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Rumours and hoaxes about disease have been with us for centuries, but social media has given them a wider reach than ever before

Human skeletons lie in the East Smithfield plague pit in London, where many English victims of the 14th-century outbreak of Yersinia pestis, better known as the Black Death or simply 'the plague,' were buried. The disease broke out in London again in the 1660s, but this time, the printing press and official news sheets helped amplify misinformation about its causes and treatment.Museum of London

In the summer of 1665, London’s big news story was the plague.

Evidence of the illness was all around – authorities painted red crosses on the doors of infected households – but a novel medium was also spreading information about the outbreak: newspapers.

The city had two weekly “news sheets,” early iterations of their kind in England, published by the government censor Roger L’Estrange. His papers, and the books he approved for publication, were a fount of what we would now call disinformation: They lowballed the number of dead, printed ads touting the prophylactic power of eating raisins and featured astrological forecasts of the plague’s rise and fall.

Today, falsehoods are swirling again about a rapidly spreading disease. But 3½ centuries after such untruths first made their way into print in real time, the power to publish has been extended to anyone with an internet connection. With the World Health Organization declaring the novel coronavirus outbreak a global emergency, academic researchers and public-health authorities are drawing attention to a growing tide of errors and lies about the disease inundating social-media platforms such as WeChat and Twitter. This climate of untruth threatens to scapegoat racial minorities, spur public panic, and “wash away” useful health information, these experts argue.

“There are two viruses,” said Fuyuki Kurasawa, director of the Global Digital Citizenship Lab at Toronto’s York University. “There’s the coronavirus that is spreading and there’s also a kind of information virus that’s spreading. And both are just as worrisome.”

A photo posted on social media shows a Hong Kong resident steaming a surgical mask in a wok to disinfect it. After seeing images like this being disseminated, Chinese health officials stressed that this actually makes the masks much less effective and is not hygenic. FACEBOOK / DANTE YASUO/via REUTERS/Reuters

Social-media platforms from Facebook to Reddit are permanently awash in misinformation that angers, frightens and excites because of their overriding business incentive to rivet people to their screens, Prof. Kurasawa argued. During times of high public anxiety, this tendency helps elevate marginal, unreliable voices.

A recent post on TikTok, a video-sharing network that is popular in both China and North America, suggested that some shadowy state entity created the novel coronavirus to use against its own people. “Every 100 years, the government spreads these diseases into animals for population control,” the user wrote. The post received more than 8,000 “likes" and was viewed more than 32,000 times.

Another popular online conspiracy about the virus argues that Bill Gates was somehow involved in its creation, said Alex Kaplan, a researcher at the progressive media monitoring non-profit Media Matters who focuses on digital misinformation and online extremism. Absurd as these notions may seem, they share an important quality: Simply put, said Mr. Kaplan, they’re “stuff that’s playing on people’s fears.”

While many social media companies pay lip-service to policing falsehoods on their platforms, timely follow-through is less common. TikTok, best known for playful short videos shared by teens, recently updated its community guidelines to crack down on a rise in “misleading information” being spread on the app. But Mr. Kaplan says the new guidelines haven’t been rigorously applied during the coronavirus outbreak.

“I looked and they haven’t taken the videos down,” he said this week. “If they’re going to have a policy like that … it would seem to me that they should be very alert to making sure that policy is enforced.”

In Wuhan, the epicentre of the recent coronavirus outbreak, an ambulance crew member in protective gear checks a cellphone wrapped in clear plastic.Chinatopix via The Associated Press/The Canadian Press

While some rumours about the virus have concerned its source, others have propagated bogus cures or preventive measures.

Discredited anti-vaccination campaigner Kerri Rivera has advised her followers to avoid infection by drinking a kind of bleach, a debunked and poisonous “cure” for autism. “We have research showing chlorine dioxide kills coronavirus,” Ms. Rivera wrote in an e-mail this week received by the NBC News journalist Brandy Zadrozny.

Popular Instagram personalities have also taken to sharing dubious advice about the virus. The “influencer” Jada Hai Phong Nguyen, who has nearly 90,000 followers, recently posted a comparison between the outbreak and the South Korean zombie movie Train to Busan, and earlier posted a list of tips that mixed the sensible (“wash your hands often with soap”) with the misleading (“against the wildlife animal eating culture”).

Instagram influencer Jada Hai Phong Nguyen wears a facemask in a post giving some dubious advice about how to safeguard against the coronavirus.Instagram (@hai_phong_nguyen)

Along with phony remedies, from raisins to bleach, outbreaks of disease have historically produced scapegoats. In 1665, it was Quakers, who refused to take part in body counts conducted by the Anglican Church. Social media has amplified racist fear-mongering about Chinese-Canadians during the coronavirus outbreak. When the popular Toronto website BlogTO reviewed a new Chinese restaurant, its Instagram page received bigoted comments linking the community with the disease. “Asian food is disgusting and so is [sic] their hygiene practices,” wrote one user.

Officials charged with protecting Canadians from the virus – including Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, and Toronto’s medical officer of health, Eileen de Villa – have denounced the rise in anti-Chinese rhetoric. But Frank Ye has already been stung by what he has seen online. “You compare it to SARS, and social media has made it so much worse for Chinese-Canadians being exposed to that kind of racism,” said Mr. Ye, a masters of public policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

Offensive sentiments such as “Chinese people are dirty” or “This is only happening in China because they eat weird“ – both examples that Mr. Ye has seen on social media – may also give a false sense of how the virus spreads, he noted. “People need to realize racism isn’t going to protect them from this virus.”

A UN convoy passes a screen displaying a message on Ebola in Abidjan, capital of Ivory Coast, in 2014. Russian-based misinformation spread the rumour that Americans brought the disease to Africa.Luc Gnago/Reuters

An added risk during disease outbreaks is the possibility of deliberate disinformation campaigns mounted by hostile governments designed to sow confusion and mistrust of authority, said Margaret Bourdeaux, Research Director for the Security and Global Health Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The Russian government is particularly prone to exploiting health crises in this way. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, Russian trolls used social media to spread the rumour that Americans brought the disease to West Africa, according to research by the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Ironically, government censorship during epidemics can help such misinformation flourish. Officials are better off providing simple, truthful messages to the public, Dr. Bourdeaux argued, and giving trusted leaders the opportunity to answer questions from citizens.

Telephone operators wear masks in High River, Alta., during 1918's global influenza outbreak.Glenbow Archives/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

When states try to bottle up the truth about disease outbreaks, rumours can enter overdrive and even generate enduring myths. During the global outbreak of influenza in 1918, combatant countries in the First World War suppressed information about the disease to bolster morale. Newspapers in neutral Spain, however, were free to report on the epidemic, giving the false impression that it originated there. The “Spanish flu,” as it came to be known, went on to kill tens of millions of people worldwide.

Today, there is evidence that the Chinese government is using social media to sow disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak. The state media outlet People’s Daily shared an image on Twitter this week purporting to show a recently completed hospital building in the city of Wuhan, epicentre of the outbreak. The U.S. website BuzzFeed News found that the image actually showed an apartment building, more than 1,000 kilometres away.

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