Misleading, unverified and clearly false information about the coronavirus has spread across social media platforms, with some accounts only a few days old reaching millions of views with a mix of fearmongering and racial stereotyping.
Misinformation has spread on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and the short-form video app TikTok, some published by fringe groups that commonly traffic in conspiracy theories and far-right news organizations.
But some misinformation that has achieved a sizable reach has come from accounts set up in recent days or those that focus on internet marketing, highlighting how global news stories can quickly become fodder for people looking to build followings on social media.
The first- and second-most-popular coronavirus posts on Instagram since the start of the outbreak, according to Crowdtangle, a social media metric platform, came from the account of Karmagawa, a U.S. non-profit owned by an internet marketer that donates proceeds from the sale of branded merchandise to various charitable causes.
Both posts feature a carousel of videos, some of which show people eating animals like bats and mice and put the blame for the outbreak on the eating habits of Asian people — claims that have been debunked. Experts have warned about the spread of xenophobic and racially insensitive stereotypes tied to the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Facebook is trying to halt the spread of harmful content and misinformation linked to the virus.
“Our global network of third-party fact-checkers are continuing their work reviewing content and debunking false claims that are spreading related to the coronavirus,” Facebook’s head of health, Kang-Xing Jin, wrote in a blog post.
“When they rate information as false, we limit its spread-on Facebook and Instagram and show people accurate information from these partners. We also send notifications to people who already shared or are trying to share this content to alert them that it’s been factchecked.”
The company also says it’ll remove potentially harmful conspiracy theories and other falsehoods, such as fake cures or incorrect information about available health resources, that health organizations flag. In addition, Facebook will restrict or block hashtags people are using to share coronavirus misinformation on Instagram.
When users search for the coronavirus and related terms on Facebook, they may see a pop-up containing useful information. Certain organizations will be able to run coronavirus education ad campaigns for free on Instagram and Facebook in areas affected by the virus.
In another development, police in Kazakhstan detained a doctor for spreading “false information” on the coronavirus outbreak. The gynecologist appeared in a online video claiming that around 70 people were registered as infected with the coronavirus in the south-eastern Almaty region, which includes the two-million-people city of Almaty. The country’s health ministry denied the information, saying there were no cases of coronavirus infection registered in the ex-Soviet republic bordering China.
“He has admitted to knowingly sharing false information, and he claims to be sincerely sorry about it,” local police chief Serik Kudebayev said on Thursday.