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Friday Jan 31 2020
Web Desk

Fake news on social media creates panic regarding coronavirus

Web Desk
Photo: File

ISLAMABAD: As the death toll from the deadly coronavirus continue to rise, the fake news on social media regarding the issue is creating panic among the masses, reported The News.

A social media post circulating on the internet claimed that Punjab’s health and food authorities have determined mutton as the carrier of the deadly virus and recommended that it should be avoided. 

Later, the Punjab Food Authority issued a denial and clarified the situation.

Amid global concern over the outbreak, the social media users are sharing no of suggestions to treat or prevent the disease.

One such claim — shared 16,000 times on Facebook — advised users in the Philippines to keep their throat moist, avoid spicy food and "load up on vitamin C" in order to prevent the disease. The post claims that the information was shared by the country's health department but no such advice could be found on the its website or any official press releases related to the outbreak.

Also read: Coronavirus detection kits from Japan to arrive in Pakistan today

Journalists and fact-checkers have found similar posts with identical or slightly altered wording being circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp groups in Canada, Pakistan and India.

Another unsubstantiated claim shared online recommended that cold or preserved food and drinks, such as ice cream and milkshakes, should be avoided for "at least 90 days", said the report.

The advice was shared by a Facebook page called ForChange. The post also had a video of a parasite being removed from a person's lips, implying that the procedure was somehow related to the coronavirus.

However, fact-checkers have clarified that the video was three months old and has no link with the virus. Facebook has since marked the ForChange post as "false information" but dozens of identical messages are still being circulated on the platform.

The World Health Organisation has asked the public to avoid consuming "raw or undercooked animal products" as a precaution to the new coronavirus. It has also said that currently there are no vaccine against the virus but standard recommendations to prevent the infections should be adopted.

Also read: Russia to shut border with China over coronavirus

These include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing or, failing that, with the crook of your arm, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs, avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness, such as coughing or fever.

Since it’s an outbreak, people have been speculating the origins of the disease. The speculations took a tall when a slew of videos alleged that the consumption of bats was the reason behind the deadly outbreak in Wuhan.

One such clip shows a smiling Chinese woman holding a cooked bat on camera, before admitting it tastes "like chicken meat". The video prompted outrage online, with some users blaming Chinese eating habits for the outbreak.

However, the video was not even shot in China. It was also four-years-old and showed popular blogger and travel show host Mengyun Wang during a trip to Palau, an archipelago in the western Pacific Ocean.

The clip resurfaced on social media after cases of the new coronavirus emerged in Wuhan late last year. Following the online backlash, Wang apologised, saying she was "just trying to introduce the life of local people" to the audience and had not known that bats could be a virus carrier. Her video has since been taken down.

Also read: Australian scientists have 'game changer' in fight against coronavirus

The new coronavirus is believed to have emerged from illegally traded wildlife at a seafood market in Wuhan. Although bats have been named in recent research from China as a possible source of the virus, bat soup is not particularly commonplace in the country and the investigations into its exact origins continue.

After the US reported its first case of the coronavirus last week, several patented documents started to circulate on Twitter and Facebook which claimed that health experts were aware of the virus’ existence.

One of the first users to float these allegations was a conspiracy theorist and YouTuber Jordan Sather.

In a lengthy thread, Sather posted a 2015 patent filed by the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, England, that talks about developing a weakened version of coronavirus for potential use as a vaccine to prevent or treat respiratory diseases. The thread has been retweeted a thousand times since.

Sather used the fact that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was a donor to both Pirbright and vaccine development, and alleged that the current outbreak was deliberately manufactured to attract funding for the vaccine.

"And how much funding has the Gates Foundation given to vaccine programs throughout the years? Was the release of this disease planned? Is the media being used to incite fear around it?" Sather tweeted.

However, Pirbright's patent was not for the new coronavirus. The News reported that the patent covers the avian infectious bronchitis virus, a member of the wider coronavirus family that infects poultry. As for the speculation regarding the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Pirbright spokeswoman Teresa Maughan told Buzzfeed News that the institute's particular work with the infectious bronchitis virus was not funded by the foundation.

Biological weapon

Another baseless statement that has gone viral claimed that the virus was part of China's "covert biological weapons programme" and was leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Many accounts pushing the theory cite two widely-shared Washington Times articles both of which quote a former Israeli military intelligence officer for the claim. However, the articles cited no evidence to back the claim. The Israeli source also said that "so far there isn't evidence or indication" to suggest there was a leak.

The two articles have been shared by various different social media accounts that have a following of millions.

Also read: Middle East's first coronavirus case reported in UAE

The Daily Star also published a similar piece last week in which it alleged that the virus might have "started in a secret lab". However, the piece was amended and clarified that there was no evidence for the claim.

Another claim inaccurately linked the virus to the suspension of a researcher at Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory.

Virologist Dr Xiangguo Qiu, her husband and some of her students from China were removed from the lab following a possible "policy breach," according to a report by Canada's national broadcaster CBC last year. Police told CBC News there was "no threat to public safety".

Another report said Dr Qiu had visited the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences twice a year for two years. A tweet with more than 12,000 retweets and 13,000 likes - claimed without evidence that Dr Qiu and her husband were a "spy team", had sent "pathogens to the Wuhan facility", and that her husband "specialised in coronavirus research".

None of the three claims in the tweet can be found in the two CBC reports and the terms "coronavirus" and "spy" do not appear even once in either.

CBC has since reported that these claims are baseless.

Also read: These tips can help you avoid the Coronavirus

Different versions of a "whistleblower" video, alleged to have been taken by a "doctor" or a "nurse" in Hubei province, have racked up a million views on various social media platforms and mentioned in numerous online reports.

The most popular version was uploaded to YouTube by a Korean user, and included English and Korean subtitles - the video has since been taken down.

According to the English subtitles, the woman is a nurse in a Wuhan hospital. However, she does not claim to be either a nurse or a doctor in the video at all. This seems to be merely an assumption on the part of those who have uploaded various versions of the video to social media.

The woman, who does not identify herself, is wearing a protective suit in an unknown location. However, her suit and mask do not match the ones worn by medical staff in Hubei.

Due to a lockdown being enforced by the authorities, it is difficult to verify videos from the province. But she makes a number of unsubstantiated claims about the virus, making it unlikely for her to be a nurse or a paramedic.

She also claims the virus has a "second mutation", which can infect up to 14 people. But the World Health Organisation has preliminarily estimated the number of infections an individual carrying the virus can cause is 1.4 to 2.5.

"She doesn't sound like someone from [a] medical professional background," Muyi Xiao, a Wuhan native and the visuals editor for the ChinaFile online magazine, told the BBC.

Although the exact location of the video is unknown, it is likely that the woman is a Hubei resident sharing her personal opinion about the outbreak.

"I think there is [a] possibility that she thinks she is telling the truth. Because no one knows the truth," Badiucao, a Chinese political activist currently based in Australia, told the BBC.

"No transparency [has] just left people guessing and panicking."