Saturday, February 1, 2020

The widespread misinformation about the new coronavirus outbreak calls for responsible use of social media

A woman wearing protective mask in Beijing, China. Image source: BBC World News

As the global community is struggling to cope with the new coronavirus outbreak that has originated in China, our social media platforms are overloaded with information that are often misleading. Since the day the news of the outbreak made international headlines, we have been seeing many social media users sharing their own theories about what could have caused the outbreak and how it can be controlled. I feel that it is not only the virus that is spreading across the globe. The rumors and misinformation about the outbreak are travelling even faster, spreading unnecessary fear and panic amongst the general population.

It is sad that when the entire world is working on how to keep the epidemic at bay, there are people who are taking advantage of the situation to boost their online presence by making their own versions of stories viral, not realizing how many gullible readers are being misinformed by what they share. Even in Bhutan, many such stories are being circulated on social media and we have people passionately talking about them. Over the past couple of days, I have realized that most of those stories are not true because they have neither originated from popular international media sources nor from legitimate national and international agencies. According to this BBC Report and other authentic sources, the actual facts are as follows:

1. The new Coronavirus (2019 nCov) did not originate from the bat-soup as claimed by some social media users. The video showing a Chinese woman eating a cooked bat on camera was actually shot in 2016 during her trip to Palau, an archipelago on western Pacific Ocean. Although bats are believed to carry the virus, bat-soup is not common in China. The authorities believe that it could have originated from snakes but this has also been not yet confirmed.

2. The outbreak of coronavirus is not part of the planned virus program as claimed by some conspiracy theorists. After the United States confirmed its first coronavirus case, several patent documents emerged on social media suggesting that experts were aware of the virus for years. But the claims are found to be linked to the 2015 patent filed by the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, England that talks about developing a weakened version of coronavirus for potential use as a vaccine against avian infectious bronchitis virus that affects poultry. It has nothing to do with the new coronavirus.

3. The report that the new coronavirus is part of China’s secret biological weapons program and that the virus could have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology is also found to be not true because the BBC reporters who have studied the claims have not found any evidence suggesting that China has such a program.

4. Another health advice that we should keep our throat moist, avoid spicy food and load up on vitamin C to prevent coronavirus is also a hoax. This had first surfaced in the Philippines claiming that it was from the country’s Department of Health but the BBC’s monitoring team found that it was not on the official website of the agency. Another online advice that says we should avoid cold or preserved food and drinks like ice-cream and milkshakes for at least 90 days is also not substantiated by scientific evidences.

In this era of advanced internet technology, the virtual world is flooded with all sorts of information. If we fail to sift the right information from the wrong ones, we can easily be deceived. We should be very careful with what we see online. It is always important to check the facts before sharing them with our friends and families. If what we share through our social media accounts happens to be a hoax, then we should be as guilty as the one who has created it. Coming to the new coronavirus outbreak, the following are the actual precautionary tips provided by World Health Organization:

  • Avoid consuming raw or undercooked meat and eggs
  • Washing hands regularly
  • Covering mouth with tissue or the crook of an arm while coughing/sneezing
  • Avoiding close contact with those showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as fever or coughing.

So instead of blindly believing and sharing everything that emerges on social media, let us follow the above general advice issued by WHO and stay safe. Every time we come across new information online, let us make sure that it has come from authentic sources so that we don’t deceive ourselves and mislead others.

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