Epidemics: A disease of the disinformation age
The new coronavirus is the first global pandemic to unfold on social media, said Karen Hao and Tanya Basu in the MIT Technology Review, and it has not gone well. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization called the virus an “infodemic” because of the “overabundance of information—some accurate and some not.” Social media has helped some journalists get “a more accurate picture of the situation” inside China than state media has provided. And several Chinese doctors used the internet “to raise alarms about the severity of the situation,” before being swiftly censored by Beijing. Unfortunately, the rapid spread of misinformation also “sets the coronavirus apart from previous viral outbreaks,” such as SARS in 2003. WHO has been working with Facebook, Twitter, and China’s Tencent and TikTok apps to staunch the flood of fake posts, including claims that Shanghai has been “shut down” and that the virus can be cured by cannabis. But they are fighting against an “avalanche of content.”
China’s last big epidemic happened before the emergence of WeChat, China’s preeminent social network, said Mary Hui and Jane Li in Qz.com. When SARS broke out in 2003, the Chinese government could create a “virtual news blackout” that kept the early cases of the virus secret for months. “Now, the sheer amount of information shared every minute by internet users in China means that it’s impossible for the state to maintain a watertight seal on what’s posted online.” Make no mistake—the wave of “relatively free information sharing” has not changed the system of information control in China, said Han Zhang in The New Yorker, “but it has temporarily overwhelmed it.” Dr. Li Wenliang tried to issue warnings online about a new virus in the city of Wuhan in December, weeks before the outbreak was made public. He was silenced by the authorities, and his death from the virus this month, at age 33, triggered mass outrage online. A phrase “unthinkable on the Chinese internet,” the hashtag #WeDemandFreedomOfSpeech, even began trending.
Surprisingly, the platform doing the most to actually stop the spread of misinformation has been Facebook, said Bhaskar Chakravorti in Bloomberg.com. In contrast to its laissez-faire stance on political ads, for this crisis Facebook—which is banned in China—has removed false information and blocked pernicious hashtags on Instagram. It has even given “free advertising credits to organizations running coronavirus education campaigns.” Governments, however, can’t rely on social media to do the right thing, said Michael Brendan Dougherty in NationalReview.com. Public officials “need to think hard about how they communicate in a new world in which they are far from the only source of compelling information.” Getting ahead of a public health crisis, instead of lying or issuing blanket reassurances, would be a start. ■