Even some news outlets are publishing articles about the illness that are hyperbolic, fear-mongering and at times blatantly misleading
Its no coincidence that internet phenomena share a vocabulary with certain diseases. As fast as a viral pathogen can spread in a world connected by air travel, bad information can move even faster. Very few people outside of China have been infected with the new coronavirus that was first detected late last year and was declared a global health emergency this week. But millions have already been exposed to false information about the virus.
And while we may not be able to measure the damage that misinformation poses to society in the same way that we can take a patients temperature, its undeniable that the damage is real.
Recent outbreaks of measles in countries that had previously eradicated the disease, but then become centers of anti-vaxx conspiracy mongering, are one concrete example of how disinformation can lead to concrete harm.
Already, east Asians in Europe and the Americas are reporting incidents of racist hostility and exclusion. Such experiences will not be counted among the casualties of the disease, but will nevertheless leave a mark on their lives.
Disinformation experts and fact-checkers are now working overtime to attempt to clean up the mess of honest misunderstandings, hoaxes and malicious lies that have spread across the internet. Naturally, attention has again turned to social media users and the social media companies whose platforms have played an important role in accelerating the frictionless spread of falsehood.
Its certainly fair to expect Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok, among others, to do everything they can to mitigate misinformation amid a global health emergency. Facebook and YouTube were incredibly negligent even as they grew into dominant providers of news and information, only agreeing to take proactive steps to address conspiracy theories about breaking news and health disinformation after facing considerable pressure from the press and politicians.
But its also important for the professional news media to acknowledge and work to correct its own role in disseminating disinformation. Half of the top 10 most shared English-language links about coronavirus on Facebook from the month of January were hyperbolic, fear-mongering and at times blatantly misleading articles from actual news outlets, according to a review of data from CrowdTangle. Among the blatantly misleading is an article by the Daily Mail suggesting that the coronavirus outbreak was caused by Chinese people eating bat soup that was shared more than 96,000 times on Facebook.
The bat soup canard is a classic example of disinformation and a potent one. Like much of the most persuasive disinformation, the story involves elements of truth taken out of context and repackaged in a way that seems true because it affirms a particular worldview. In this case, actual footage of a Chinese woman eating a bat in soup was ripped out of its actual context (a travel bloggers video from a restaurant in Palau filmed in 2016) and spuriously linked to the fact that some coronaviruses originate from bats, in order to create a narrative that appealed to a western audiences racist fascination with Chinese appetites.
Revolting footage shows Chinese woman eating a whole bat at a fancy restaurant as scientists link the deadly coronavirus to the flying mammals reads the Daily Mails headline. Its not exactly false. But its certainly not true. If I were to go to YouTube right now, I could pull up some truly revolting footage of British men eating black pudding and watch it just as the UK was officially leaving the EU. But that would not make a headline reading Disgusting footage shows Englishmen guzzling pigs blood as Europeans depart country in disgust accurate or responsible.
The Daily Mail was not the originator of the bat soup disinformation, though its version of the story traveled the furthest on Facebook. It appears that another British tabloid, the Daily Star, was the first to link the years-old video to the coronavirus, with an article on 22 January that treated base speculation as revelation. The Daily Star eventually published a correction on its article, but not before the story was picked up and repeated by the Mirror, the Sun, the Evening Standard, and the Mail Online. News outlets in the US, including the Providence Journal and a number of US radio stations owned by iHeartMedia, also repeated the story, as well as conservative US media influencers.
Unsurprisingly, articles debunking the story have not traveled nearly as far on social media as the original versions did, according to CrowdTangle data. And while the damage that this story did will likely never be measured, it will undoubtedly be felt by people of Asian descent around the world, whether they are kids being picked on at lunchtime or adults treated with disrespect while doing their jobs. The viral infection wont kill us, but it will weaken us.
Which makes it all the more disheartening that the agents of disinformation in this case were not Russian bots or QAnon trolls. They were journalists.
What Im reading
Health-Records Company Pushed Opioids to Doctors in Secret Deal With Drugmaker, by Bloombergs Emma Court.
Mark Zuckerberg should not be in control of Facebook, by George Soros for the New York Times.
Elon Musk cant lose, by BuzzFeed News Ryan Mac.