourself0810#chinacoronavirus #coronavirus #conspiracy #government #whatnow #for #you #page #2020plauge♬ Conspiracy Theory – キタノアラタ

Bill Gates is the centre of another conspiracy theory which claims the business magnate once predicted the virus, citing a 2019 Netflix documentary as proof. In the documentary Gates speaks about how such outbreaks spread in live animal markets, warning that it would take years to find a cure.

Another theory asserts that the Chinese government created the disease as a form of population control. This particular theory is gaining traction in the far-right conspiracy group QAnon.

Numerous anti-Chinese and anti-immigration memes are also surfacing in response to the virus. One such example are videos of people eating fried rats and bat soup at Wuhan market which have been circulating on social media accompanied by racist comments. One tweet shows a post being shared by childcare centres which warns that wagyu beef and mi goreng could contain traces of the virus.

In response, Asian teens have taken to TikTok to joke about how white, Western people have started to act suspiciously towards them. In one video a caption reads, “Coughing around white people so they think I have coronavirus so they leave me alone.”

“It’s all down to paranoia and where the sense of threat really comes from,” Eros Corpuz, a 19-year-old from Canada, described to Buzzfeed. “This disease isn’t racist, so I don’t know why everyone should be.”

@anticsit’s been working tho #rainbowmode #fyp #foryou #foryoupage #asian #viral #funny #coronavirus #mepracticing #collegehacks #WhatWouldHarleyDo♬ original sound – henriidanger

In a blog post, Facebook stated that it would remove content about the virus which contained “false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organisations and local health authorities”. The company also announced new “educational pop-ups” approved by WHO for anyone searching for coronavirus on Facebook.

In contrast, YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit all recently told The New York Times that inaccurate information about health did not infringe upon their policies. Consequently, they will not be filtering Coronavirus-related content. However, Twitter did announce a “search prompt” which would prioritise credible, authoritative information first.

When it comes to TikTok, a spokesperson has clarified that the company does not permit misinformation which could cause harm to the larger public. As of last week, if you search #coronavirus, the platform encourages users to verify facts using the WHO website and to report content breaches. Despite this, it is apparent that the company is struggling to mediate large amounts of user content.

Now, more than ever, the power, and consequent responsibility of social media giants is apparent.

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February 4, 2020

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