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Misinformation On Social Media Is Spreading As Fast As The Virus

As the world comes to grips with the coronavirus pandemic, the WHO is fighting a concurrent battle.

Dubbed an ‘infodemic’, this issue is making the fight to contain the impact of the novel coronavirus much harder.

Since the end of 2019, when coronavirus was first noted, social media and mass media alike have been flooded with a wide array of misinformation such as conspiracy theories on the origin of the virus or its role as a biological warfare agent, dangerous advice on treatment or prevention, racism, panic buying and incorrect reports of vaccine availability. There were even widely shared posts claiming that coronavirus is not harmful, adding to distrust in government and health agencies.

Celebrities are also getting in on the action, sharing poor quality information to their millions of followers. Over the weekend, Australian model and natural cosmetics entrepreneur Miranda Kerr rightly sparked outrage by sharing to her over 12 million Instagram followers Anthony William's wildly erroneous and absolutely dangerous information on viral treatment. William, who calls himself a "Medical Medium", is not a medical professional but has amassed a following of millions spruiking celery juice on the advice of ghosts who talk to him.

Miranda Kerr recommended a free PDF download from "Medical Medium" Anthony William. (Image: Instagram)

The actress Debra Messing shared a post advising people to hold their breath for more than 10 seconds to see if they have the coronavirus and suggesting that regular water consumption can ward off the illness. (She later deleted the post.)

In its effort to quash rumours, WHO has enlisted important allies in the form of Facebook and Google. To try and combat the infodemic, online platforms are desperately trying to assess and remove any posts which are deemed false and dangerous. They are also trying to promote reputable sources for information such as directing users to the WHO or other health sites when you search for information related to the virus and what it means for you.

Social media users would be familiar with recent efforts to try and combat incorrect or dangerous information on its platforms. Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal had people reeling at how we could be manipulated and how the platform neglected to eradicate this threat. More recently, when you search for vaccine information, this will lead users to see a message directing them to quality vaccine information, after which time they can proceed as intended, quietly ignoring the message if they so desire.

In 2019, Instagram debuted a reporting feature where users could report a post for ‘false information’ at the same time banning the exposure of young people to dangerous diet products. According to the platform, posts will be fact checked and if found to be rubbish, users will be warned before viewing or sharing. Not every post can be fact checked and many users express frustration that this avenue of reporting seems futile.

A message shared by Debra Messing, now deleted, contained false information about coronavirus. (Image: Instagram)

As we know, the use of social media platforms to spread misinformation is not new. Whether it is done inadvertently or deliberately by people whose willful ignorance is enabled by the turbo-charged free speech of Facebook and its comrades, for years people have been asking for better protection from social media to halt the march of misrepresentations.

Time after time, though, these requests have been ignored or explained away, leaving us to work out for ourselves what’s real and what isn’t.

A lot of debunking in the online space is done by skilled and well-informed science communicators -- doctors, scientists, researchers and public health experts -- but without the reach of a celebrity or the backing of the platforms, their sensible messages can simply be lost in an abyss of falsehoods.

Now, in the face of a pandemic with far reaching consequences including the loss of lives, loss of livelihoods and uncharted global economic and political fallout, social media is trying to close the gate after the horse has bolted.

Instagram marks posts as false information with the help of "independent third-party fact checkers". (Image: Instagram)

The outcomes of the global spread of the novel coronavirus are likely to depend on how well we can contain or slow its spread and its impact. Anything that induces confusion, panic or a disregard for measures and advice that we are confident will protect us has the very real possibility of amplifying the dangers that we may face.

Many people have called for social media to lift its game for many years and while that hasn’t happened, they have exposed their lack of preparation, precedent and commitment to responsibility. Although it would be preferable that a global crisis wasn’t the catalyst, it is high time that we demand better accountability from these platforms.

This time, the lives of many may depend on it.

Featured Image: Getty / Instagram