false information, the epidemic in the pandemic

AFP, published on Friday March 20, 2020 at 11:29 am

Conspiracy theories, inappropriate treatment or false prevention advice: the rapid spread of all kinds of false information about the new coronavirus is hampering the authorities’ fight to stem the pandemic.

As early as February, the World Health Organization (WHO) alerted to the “massive infodemia” surrounding the Covid-19, namely an overabundance of information, which is not always true or accurate.

Proof of this flood since the beginning of the epidemic, the factchecking service of AFP (AFP Factuel) has published no less than 140 articles in English verifying the most viral false claims, 52 in Spanish and 53 in French.

“We see the same hoaxes appear in Asia, Europe, the United States, Latin America, a few hours apart,” said AFP Cristina Tardaguila, associate director of the international factchecking network IFCN, whose members are present in 45 countries share their articles.

“We have won battles”, with fakes that have stopped working, assured Tardaguila, “but we are losing that concerning false treatment and false prevention”. Because, in the absence of medical treatment against the coronavirus, the false remedies (taking cocaine, drinking bleach), the false recommendations (do not use disinfectant gel because it is carcinogenic), false numbers or even false screening tests abound on the networks.

– “Reaction speed” –

If people deliberately create and share false content, for conspiratorial purposes – such as those videos claiming that the virus was created in the laboratory – or even commercial content – such as fake medicines for sale, “many” relay claims without knowing that they are false and therefore without “malevolence”, stressed to AFP Claire Wardle, expert in misinformation. With the implementation of containment measures in several countries, the phenomenon is intensifying.

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“Many people are at home, alone, so everyone is sending messages because people are scared and want to help,” said the expert. And the specificity of this global health crisis, which has killed more than 9,800 people worldwide since its appearance in December: misinformation “affects absolutely everyone, including educated people”.

For Emanuele Capobianco, Director of Health for the International Federation of Red Cross Societies (IFRC), far from helping, this sharing of unverified information has had a “very negative impact on the speed of reaction” of societies facing to the epidemic, while “speed is a critical factor in containing an epidemic”.

False information about this virus which appeared in China has also caused the stigmatization of groups. In France, the Franco-Chinese community worried about xenophobic amalgams in January, like the regional newspaper Le Courrier Picard which headlined at the end of January “Yellow Alert” before apologizing.

According to Tarik Jasarevic, spokesperson for the WHO, “stigma can lead people to hide the disease to avoid discrimination” or “prevent them from seeking health care immediately”.

– Platforms pushed to action –

Strongly criticized, platforms are pushed to act to break the virality of false information and to highlight information from authoritative sources, such as disease control centers and the World Health Organization (WHO).

On Google, at the top of research on the coronavirus appears information from the WHO.

Facebook has mobilized on different fronts: valuing information provided by competent sources, combating the spread of harmful content (advertisements for alleged remedies, false information) and supporting health services with funds and tools IT.

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“The level of calls made via WhatsApp and Messenger has doubled compared to usual” in the areas most affected by the pandemic, said Wednesday Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of the social network.

WhatsApp, where numerous messages from “researchers” or “people in contact with the government” circulated, announced a million dollar grant to support IFCN members. As conversations are private, messaging to the two billion users constitutes a major challenge in this fight against misinformation.

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