GENEVA — Secret cures and vaccines. Chinese biological weapons. These have been some of the bogus social media claims the World Health Organization said on Monday it was pushing back against in the global coronavirus outbreak.
WHO’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a politician and public health expert who formerly led Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries, told the opening of the United Nations health agency’s executive board meeting it was enlisting help from big tech companies to “combat the spread of rumors and misinformation” about the new, fast-spreading respiratory virus first identified in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019.
“To that end, we have worked with Google to make sure people searching for information about coronavirus see WHO information at the top of their search results,” said Tedros, who once led the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership.
“Social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Tencent and Tiktok have also taken steps to limit the spread of misinformation,” he said in his prepared report to the board. “Our global connectedness is a weakness in this outbreak, but it is also our greatest strength. We need strong public-private partnership to find solutions.”
The companies have been posting prominent links to WHO content and, in some cases, removing misleading content or at least making it harder for the false claims to be found in ordinary searches and on news channels.
Google and WHO announced that searches for “coronavirus” would trigger an “SOS Alert” that sends users to a curated search results page with resources from the U.N. health agency, including news updates and safety tips. The information is being made available in the six official U.N. languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish and Russian.
Google also said its philanthropic arm, Google.org, gave a $250,000 direct grant to the Chinese Red Cross to support coronavirus relief efforts, and the company launched an internal fundraising campaign for the same purpose to which Google staff had contributed more than $800,000 so far.
Today we launched an SOS Alert w/ @WHO, to make resources about #coronavirus easily accessible. When people search for related info on @Google, they’ll find the alert atop results page w/ direct access to safety tips, info, resources & Twitter updates from WHO.
— Google Communications (@Google_Comms) January 30, 2020
‘Infected with misinformation’
As of Monday, WHO reported there were 17,391 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, including 2,838 new cases just in the past 24 hours. China had 17,238 of those cases — it also accounted for all but seven of the new cases — and 361 deaths from the virus.
Elsewhere, there were 153 confirmed cases, including seven in the past 24 hours, among 23 nations. A 44 year-old Chinese man from Wuhan who died of the virus in the Philippines, but appeared to have been infected before arriving there, became the first known fatality outside of China, WHO officials said on Sunday as nations imposed travel bans to slow the spread of the outbreak.
Within a month of reports about the first unusual cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, the internet was “infected with misinformation” about the responsible virus, the International Fact-Checking Network, hosted by the U.S.-based Poynter Institute of journalism, said in a statement.
“False claims were circulating widely on social media that as many as 10,000 people had died from the virus. We debunked those claims as well as budding conspiracy theories that misrepresented an unrelated patent and blamed the virus on a ‘Chinese spy team,’ ” it said.
Some of the false claims — pushed by people who mistrust science or wanted to attract internet traffic — asserted the new coronavirus was created as a bioweapon or had been secretly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote vaccine sales, according to WHO officials.
Other misinformation uncovered by the fact-checking network included false claims that a vaccine against the virus was already available and that the new coronavirus from China was already known because old Clorox wipes and Lysol cans list “coronavirus” as one of the things their products kill.
"In our era of fake news & misinformation, more than ever the 🌍 needs a WHO that brings reliable science & evidence to bear on the decisions we make about health.
For each of the “triple billion” targets, we need to invest in WHO’s core business, norms & standards"-@DrTedros pic.twitter.com/btafsvdUGl
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) February 3, 2020
Myth busters and and evidence-based info
WHO declared last week that the coronavirus outbreak was a global health emergency that represents a risk to nations other than China, and requires a coordinated global response. That decision came after the virus spread to almost two dozen countries. Health scientists still do not know the severity of the virus or exactly how it spreads.
On Sunday, WHO officials said the 2019-nCoV outbreak and response “has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ — an over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
Because of the urgent need for trustworthy information, WHO said, it had communications and social media teams working to track and respond to the biggest myths and rumors in circulation.
“Through its headquarters in Geneva, its six regional offices and its partners, the organization is working 24 hours a day to identify the most prevalent rumors that can potentially harm the public’s health, such as false prevention measures or cures,” the U.N. health agency said in a daily report.
“These myths are then refuted with evidence-based information,” it said. “WHO is making public health information and advice on the 2019-nCoV, including myth busters, available on its social media channels (including Weibo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest) and website.”