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As coronavirus infections proliferate, fact-checking platforms are working in overdrive

The portals are clearing information to avoid public panic.

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With more than 6,000 confirmed infections and over 9,000 suspected cases, the Wuhan coronavirus has found more hosts than SARS, which claimed nearly 800 lives during an outbreak in 2002–03. Rumors are abound: Does a sweet broth with garlic and rock sugar cure the sickness? Are Beijing’s supermarkets shutting down for a week? Was this virus actually discovered two years ago?

The answer to all three of those questions is no.

At the time of publication, the Beijing government has debunked 49 rumors. Local official bodies, like the government of Zhejiang province, also have their own information-clearing sites. Tencent News runs its own service that allows users to enter queries and see if the information they have has been verified as true.

Misinformation regarding the coronavirus is spreading like wildfire. A conspiracy theory that won’t go away is that the virus was manufactured in a Canadian lab and stolen by two Chinese scientists who were fired last year. And on Twitter and Facebook, one video has been circulating to enforce the suggestion that bat soup is a local delicacy in Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital. The woman who is consuming the bat soup in the video has since come forward to say that it was filmed in the Micronesian nation Palau for a travel show.

The fact-checking sites are proving to be invaluable portals. On Chinese social media, people are offering dietary tips to guard against the virus—some users say that eating spicy food can lower the chances of fatality, even though there is no scientific data to back up the claim. Others make posts that have the potential to cause widespread panic, like one that said travel agencies in Yangzhou claim more than 300,000 tourists originating from Hubei province are about to be repatriated from foreign countries to Shanghai.

The Beijing government’s platform for debunking rumors was set up in 2013 by six online portals. It has since expanded to include nearly four dozen websites and news outlets. Ever since the coronavirus outbreak was identified as a key event, sites like it have been working to swat down false and questionable claims.

There have been hints of introspection about how “rumors” are handled by these bodies. Earlier in the month, eight people were punished by Wuhan police for sharing sreenshots of group chats mentioning seven confirmed cases of SARS infections in people who were at a local market that sold seafood and fresh meat. That information turned out to be mostly true—though the culprit was the new strain of coronavirus that is racking up a death toll now.

“It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumor’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitation measures, as well as avoid the wild animal market,” read a recent op-ed published on the Supreme People’s Court’s social media account.

With assistance by Luna Lin and Brady Ng.