While trawling through WeChat looking for ways to protect myself against the deadly new coronavirus plaguing China, I received a piece of advice: Drink vinegar. And that’s not all. It seems the social network is full of ways to stay protected, like remaining positive (“think of three things you are grateful for”) and avoiding caffeine (“coffee is pure acid”).

With the death toll of the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan climbing past 200 and infection rates surpassing those during the Sars epidemic, rumors have rapidly spread across social media: An alleged airport shutdown, disinfectants sprayed from airplanes, sick people running away from hospitals, even wild claims of bioweapons.

And the more rumors spread in China, the more people are arrested.

More than 250 people in China have been punished by authorities for spreading online rumors about the coronavirus, according to a tally by the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) based on media reports. As the health crisis unfurled, the Chinese government became more heavy-handed in controlling information about the disease, including attempts to quash rumors and misinformation.

By the end of January, the novel coronavirus had already killed more than 200 people. (Picture: Getty Images)

This was made painfully obvious this week when China’s Supreme Court published a letter online saying that the Wuhan authorities should not have punished a group of people sharing information about the illness in a WeChat group even if it was inaccurate. One of them was a doctor claiming the disease he was treating was Sars. But this was in early January when the disease was still not well known, and Sars is another type of coronavirus. Work on stopping the spread of the new coronavirus didn’t start in earnest until January 20.

The trouble is that government censorship in China means a “rumor” could be nothing more than an inconvenient truth for authorities. “Rumor-mongering” could lead to just a warning, or a person could be detained anywhere from five days to seven years in prison for offenses that seriously “affect social order.”

This differentiates China from many other places trying to clamp down on rampant misinformation. Germany, France and Russia have all passed laws against fake news on social media while this week, US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren proposed criminal penalties for spreading fake news during elections.

Many platforms are trying to crack down, too. Misinformation, rumors, fake news and conspiracy theories have become a big problem for social media sites in recent years. But misinformation can be more dangerous during health emergencies, feeding off the fear of users and helping spread it. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, fake news sites sharing stories of infection cases in the US got thousands of likes on Facebook.

Professor Alton Chua from Singapore's Nanyang University, who has studied the virality of online rumors, says that the Chinese government sees the destructive effects of online rumors and responds with draconian measures to achieve two purposes: Curb the spread of rumors and deter future rumor-mongering.

Often the most outrageous claims spread the quickest, even when people sharing them don’t trust them completely. A recent example is a man from Shenyang who shared on WeChat that his hometown had 90,000 coronavirus victims.

“Some spread rumors to forge social connections with their recipients, while others share them as a way to boost their status as being the first to be in-the-know,” Chua said.

The man from Shenyang wound up detained for 10 days, according to a Xinhua report.

Posting rumors on WeChat and Weibo has turned out to be a ticket to detention for some. (Picture: EPA-EFE)

China also faces another dilemma: A distrust of official sources of information.

By the time authorities acknowledged the novel coronavirus and started trying to contain it, many had already started wondering why the government didn’t act sooner and whether there was a cover-up. Many people still have bitter memories of the mishandling of the Sars epidemic in 2003. So while China’s response this time around has been seen as better than during the Sars outbreak, the delayed response still sparked a rare bout of anger online.

“While misinformation could lead to panic,” CHRD wrote in its report, the government’s “systematic suppression of information and censorship on the press has led to a botched response to the coronavirus outbreak.”

This lack of trust in official sources may have fueled rumors even more.

Professor Henry Chen from the Hong Kong University’s School of Economics and Finance says that people spread rumors because they find them believable. But the lack of trustworthy sources is another reason rumors travel so fast, he added.

“Enhanced transparency of the situation can help reduce fake news and misinformation,” Chen said.