China is taking a tough stance on people spreading unverified “rumors” about the coronavirus outbreak on social media. A number of other governments are also fighting back against misinformation with arrests, fines, and "fake news laws."
WeChat, a widely used Chinese messaging service similar to Whatsapp, announced on January 25 that anyone sharing “false information” on their app could face three to seven years in jail. Other app-users found spreading “rumor-like information” could face their account being permanently blocked or having certain functions restricted.
Even before this announcement, some Chinese citizens landed themselves in trouble for sharing information about the virus through the internet. On January 1, police in Wuhan arrested at least eight people for "spreading rumors” about the coronavirus, Chinese state tabloid The Global Times reported. It was later revealed that at least one of these individuals was a doctor in Wuhan who talked about the outbreak through a messaging app.
Last week, China Digital Times, a US-based news website covering China, leaked “censorship instructions” reportedly sent to the nation’s media from the Chinese government authorities. The statement told media outlets to stop republishing any commentary on an article published in Sanlian Life Week called “How will China’s Economy be Impacted if the WHO Gets Involved With the Coronavirus Epidemic?”
Meanwhile, the viral outbreak continues to grow. As of February 4, there are at least 20,701 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) across the world, around 20,500 of which are in mainland China. There have also been over 427 deaths, all but two in mainland China, surpassing the number of people that died in mainland China during the SARS outbreak (349 deaths).
Many other countries in Asia are taking a similarly hardline approach, with Malaysia, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Hong Kong arresting at least 16 people over social media posts about the coronavirus, reports Reuters. Singapore has also used its controversial new POFMA "fake news law" to force media outlets into putting government warnings on their articles about the outbreak saying it may contain false information.
Misinformation can spread fast in the panic of an epidemic. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, social media in North America and Europe has seen a lot of dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories, along with a fair amount of racist slander. One widely shared rumor even suggested drinking bleach to “cure” coronavirus infections.
As a result of this wider situation, Facebook has announced they will delete posts with false claims or conspiracy theories about the coronavirus outbreak that have been flagged by health authorities. Twitter has also taken a stand. If searching for coronavirus on Twitter, the first thing you’ll see is a “Know The Facts” bar that directs users to the official pages of national health authorities.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also ramped up its efforts to combat misinformation with the hashtag #KnowtheFacts. As one example, a Twitter post from the WHO dispels the false claim that eating sesame oil or garlic can prevent the coronavirus from infected people.