False cases of coronavirus have infected social media
By Kristsina Yakubovich
The Poynter Institute
On Feb. 12, a 50-year-old man hanged himself in the Indian city of Chittoor to prevent his wife and children from getting the 2019 coronavirus. Feeling sick, he visited a doctor and left the consultation believing he had COVID-19.
After his death, however, the presence of the new virus in his body was not confirmed. His son told Times of India his dad died from fear and anxiety, after having watched hundreds of videos about the new disease.
Recently, the “information” that the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis was infected with the 2019 coronavirus went viral on social media — but it was false.
As far as March 3, neither the official Pontiff profile on Twitter nor the Vatican press newswire service had written a single line stating that Francis had been contaminated with the virus that emerged in China and has already killed more than 3,000 people. It was another alarming “false case.”
Between Feb. 27 and March 2, the #CoronaVirusFacts / #DatosCoronaVirus alliance, the group that gathers 91 fact-checkers from 40 countries, found at least 20 cases of “false positives” spreading panic on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp.
The movement proliferates with special prominence in Spain, Italy, Argentina, Colombia, India and the United Kingdom, and it seeks to manipulate documents and images so that people believe the information comes from serious entities or from well-known media. Fact-checkers, however, have been able to identify some of these falsehoods.
In Spain, Newtral and Maldita.es have detected a false notification “from the Barcelona City Hall” going viral online. The text, written on official letterhead, “warned” about cases of coronaviruses in a particular neighborhood called Santa Eulalia. False.
They also saw a false statement “issued by University of Seville” canceling all classes, as well as several examples of images using the graphic design from famous newspapers like El País and ABC to give credibility to what was actually pure false news.
Laura Del Río, who coordinates the team of fact-checkers at Maldito Bulo, in Madrid, told the IFCN that misinformers have started to use basically two methods to deceive people.
“They manipulate images or modify the HTML code of a certain website to change the headline of a story about the new coronavirus.”
The change may begin as a joke. The results, however, are panic and anxiety.
In Italy, where COVID-19 has gained strength, Pagella Politica hasn’t stopped alerting the population about false cases of coronavirus.
On a single day — Feb. 26 — the Italian fact-checkers announced three falsehoods. There were no cases in Sant’Egidio (Abruzzo), Parabiago and Nerviano (Lombardia) nor in Bari (Puglia).
Think for a moment about what those who live in these regions felt between the time they saw those falsehoods and the moment they read Pagella Politica’s fact-checks.
Across the Atlantic, the problem remains the same. In Latin America, fact-checkers from Colombia had to deny cases of COVID-19 in a hospital in Bogotá. In Argentina, they had to say that, as of Feb. 27, there were no COVID-19 in Chaco and Santiago de Estero.
But what may come ahead — and also deserves a lot of attention — could be even more terrifying: false accusations.
AFP, for example, published a fact-check of this kind on Feb. 27. The team explained that a photo circulating in Thailand showing Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in a hospital bed had nothing to do with the new coronavirus. The image actually came from Singapore and reflected his 2017 hospitalization.
But fact-checkers know that other attacks like this are on the horizon, and that there aren’t many people like the Spanish citizen who apologized on TV for having shared a WhatsApp audio accusing the owner of a bar in his town of having coronavirus.