As well as trying to contain the catastrophic outbreak of Covid-19, health authorities, governments and social media platforms must also try to combat the rampant spread of misinformation about the virus. By Mike Seccombe.

Fighting the infodemic

Dr Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response co-ordinator, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, Dr Anthony Fauci, listen as President Donald Trump speaks with  the coronavirus taskforce.
Dr Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response co-ordinator, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, Dr Anthony Fauci, listen as President Donald Trump speaks with the coronavirus taskforce.
Credit: Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Professor Axel Bruns, of the Digital Media Research Centre at the Queensland University of Technology, uses a term coined by the World Health Organization to describe a contagion wreaking havoc across the globe: “the infodemic”.

Never have we seen anything like the wild proliferation of Covid-19 related material on social media, says Bruns.

“All of the social media literacy messages that we’ve been pushing for some time now need to be amplified,” he says. “If we’re having pandemic warnings on TV, we probably need infodemic warnings as well.”

And it’s not confined to social media, either. The global crisis has brought on a flood of information that’s coming so fast it threatens to overwhelm even the most responsible traditional media. Outlets have responded, in substantial part, by taking a leaf from the social media playbook and reporting with constantly updated live streams. Developments are relayed in chronological order, rather than in order of importance.

For even the most diligent news consumer, finding what is true and relevant can be like parsing spaghetti thrown at a wall.

The confusion is only exacerbated by the conflicting messaging coming from various experts and a vacillating government. As businesswoman Sam Mostyn observed on ABC TV less than two weeks ago – although it now seems a lifetime ago – people want a “single source of truth”. But there isn’t one.

Do we trust ABC health reporter Norman Swan or chief medical officer Brendan Murphy? Scott Morrison or the state premiers? Do we send our kids to school or keep them home? One day hairdressers are limited to 30 minutes per client and the next the prime minister reverses the edict. Jokes circulate on various media suggesting the reversal was prompted by consideration of the time-consuming coiffure of Employment Minister Michaelia Cash. The deadly serious and the trivial compete for attention.

The infodemic fosters distrust in institutions. Government agencies blame one another for allowing cruise ship passengers with Covid-19 loose in the community. Stuart Robert passes false information about the cause of the crash of the myGov website, which wasn’t – as the Government Services minister said – a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. It was overwhelming demand on a system that was designed to be hard for poor people to use, which simply couldn’t be fixed in time to handle the sharp spike in unemployment that has claimed so many in the middle class.

The net effect is that people find it increasingly hard to know what or whom to believe.

And into the vacuum pour folk remedies and fake news, apocalyptic messages from religious extremists, hate speech and xenophobia from malign actors in the far right, all manner of scams that trade on fear, as well as reassurances from authorities, which in turn are unbelievable because they don’t accord with the lived experience of the populace.

As Bruns says, the infodemic can be deadly.

He cites, for instance, a dreadful story from the United States this week, which begins with the world’s No. 1 vector of false and misleading information, Donald Trump.

The American president has recently been talking up the prospects of a drug first developed as an antimalarial medication, hydroxychloroquine, as a treatment for coronavirus.

There is some very limited evidence that the drug might be effective against Covid-19, but clinical trials have only just begun. When the leader of America’s virus response, Dr Anthony Fauci, was asked at a joint media conference on Friday last week whether the drug was an effective treatment for Covid-19, he replied: “The answer is no.”

But Trump, taking over the microphone from the expert, immediately contradicted him.

“I think we disagree a little bit,” he said. “I feel good about it. That’s all it is, just a feeling, you know? Smart guy. I feel good about it.”

The president conceded he was working only on what his “gut” told him, but he was insistent: “We ought to give it a try.”

The next day, Trump tweeted about hydroxychloroquine to his 75 million followers, saying it presented “a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine”.

This enthusiastic endorsement of an untested, unapproved drug as a potential miracle cure was picked up and amplified across right-wing and social media, often stripped of even the most minimal caveats applied by the president.

Then, less than 48 hours after Trump’s tweet, Banner Health, a non-profit hospital network based in Phoenix, Arizona, released the following statement: “A man has died and his wife is under critical care after the couple, both in their 60s, ingested chloroquine phosphate, an additive commonly used at aquariums to clean fish tanks.”

