A map created by Twitter user Mehdi Moussaid has given insight into how quickly “rumour and panic” over the coronavirus spread in comparison to the confirmed cases of the disease.
In one half of the graphic, the number of people infected with the virus over six days are shown on the map in red.
On the other half, the number of tweets using the hashtag #coronavirus are shown in green.
The number of red dots are mostly contained to the China region of the map, while the green dots quickly spread across the whole map in a matter of days.
Former WHO DG Dr. Margaret Chan: “Rumor & panic spread faster than the #virus.” Spread of #coronavirus on #Twitter (green) & actual people infected with #nCoV2019 (red), between January 24 & 31, 2020. #Fouloscopie [created by: @Mehdi_Moussaid] #IDtwitter #SciComm #2019nCoV pic.twitter.com/Z5Ps8dbv0A
— Dr. Melvin Sanicas (@Vaccinologist) February 3, 2020
While social media has been used by authorities to disseminate accurate and updated information on virus, it has also been used to spread lies and create panic.
The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in Geneva on Monday that it was working with Google to ensure that searches about the new virus turned up information from the UN health agency first, as part of efforts to fight “rumours and misinformation” about the outbreak.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the opening of WHO’s executive board meeting that social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Tencent and TikTok “have also taken steps to limit the spread of misinformation”.
The WHO said its staff were “working 24 hours a day” to identify the most prevalent rumours that could potentially harm the public’s health.
It has debunked several false claims on Twitter, including that eating sesame oil or garlic can help prevent and cure the disease.
— World Health Organization Western Pacific (@WHOWPRO) February 1, 2020
Some of the misinformation has tapped into prejudices towards Chinese eating habits, or has been used to fuel racist stereotypes.
One video which went especially viral was a video of Chinese celebrity vlogger, Wang Mengyun, tucking into a bat soup.
Social media users claimed the video was filmed in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, sparking a furious reaction online.
Ms Wang later set the record straight, saying it was filmed in Micronesia in 2016 for her vlog.
“Recently it was turned over by some accounts sponging off the heat and fanning out malicious panic,” she said, when debunking the video on her social media accounts.
A number of social media posts specifically aimed at spreading misinformation to Australians have also been identified in recent weeks.
Queensland MP Duncan Pegg recently took aim at fake media release warning people to stay away from Brisbane suburbs with large Chinese populations due to an increased risk of contracting coronavirus.
The release claimed the Queensland Department of Health had issued a “level 3 health warning” for the virus and advised against “non-essential travel” to Wuhan and China along with the Brisbane suburbs of Sunnybank, Sunnybank Hill, Runcorn and Eight Mile Plains.
Mr Pegg blasted the release as “fake” and “racist”.
Another message that was shared across social media and sent to people directly on WhatsApp warned people in Sydney to stay away from certain foods that had been contaminated.
Mi Goreng noodles, Lipton peach iced tea, Yakult milk drink, Wagyu beef, Chinese Red Bull and regular Red Bull were among the supposedly contaminated products.
The writer even made up an organisation called the Bureau of Diseasology Parramatta in order to back up their wild claims.
Social media giants are now taking action against the spread of misinformation. Twitter announced it would “adjust search prompt in key countries across the globe to feature authoritative health sources when you search for terms related to novel #coronavirus.”
On Friday last week Facebook said it would “remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organisations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them”.