• Last updated: 5th March 2020
  • World Health Organization head calls spread of false information on Coronavirus an "infodemic".
  • Misleading information is circulating rapidly on social media.
  • The WHO is working with Facebook, Twitter, Tencent, Pinterest and TikTok.
  • The battle against fake news is likely to last as long as the virus.

Are you stocking up on hand soap or garlic?

Both have been named on the internet as potential guards against the outbreak of Coronavirus, or COVID-19, but only one is effective. And it’s this rapid spread of misinformation that’s front of mind for the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” he says.

With fake news and the spread of misinformation one of the defining issues of our time, incorrect, misleading or false medical advice can travel around the world before anyone has a chance to correct it. So how big is the problem? And what can be done other than monitoring social media?

Around 2 million tweets containing conspiracy theories about the coronavirus were published over a three-week period in January and February, according to a report in the Washington Post that cited an unpublished report from the US Global Engagement Center.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

WHO coronavirus help
Busting the myths.
Image: World Health Organization

“The difference now with social media is that this phenomenon is amplified,” says Sylvie Briand, Director of Infectious Hazards Management at the WHO's Health Emergencies Programme. “You need to be faster if you want to fill the void. What is at stake during an outbreak is making sure people will do the right thing to control the disease or to mitigate its impact.”

Confirmed curve of confirmed Covid-19 cases outside China.
Confirmed curve of confirmed Covid-19 cases outside China.
Image: World Health Organization

Briand and her colleagues at the WHO are fighting against this tide – closely monitoring for misinformation and counteracting it with facts and their own myth-busting page.

Google has created an SOS Alert on COVID-19 for the six official UN languages, and is expanding in other languages to make sure the first information the public receives is from the WHO website and the social media accounts of the WHO and Dr. Tedros. Facebook says it’s banning ads featuring cures for the virus.

Covid-19 red alert.
Red alert.
Image: Google

“Fighting infodemics and misinformation is a joint effort,” says Aleksandra Kuzmanovic, social media manager with the WHO's department of communications. “In my role, I am in touch with Facebook, Twitter, Tencent, Pinterest, TikTok, and also my colleagues in the China office. When we see some questions or rumours spreading, we write it down, we go back to our risk communications colleagues and then they help us find evidence-based answers.”

On TikTok, the World Economic Forum’s feed offers short video content aimed at dispelling some myths and putting out straightforward facts.

Even so, the battle against fake news is likely to last as long as the virus. And mainstream news outlets and news websites are also fanning the flames of panic, according to Carlos Navarro Colorado, head of Public Health Emergencies at UNICEF.

“Often, they pick the most extreme pictures they can find,” Navarro said. “There is overkill on the use of [personal protective equipment] and that tends to be the photos that are published everywhere, in all major newspapers and TV. That is, in fact, sending the wrong message.”