The wife, who survived, later told NBC: “Trump kept saying it was basically pretty much a cure…

“Don’t take anything. Don’t believe anything,” she added. “Don’t believe anything that the president says and his people … Call your doctor.”

They will surely not be the only victims. There now is a global shortage of hydroxychloroquine, as people across the world – including doctors and dentists – have sought to stockpile it, just in case it works. It’s medical panic buying. But this is diverting key resources from the fight against malaria, which kills some 750,000 people every year – about 35 times as many as have so far died from Covid-19.

Various authorities around the globe, including Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration, have moved to strictly limit the drug’s prescription. Apart from the amorality of what has been happening, though, there is also danger – the side effects of hydroxychloroquine can include sudden heart attacks, irreversible eye damage and coma due to the depletion of blood sugar.

Trump has continued to send out tweets in recent days undermining the message of health officials, suggesting “the cure” of social distancing is worse than the novel coronavirus. A survey by a major US public affairs research outfit, Civios, now finds levels of “extreme concern” about coronavirus to be some three times higher among Democrats than Republicans.

Of course, Bruns notes, there’s not much that can be done about Trump. It’s not as though Twitter is about to de-platform him. But there is much that can be done, and some social media companies are trying to combat misinformation. Many of the major platforms have taken steps to promote verified information from official government and international sources, such as the World Health Organization, and block or remove misleading material, as well as direct searches to authoritative sources and filter out exploitative advertising.

But plenty of bad information still gets through and, conversely, accurate material gets taken down.

Last week, for example, Facebook suddenly started marking articles about coronavirus published by outlets including The Sydney Morning Herald, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, Politico and The Saturday Paper as spam, telling publishers their post “goes against our community standards”.

The issue, described as a “bug” by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, was resolved within hours. The social media site denied the problem was related to its decision, just 24 hours earlier, to shift from human content moderators to artificial intelligence.

But dodgy decisions made by computers are hardly surprising in the current circumstances, says Axel Bruns.

“These algorithms are really not trained to make judgements on the medical treatments that may or may not work against coronavirus, but are often quite simply checking for hate speech … possibly for nudity and other things like that.”

This is a situation that calls for more human content moderation.

But as social media traffic spikes, content moderators at the social media giants – like millions of other employees around the world – have been sent home.

On March 16, YouTube announced it “will temporarily start relying more on technology to help with some of the work normally done by reviewers” as it reduces the number of staff in its offices due to coronavirus.

Zuckerberg was quoted in The New York Times this week, admitting the moderation issue is likely to grow along with the number of Covid-19 infections. With his company’s 45,000 employees now trying to work remotely, he said, “We’re just trying to keep the lights on over here.”

And so, the burden of separating fact from fiction falls more heavily than ever on news consumers.

It is useful, therefore, to understand that not all platforms are created equal.

Trump notwithstanding, Bruns says, Twitter is not so bad, in part because it is argumentative and relatively open. Misinformation posted by one user is more likely to be called out by another. Twitter has also been removing posts and suspending some accounts that spread Covid-19 misinformation, including the right-wing site The Federalist, which suggested it was time to consider “controlled voluntary infection” of the virus, likening the approach to the “chickenpox parties” organised by anti-vaxxers.

For that reason, Bruns says, “there’s a quite significant difference between the more public and the more private social media platforms.

“The real problem, the most fundamental problem, lies in the much more private spaces, and that’s things like WhatsApp, the closed groups on Facebook, in those sorts of spaces. There, misinformation and disinformation can circulate almost without challenge, because very often those groups are formed around shared interests, shared ideas, shared identities.”

Within those groups, says Bruns, people are more likely to be predisposed to believe what they see and, even when they are sceptical, less likely to report it for fear of social repercussions.

These spaces are where the really bad stuff – the hate speech, the anti-Chinese racism, the conspiracy theories and the flakiest, most dangerous material about the disease and potential cures – tends to circulate. As the world’s most popular messaging app, with 1.6 billion active users, WhatsApp is probably the worst, in large part because its unfiltered, encrypted reach is so vast.

By now, this material is widespread.

Recently, an email dropped into my inbox from one of Canberra’s largest real estate agents and property managers suggesting “a lot of hysteria” about coronavirus.

