The novel coronavirus roiling financial markets and prompting travel bans is taking on a life of its own on the Internet, once again putting US-based social media companies on the defensive about their efforts to curb the spread of false or dangerous information.
Researchers and journalists have documented a growing number of cases of misinformation about the virus, ranging from racist explanations for the disease’s origin to false claims about miracle cures. Conspiracy theorists, trolls and cynics hoping to use the panic to boost traffic to their own accounts have all contributed to the cloud of bad information.
“It’s the perfect intersection of fear, racism and distrust of the government and Big Pharma,” said Maarten Schenk, co-founder of the fact-checking site Lead Stories. “People don’t trust the official narrative.”
The novel coronavirus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, so far has killed at least 900 people and infected over 40,000, with cases in more than 20 countries.
One set of tweets and Facebook posts from US conspiracy theory accounts said drinking bleach could protect against the virus or even cure it.
“Rumors can travel more quickly and more widely than they could” in an era before social media, said Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, who has a forthcoming book on the history of disinformation. “That of course lends itself to conspiracies spreading more quickly. They spread more widely and they are more persistent in the sense that you can’t undo them.”
Some of the Internet traffic and misinformation has been outright racist against Chinese people and Asians in general. Posts attributing the coronavirus to Chinese culinary practices have blown up, and a review of a new Chinese restaurant in Toronto was swarmed by racist trolls. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and some of that can be quite dangerous,” Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging diseases unit, said at a press conference in Geneva on Jan. 29.
Viruses have always sparked fear and misinformation, striking panic as rumors spread and people desperate for information latch onto whatever snippets they can find — whether they’re true or not. But the advent of social media has supercharged this process, leading to waves of misinformation over elections, mass shootings, plane crashes and natural disasters.
The outbreak is just the latest test of social networks’ ability to handle the spread of false and dangerous information.
“Early days in an outbreak, there’s so much uncertainty. People don’t like uncertainty. They want answers,” said Timothy Caulfield, a health law professor at the University of Alberta. “Social media is a polarization machine where the loudest voices win,” he said.
事實查核網站「Lead Stories」的共同創辦人馬丁‧申克表示：「這是恐懼、種族歧視、對政府之不信任，以及電玩遊戲『Big Pharma』（大藥廠）的完美結合」。「人們不信任官方的說法。」
FOLLOW UP 讀後練習
1. What do you think is the motivation behind the creation of misinformation and fake news?
2. Why do you think people believe, and then go on to spread, misinformation?
3. What could be done to curb the spread of misinformation?
4. Please list misinformation about the coronavirus that you have heard about. What measures have been taken by governments and other groups to tackle it?
(Lin Lee-kai, Taipei Times)
1. novel coronavirus phr.
新型冠狀病毒 (xin1 xing2 guan4 zhuang4 bing4 du2)
2. misinformation n.
假消息；錯誤資訊 (jia3 xiao1 xi2; cuo4 wu4 zi1 xun4)
3. conspiracy theorist phr.
陰謀論者 (yin1 mou2 lun4 zhe3)
4. panic n.
恐慌 (kong3 huang1)
5. racism n.
種族歧視 (zhong3 zu2 qi2 shi4)
6. rumor n.
謠言 (yao2 yan2)
7. uncertainty n.
不確定性 (bu2 que4 ding4 xing4)
8. polarization n.
兩極分化 (liang3 ji2 fen1 hua4)
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