When disinformation goes viral

FEBRUARY 2 — The Wuhan virus rages on. Though in fact its impact outside of China has been very limited so far. There have been no deaths outside China and very few cases of human to human transmission outside of China.

Effectively the chances of you contracting it if you aren’t currently in China are extremely low and the chance of death even lower. Despite the statistically low threat, the public response has been one of intense concern bordering on hysteria and panic.

People are stockpiling surgical masks and much else beyond. Tinned food and cold medications are all suddenly much sought after. Chinese tourists are being harassed while businesses, public places, bars and events remain emptier than usual. 

Meanwhile across WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages, rumours of everything from a zombie apocalypse to a new plague spread faster than an Australian bushfire. Messages, articles and screenshots offer cures based on everything from garlic (harmless) to bleach (harmful). 

Which brings us near the heart of a modern pandemic — disinformation goes viral and spreads faster than the virus itself. This can be genuinely dangerous.

The problem is the super abundance of information and the speed at which information both right and completely wrong can spread.

Along with legitimate information released by governments and reputable news organisations, I find all manner of superstitions, lies and genuinely vindictive pranks appearing on my screens.  

There have been no reported deaths linked to coronavirus outside China. — AFP pic
There have been no reported deaths linked to coronavirus outside China. — AFP pic

Given the amount of information we are constantly bombarded with, people have a great deal of difficulty distinguishing what is credible from what isn’t. And this is the essence of the issue of fake news that bedevils our modern digital world. 

So much information from so many sources, how do I know what is real and what isn’t? The best course of action you can take is to verify everything. Certainly verify everything that you share before you share it.

Build up a network of truly trusted sources. When you see a piece of information, cross check it with Wikipedia or perhaps Channel News Asia or the BBC. I find snopes.com to be a useful fact checking website and Google searches can also be very accurate if you have the right key words.  

Of course there is bias on even the most reputable sites but the basic facts like how  many cases of the virus have been reported etc should be accurate on most reliable outlets. 

We all have a responsibility to check the quality of the information we are sharing. People who simply share information without verifying the contents are adding to the problem.

So for now I’ll attempt a brief Wuhan virus recap:

As of the time of writing there have been approximately 10,000 cases of the virus with 200 fatalities. This is in fact not a very large number of deaths — around two per cent and given the caseload is probably higher than reported (as symptoms are often light) the death rate may be lower still. 

There has been person to person transmission of the disease only in China, the US, Germany, Japan and Thailand. And only one of two such cases in all countries bar China.  

Zero deaths have been reported outside of China.

The idea the disease originated from bats is only a theory, it has to be confirmed. 

No particular medicine has been found to be effective. It’s a viral infection therefore not susceptible to antibiotics or antibacterial agents — honey, garlic etc. Rest and anti-flu medications that relieve the symptoms are usually enough.  

Masks are not particularly effective at preventing this kind of infection and you need only wear one if you feel sick to stop spreading germs.

These are the facts as I know them but please don’t take my word for it — use your phones and search engines and verify everything!

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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