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Not just the virus, we must also fight the misinformation

Vicky Kapur (From the Executive Editor's Desk)
Filed on February 2, 2020 | Last updated on February 2, 2020 at 06.08 am
virus, curb, misinformation, coronavirus, wuhan virus, fake news, mohap

(Reuters)

Globally, too, efforts are being made to stop inaccuracies and distortions from spreading.

Along with the novel strain of the coronavirus, the peculiarly named 2019-nCoV, there's something else that's going viral - misinformation about the origin, symptoms and treatment of the Wuhan virus. If you're digitally connected (who isn't?), chances are that you'd have received at least some bits of inaccurate information or stats. If not about how the virus first spread and continues to do so, then probably about the masks and how they should be worn or how a mixture of ginger-garlic-whatever could help you treat the dreaded virus. The fact is, as the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) reiterated yesterday, "there is no specific treatment (for the 2019-nCoV). It is mainly supportive treatment" - i.e., symptomatic treatment - until the body's immune system defeats the virus.

Despite all the efforts by local, regional, and international authorities, organisations, governments, and media to disseminate credible information about its spread and precautions, social media - especially the dark social - is buzzing with baseless forwards and chatter about the virus. Thankfully, some bits of the false and inaccurate reports can be brushed aside as too frivolous to be believed (like preposterous claims that someone who had a bat soup in Wuhan was the first to be infected or that 5G tech is behind the spread of the virus). But then there are other falsehoods that seem plausible (if only remotely) and, therefore, are more harmful (including conspiracy theories that the virus is a bioweapon which was smuggled out of one country to another).

At times, crass trouble-makers don't mind the discomfort or agony of others for their asinine amusement. On Friday, the headline of a Khaleej Times photo gallery, for instance, was photoshopped and replaced with a fake one by miscreants to falsely suggest that UAE schools would be shut today due to the coronavirus scare. Of course, there's no cause for concern in the UAE and no, the schools aren't being shut down. KT was quick to spot and quash the rumour across all our platforms, and we also notified the relevant authorities so that action can be taken against those spreading rumours at a time when more than 250 have died from this deadly virus that has affected over 11,000 across the world.

Globally, too, efforts are being made to stop inaccuracies and distortions from spreading. Facebook, for instance, has decided to remove pages that claim to suggest a cure - including, hold your breath, drinking bleach! "We are doing this as an extension of our existing policies to remove content that could cause physical harm," wrote Facebook's Head of Health Kang-Xing Jin in a blog post. "We will also block or restrict hashtags used to spread misinformation on Instagram, and are conducting proactive sweeps to find and remove as much of this content as we can," FB's Jin added in his post.

It isn't just Facebook and FB-owned Instagram that are among social media platforms fighting the spread of misinformation. Twitter, Google, and Google-owned YouTube, too, have stepped up efforts to combat the fast-spreading misinformation. The UAE's MoHAP yesterday shared a detailed infographic-led advisory on the dos and don'ts to educate the public and stem misinformation. But warnings and advice notwithstanding, we're all guilty of, at times, forwarding messages without checking their authenticity or verifying them. It will, ultimately, boil down to us to ensure that we curb the spread of not just the virus, but also the misinformation.


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