The coronavirus outbreak has killed hundreds and infected thousands. But this crisis is yet another reminder of a greater threat facing Canadians, spreading faster than a deadly illness.
Misinformation is going viral and is a second virus just as worrisome, if not more than the actual disease.
Photo manipulation and deepfake technology is allowing fake images, posts and videos to appear practically unnoticeable. It’s time that our government requires social networks to take action and combat rumours and hoaxes online. False claims around the coronavirus are leading to unwarranted panic, dispelling useful health information and scapegoating Asian Canadians.
A widely circulated rumour claimed the virus was created by Chinese spies in a Winnipeg lab, who sent the pathogens to Wuhan.
Fact-checkers are finding posts shared through Whatsapp with slightly altered wording than that used by official government health authorities. People are believing unsubstantiated advice, including to avoid ice cream for 90 days or smoke cannabis to protect themselves.
A widely circulated list falsely claims to show Toronto schools affected by the virus. And several Canadian universities, including McMaster and Ryerson, have had to dispel fabricated statements and fake news releases announcing students had tested positive for the virus.
The Chinese government has even spread lies about its response through official Twitter accounts. During conversations about the outbreak last week, several people told me about how China had supposedly built a new hospital in Wuhan in only 16 hours. I was also shown photos of a woman eating bat soup.
Both are completely false. The “so-called” hospital was actually a cropped photo from an apartment building listing. And while the disease originated in a fish market, there is no evidence connecting the bat images to the virus.
The list of false claims goes on and on. The number of likes and shares these posts have received is alarming. Some fake stories are even doctored to include logos of real, credible news organizations such as NBC.
Outbreaks such as the coronavirus provide an opportunity for hostile foreign governments to carry out deliberate disinformation campaigns, designed to create mistrust of authority. These rumours sow division in our society.
A review on a Toronto blog of a new Chinese restaurant became filled with spiteful comments linking the community with the disease. This is just one example of the rise in anti-Chinese rhetoric in Canada.
Falsehoods were swirling through the pages of newspapers when the plague hit Europe in the 17th century. But now the power to publish information has been extended to anyone with an internet connection and a device. Social media from Facebook to Twitter are becoming permanently swamped with misinformation.
These platforms created this problem and have a responsibility to address it. Social networks must develop advanced technology to filter false claims and altered images, and hire more employees to review user reports.
It’s time our government holds these immensely powerful companies accountable for their actions. If Facebook, for instance, lets a lie circulate unhindered for 24 hours, they should be slapped with a fine or comparable penalty.
We are living in an age with a climate of misinformation where marginal and unreliable voices are easily elevated during times of public anxiety. It’s time to take action before this virus infects us all.