health & science

Coronavirus misinformation goes viral

The novel coronavirus outbreak is the first near-pandemic in the age of misinformation. Marc Daalder takes a look at what that means for New Zealand

The novel coronavirus outbreak has captured headlines the world over, which is understandable given its implications for public health, immigration politics and the economy worldwide. SARS, a coronavirus which infected 8,000 people and killed 800 in 2002 and 2003, was the focus of a similar media firestorm.

What's new this time is that this near-pandemic is breaking out in the age of misinformation. The virus is now the subject of bizarre conspiracies and false but well-intentioned health notices alike.

New Zealand isn't immune from this wave of viral misinformation, and a prominent researcher of fake news and psychology says the Ministry of Health and other institutions need to up their game. The Ministry of Health did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Debunking not effective

Jess Berentson-Shaw researches the science of communication and is the author of A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World. She told Newsroom that the focus for the Ministry should be on getting the right information out there, not debunking what's false.

"I think their natural inclination would be to debunk," she said, "and I think they need to avoid doing that actually. Generally as an overall strategy, they need to get really clear on what the story that they want to tell about coronavirus is."

"I would say this across any kind of crisis, which Government organisations should be well-prepared in advance for. They know that every time something like this happens, misinformation spreads. So they need to have a pre-prepared strategy and strategic communications on, under any kind of crisis, what is the story that they want to be telling."

Berentson-Shaw calls this "pre-bunking". Psychological studies show that even when an authoritative source - like the Ministry of Health - fact-checks something, we're more inclined to believe whatever we first heard. That means getting the right information out there and widely-read before people hit the internet and tumble down the conspiracy rabbit hole.

For more on why people fall for fake news, see this Newsroom explainer. And for more on how panic and misinformation accompanies epidemics, see this Ideasroom piece from anthropologist Heather Battles.

Ministry must get their message straight

There are also certain ways of communicating that information that are more effective than others. "What we know is that if you want to engage people with your particular issue and concern, then you need to be clear within your own organisation what it is that you value and what matters to you. Then you need to tell people about that as a kind of front-footing the narrative," Berentson-Shaw says.

"Them figuring out how they can actually connect with people and the kind of values that really matter to them, around health and wellbeing, taking care of New Zealanders, would be a good place to start. They can then talk about what it is that they actually envisage."

"Often when we have outbreaks, it's not clear what it is that the Ministry's actually there to do. Yes, immediately, they want to contain the virus, but I don't think they even make that that clear, actually. They need to be really clear on what their intention is, both in the short term and in the long term."

... a concerned citizen called into Newsroom's Wellington office to ask that we investigate the "fact" that the virus originated in a Chinese bioweapon lab and was anticipated by Bill Gates.

Berentson-Shaw also says the Ministry needs to do better to prepare for something like this in the future. "We're just in a digital media age. We know that misinformation exists. We know that it moves at great speeds in crisis situations. It is inevitable in these kinds of health scenarios that misinformation will be out there."

"So it's really important to have a very clear strategy for when these things will inevitably come up."

Front-footing the right information instead of mythbusting the wrong information is the best strategy, Berentson-Shaw says. "Though, if they're particularly concerned that there is dangerous misinformation out there, then there are ways that they can approach that. If they're really concerned about a particular, virulent piece of misinformation and they do have the evidence that people are actually following that misinformation," then they can address it.

Bizarre conspiracies and fake preventative care

It's unclear how many New Zealanders have fallen for fake news or misinformation surrounding coronavirus. Some of the conspiracy theories relating to the virus are outright bizarre: it has been alleged to be a Chinese biological weapon that was accidentally or intentionally leaked, for example. Another theory is that it is a cover-up for illness caused by the rollout of 5G.

On Wednesday, while this article was being written, a concerned citizen called into Newsroom's Wellington office to ask that we investigate the "fact" that the virus originated in a Chinese bioweapon lab and was anticipated by Bill Gates. The caller said she had learned of these "facts" from an anti-vaccine, health supplement peddler named Joseph Mercola, whose website is a popular source of medical disinformation.

One source of confusion appears to be the name coronavirus. Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that can cause respiratory infections, like the common cold or pneumonia, in humans. SARS and MERS were both coronaviruses. The strand that has sparked this particular outbreak is called the novel (or new) coronavirus and has been named 2019-nCoV by scientists.

Earlier references on medication and in medical literature to coronaviruses have sparked conspiracy theories that this outbreak was anticipated by "Big Pharma", but these are based on a misunderstanding of the word.

One of New Zealand's most popular conspiracy Facebook pages shared a fake bulletin purportedly distributed by the Ministry of Health. The fake notice recommended that people keep their throats moist to avoid infection and wear masks through the end of March.

The Ministry in fact recommends that people wash their hands frequently, practice good cough etiquette and isolate themselves if they begin to display symptoms. The Ministry says wearing a surgical mask at this point will do little and notes that there are no cases of coronavirus in New Zealand.

Pedestrians in central Auckland. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Virus facts

There are no confirmed cases of the virus in New Zealand and the country has stopped all foreign nationals traveling from or through mainland China from entering. New Zealanders evacuated from Wuhan will be quarantined at Whangaparāoa Air Base. Kiwis who have traveled from other parts of China should isolate themselves for 14 days, the Government says.

Symptoms of coronavirus are similar to those of other common respiratory illnesses, including influenza and the common cold, according to the Ministry of Health. Fever, coughing and difficulty breathing are documented symptoms - if you have difficulty breathing, you should see a doctor immediately as this could be a symptom of pneumonia.

The best tips for prevention are to wash your hands, cough into your elbow and isolate yourself if you begin to display symptoms.

If you are concerned about symptoms you may be experiencing, you should ring Healthline at 0800 611 116.

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