The novel coronavirus outbreak, which has now spread to 70 countries and infected more than 93,000 people, has also sparked what the World Health Organisation calls an “infodemic.”

The internet, including the one behind China’s Great Firewall, has been flooded with false information, most of it related to unverified cures and unproven conspiracy theories, according to AFP Fact Check, which has posted 90 fact-checks since late January when the virus became a serious health crisis in China.

The false information includes advice that vitamin D will prevent the virus, boiled garlic water is a cure, or that the deadly virus was created in Canada and stolen by Chinese spies.

South Korean soldiers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant as part of preventive measures against the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, at a market in Daegu on March 2. (Picture: YONHAP/AFP)

Fake news is seen as more novel than factual events, which is why people were more likely to share such misinformation, according to a 2018 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust,” it said.

Last month the WHO hosted a meeting in Silicon Valley with American internet giants, including Facebook and Twitter, to discuss ways to crack down on misinformation about the epidemic.

WHO is posting information on its official social media accounts, which on Friday were expanded to include the short video platform TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance and popular with teenagers.

“With social media, we’re in a completely different world. It’s not just journalists, it’s not tabloids – anyone can spread rumors,” said Michel Hockx, a professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.

Misinformation has become an acute issue for western social media since the 2016 US election, with Facebook in particular coming under fire in recent years over its role in communicating fake news and polarizing politics. The expanding public health crisis, which has killed almost 3,200, mostly in China, has provided an opportunity to gauge how effective efforts have been to stem the flow of fake news on social media.

Amid the epidemic, Facebook has taken measures to remove content with false claims and conspiracy theories. It has been working with 56 fact-checking partners in 46 languages to rate fake news and alert users who read or share it if it is false. It also provides free advertising to the WHO and health authorities to enable them to run coronavirus education campaigns on social media, said a company spokeswoman.

In contrast, Facebook’s peers have taken a different approach to policing fake news on the virus. A Twitter representative said in an emailed response that it mainly monitors platform manipulation and ensures that credible content appears upfront when users search or look for relevant trends.

In a blog post last month TikTok said it is working with third-party fact checking organisations and highlights in-app notices around hashtags related to the coronavirus to remind users of its community guidelines so they do not help spread fake news.

In China, WHO has been working closely with internet giants such as Tencent and Weibo to counter rumors and misinformation, a Beijing representative of the health body said. However, in China content on social media platforms is strictly controlled by the Cyberspace Administration of China, the nation’s top internet regulator.

Last month the CAC said it had punished a number of platforms for publishing content deemed unsuitable and misleading. It also gave “supervision and guidance” to Tencent, Sina and ByteDance which operate the country’s most popular social media platforms.

Facebook’s fact checkers use algorithms to generate a pool of potentially false information. (Picture: Reuters)

Still, fake news continues to spread despite these efforts. In one case, Poynter, a non-profit journalism institution that owns the International Fact-Checking Network, singled out a widely circulated satellite image of Wuhan city, the outbreak’s epicenter, which claimed to show high levels of sulphur dioxide, supposedly “evidence” that Chinese authorities were cremating thousands of infected people.

Fact checkers found that it was not a satellite image, rather it was an air quality forecast based on historical data and weather patterns. Yet the fake news is still being retweeted based on search results using keywords “sulphur dioxide” and “Wuhan,” despite the fact that the platform’s #KnowTheFacts hashtag prompts users to access information from regional health authorities and the WHO website.

On Facebook, the same fake news report has not been shared since mid-February but some of the existing posts have not been marked with a fake news label.

Facebook uses algorithms to generate a pool of potentially false information for fact checkers to rate, based on user feedback, disbelieving comments on the post, or similarity to content that has previously been refuted, according to the company.

Twitter’s crackdown on misinformation mainly targets behavior-based spam content. The company representative said “everyone has a role to play in ensuring misinformation doesn’t spread on the internet, and we encourage people who use Twitter not to share information unless they can verify that it’s true.”

“I don’t think censorship will do much to stop misinformation unless all platforms do it at the same time,” said Niam Yaraghi, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut who studies the economics of health information technologies.

“When only a few platforms do it, people will move to other [ones] that do not censor and unfortunately [users] will even trust the alternative platforms more which will make the effect of misinformation worse,” Yaraghi said.

In China, social media platforms rely on government-backed sources to verify rumors. Starting late January, the Twitter-like platform Weibo has been sending out a daily digest of false information about the coronavirus that has been refuted by government agencies, state-backed media, the Public Security Bureau and the country’s cyber police.

Still, netizens have grown skeptical about the credibility of Chinese government sources since the death of doctor Li Wenliang, one of the first whistle-blowers who tried to share information about the coronavirus in the very early stages, only to be reprimanded by local police.

Tang Deliang, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, voluntarily spends his evenings answering questions online from China. “Most [who ask questions] are educated people, friends or professors in universities,” he said.

“There isn’t a trustworthy authority [in China] to give people the right information,” Tang said, “The Chinese CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] is the supporting group of government officials. They do have the information to do investigations but they don't have the right to give out that information.”

Tang said he felt “angry” and “sorry” so felt it was necessary to do something himself to help counter the false information.

“The reason why [Chinese] people believe some of those rumors is because the government has proven not to be as reliable as people would expect. [The government] needs to earn people’s trust,” said Notre Dame professor Hockx.

After the death of the whistle-blower doctor, some dissident voices have even been heard from within the government controlled system. The Supreme People’s Court published an article in late January, written by Beijing-based judge Tang Xinghua, that said that some rumors, even if not completely accurate, could be tolerated.

With reference to Li and others punished for being whistle-blowers, the judge wrote, “It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumor’ then and started to wear masks and carried out sanitization measures, and avoided the wild animal market,” referring to the place believed to be the source of the outbreak in Wuhan.

On Tuesday, the CAC said it had handled 8,277 reports of “harmful” information related to the coronavirus, including using the epidemic to incite negative social sentiment, dissemination of false information and inciting regional discrimination.