Misinformation about a new, deadly coronavirus has gone viral. Conspiracy theories and wild claims have been spreading across the global internet since Chinese officials first announced, on December 31, that a mysterious pneumonia was sweeping through the city of Wuhan. A little over a month later, the coronavirus—a respiratory illness that has killed at least 360 people and infected thousands more in over 20 countries—has become a chief concern of not just the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but for tech companies like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. Real human life is at stake, and information channels are clotted with hysteria and falsehood.
‘Twas ever thus. Conspiracy theories have dogged disasters and outbreaks of illness probably forever. While the Black Plague ravaged Europe in the 1300s, people became convinced that their Jewish neighbors were furtively poisoning good Christian wells for … reasons. Conspiracy theories about the Wuhan coronavirus, which range from believing the disease is a bioweapon to the result of eating bat soup, are playing an ancient chord. As always, it sounds anxious, racist, and distinctly out of tune with reality.
Falsehoods about coronavirus fall into two major categories: conspiracy theories about the origins of the illness and misinformation about miracle cures. No one knows exactly where this new form of coronavirus came from, though it seems likely that it leapt from animals to humans. Some scientists believe the animal vector may have been bats. It is unlikely, however, that you’d get it from eating bat soup, as one conspiracy theory claimed, sparking racially tinged online outrage about supposed Chinese eating habits causing a pandemic. One of the most prominent bits of video evidence was actually a segment from a travel show shot in 2016 in Palau, not China. Bat soup is not a commonly eaten food in the region.
Other popular theories include that the virus is actually a bioweapon that somehow escaped from the secure lab at Wuhan Institute of Virology, citing a former Israeli intelligence officer who himself admits that there is no evidence to back such a theory. Then there’s the idea that a husband and wife “spy team” of scientists stole the coronavirus from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory. (A virologist was suspended following a “policy breach,” but the report theorists reference makes no mention of her being a Chinese spy or ever illicitly sending a virus to China.) Many felt that the virus was somehow a coverup or a plot, claiming that the disease was not new at all based on a variety of alleged proofs: a vaccine patent for a coronavirus, labels on cleaning products like Clorox and Lysol claiming to be able to kill it. In both cases, theorists overlooked or didn’t understand that “coronavirus” is a category of viruses, not a single sickness. The one spreading across the globe now is called 2019-nCoV, and unfortunately can’t be treated with any known vaccine or Lysol.
Of course, not everyone is preoccupied with the disease’s origins. There’s also a lot of dubious, and even dangerous, misinformation about how to treat coronavirus or prevent getting it. These notions range from bizarre yet mundane bits of advice (like avoiding spicy food and cold foods) to suggestions so awful they sound like they came straight from 4chan (like drinking bleach). At present, WHO’s only recommendations for coronavirus infection prevention are thoroughly cooking any animal products you consume, practicing good hygiene, and keeping a meter between yourself and anyone who appears sick.
2019-nCoV may be new, but the kind of conspiracy theories and misinformation that have come to surround it are not. “This falls into a pattern we see over and over again whenever there is a new disease or disaster,” says Joseph Uscinski, author of American Conspiracy Theories. In times of crisis, a combination of heightened emotions and lack of information combine to create the perfect petri dishes for conspiracy theories: fearful minds.
Conspiracy theories (and, apparently, coronavirus phishing scams) promise answers and explanations people desperately want, but can’t find through normal, factual means. “Conspiracy theories in this space of disaster and epidemic get really intense and really serious quickly,” says Brian Houston, who researches disaster-related mental health and communication. “They are so easy to spread because these events are existential. They kill.” And not in the way that cars or sharks do, either. Coronavirus is scientifically more terrifying. “The literature says that the things that tend to scare us the most are risks we can’t observe, and risks that are new and not understandable,” Houston adds. That describes this new coronavirus to a T.
On top of how scary the coronavirus is, the information ecosystem that its conspiracy theories have infected is ill-equipped to combat them. Not in the dull “the internet is evil'' sort of way, either. People have been receiving bad information during public health emergencies for almost as long as there have been public health emergencies; it’s not necessarily the internet’s fault for pin-balling that info around. If anything, there’s a bit of a silver lining: the internet (indeed, this very story!) can help provide more accurate details.
“People tend to blame the internet for these conspiracy theories, but rumors spread quite easily before the internet,” Uscinski says. “Just because a conspiracy theory can travel instantaneously across the net doesn’t mean that everyone who sees it is going to believe in it.”
That doesn’t mean the web is totally innocent, though. The political context online has definitely played a role in the response to this disease. In US-centric parts of the internet, people have been stoking xenophobia and fear of globalism for years, and specific anti-Chinese sentiment has been rising along with the tariffs on imports from the country. It doesn’t help that the Chinese government is providing little transparency into the events unfolding, and that the internet in China is largely cordoned off, either by firewall or language barrier. As a result, many of the conspiracy theories surrounding the coronavirus have been misinterpretations (willful or otherwise) of unrelated videos originally posted to Chinese platforms like Weibo or WeChat, which most Americans will likely never visit, much less understand.
As the misinformation about coronavirus has spread, tech companies have been trying to return the focus to the truth. Facebook has pledged to remove content spreading false claims about the virus. Twitter has issued permanent suspensions to organizations like Zero Hedge for spreading conspiracy theories, and has released a new feature in affected countries that privileges authoritative information in search. TikTok has reportedly committed to removing misinformation, and is encouraging users to verify information with WHO when they search for coronavirus content. Still, these measures may not be enough to sate people’s need for answers. “Misinformation comes into the world fully formed,” says Houston. “Real information is slow.” Trouble is, in situations like a disease outbreak that could become a global pandemic, no one wants the only advice worth giving: wait.