“You are probably beginning to understand that the coronavirus is one of your everyday common cold viruses, which infects the upper respiratory tract – it is everywhere,” began the long attachment, authored by one Bill Giles, a purported clinical immunologist. “You probably have some in your nose right now!”

Giles’ screed went on to recommend various prophylactic measures, such as olive leaf extract and echinacea, along with “adaptogens” such as astragalus, rhodiola, cordyceps and reishi, and colloidal silver and vitamin C daily – “3000 mg, initially, and increase this if you become infected”. There were calls for extra magnesium, zinc, selenium and multivitamins.

The single most important thing to do was to avoid all grains.

If one started to feel the “cold” coming on, Giles advised readers to drink warm water or tea, take thousands of milligrams of vitamin C and try “intermittent fasting, get acupuncture, do intervals of breathing exercises or light yoga…”

And have regular small nips of brandy.

I tracked the letter back to its source. Bill Giles, the “clinical immunologist”, it turns out, has no medical training – he runs a yoga and alternative health business, which happens to sell many of the products he advocated.

Sure, the Giles prescription probably won’t end up directly killing people, as happened with hydroxychloroquine in Phoenix, but it is illustrative of the flaky, often self-serving advice going around. During our long conversation about his letter, Giles was quite unrepentant, and further suggested that I take a sauna for my protection.

These random pieces of advice and misinformation are being doled out across the globe. In India, authorities were forced to intervene to try to stop the practice, promoted through social media by Hindu fundamentalists, of drinking cow urine to fight Covid-19. It was making people ill.

In South Korea, secretive religious cult members spread Covid-19 while apparently believing their faith would protect them. In the US, there are members of the religious right who believe the Rapture is now upon us.

The internet is replete with pseudo-remedies: drink a bleach solution or vinegar or rubbing alcohol, blow a hair dryer up your nose. Drink lots of water because the friend of a friend of my sister is a nurse and she says that will wash the virus into your stomach where your digestive juices will neutralise it. To be clear, none of these work – and some are downright dangerous.

There are also the conspiracy theories, widely shared online, and increasingly publicly articulated on Fox News in the US, Sky News here and by a growing number of right-wing pundits: that Covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon.

Donald Trump this week derailed an attempt by the G7 nations to issue a joint statement on Covid-19 by insisting – in an obvious appeal to the racist and xenophobic elements of his base – that it be called “the Wuhan virus”.

Of course, not all misinformation is malign in its intent; some is meant to reassure.

In New South Wales, the secretary of the Education Department, Mark Scott, maintains the system is geared to cope with remote learning, as the state advocates as many students as possible stay home.

He’s been doing the rounds of the media delivering his Panglossian message, and on Monday, tweeted the following:

“Support materials have been developed to support teachers deliver units of work on this @NSWEducation website – available for teachers anywhere to use.”

Angelo Gavrielatos, of the NSW Teachers Federation, disagrees.

“What this crisis has done,” the union boss says, “is expose the serious inequalities that exist courtesy of policies of successive governments that have fuelled inequality [between state and private schools] through the funding systems.

“Many kids, many kids, let alone schools, don’t have access to the same technologies that others do. It will exacerbate inequality.”

Many state schools can’t even manage paper towels and soap in the toilets, Gavrielatos says, let alone the kind of technical support needed for remote learning.

Elite private schools can smoothly manage the transition. But the state system is struggling. I’ve seen this personally – as I began to write this story, my son, who’s in his crucial final year at a Sydney state high school, was in the next room on his laptop, guiding one of his teachers through the steps necessary to enable remote learning.

Turns out a kid was the best technical support available.

The point is not a personal one, though, it’s universal. The infodemic is upon us and it is affecting our society in all kinds of disparate, negative ways.

When this is over, we’ll need to scrutinise the role of social media in spreading misinformation, panic and blame. But there will be many other things to reconsider, too – from health funding to the wisdom of saddling this country with an old tech communications  system, to the supply chains for vital supplies including medical to educational opportunity and the holes in the social safety net, to the root issue of whether we are foremost an economy, or a society.

Even now, with time on our hands, as we hunker down under effective house arrest in our disparate places across the globe, fearing the pandemic, struggling to make sense out of the infodemic, we might have pause for thought.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2020 as "Infodemic outbreak".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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