Facebook fights the spread of fake Coronavirus news

As Coronavirus fears spread, Facebook is working to prevent the sharing of fake news. But how can they make sure what we read is factual?

The Coronavirus is a new strain in humans with similar symptoms to seasonal flu. Image: CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy via Wikimedia Commons


The Coronavirus is the latest epidemic to emerge. Originating in Wuhan, China, the death toll now stands at 213 people. As the first two cases are reported this morning in the UK, there is a rising tide of panic.

This virus is a respiratory illness that hasn’t been seen before in humans. The medical name for this new strain is 2019-nCoV and is thought to have come from illegally traded animal meat.

The problem with viruses is that they spread so easily; although because Coronavirus is new we aren’t yet sure exactly how it can be contracted. Usually, viruses spread through cough droplets or sneezing. This makes them difficult to contain, and the advice for anybody having travelled from Wuhan is to stay at home for 14 days to see if any symptoms develop.

The dangers of flu

Despite the panic, Coronavirus is very similar to seasonal flu. It is tragic that over 200 people have lost their lives, but generally healthy people don’t have much to worry about.

Symptoms include fatigue, difficulty breathing, high temperature and cough which are similar symptoms to chest infections and the flu. Both are horrid experiences but are very rarely life-threatening except for in patients with pre-existing conditions, in vulnerable health or with weakened immune systems.

To put this into perspective, 10,000 people have been diagnosed with Coronavirus so far – and I’d expect that figure to rise. However, seasonal flu kills around 56,000 people every year. Perhaps because we’re all familiar with it, ‘normal’ flu is less newsworthy?

A report by CIDRAP, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, confirms that of these deaths, 91 children in the US died from seasonal flu in the 2018-19 season.

WHO Coronavirus mythbusters
The World Health Organization is publishing MythBusters to stem the panic and share accurate information. Image: WHO

Fake news

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared Coronavirus a public health emergency. This indicates that we have a new human virus strain to contend with, and decisive action is needed to contain it and identify ways to treat it effectively. What is does not mean, is that we have a new version of the plague.

The WHO has published a Mythbusters page to explain what we can all do to keep ourselves safe.

However, the clamour for fake news, dramatisations and clickbait is reaching fever pitch. In the wake of the political fake news policies, Facebook is stepping up their game.

Containing the drama

Being aware and educated is extremely important. Stamping out fake news is perhaps even more so.

Facebook is working with its ‘global network of third-party fact-checkers’ to review content posted on the platform. Where false information is found, Facebook restricts it being shared further on Facebook or Instagram. They also display accurate information and notify the users that their content has been fact-checked.

I think this is a great idea. All too often we believe whatever we read, and this shows a level of responsibility that all social media platforms should accept.

For example, some users have posted that drinking bleach cures the Coronavirus (it won’t – it will make you incredibly ill, and possibly kill you).

Kang-Xing Jin, Head of Health at Facebook says:

We will also start to remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them. We are doing this as an extension of our existing policies to remove content that could cause physical harm. We’re focusing on claims that are designed to discourage treatment or taking appropriate precautions.

Correcting misinformation

As well as removing and limiting fake information, Facebook is working to provide messages on the top of our News Feeds. These are provided with guidance from the WHO.

Credible information is being shared through educational pop-ups. Facebook is also offering free advertising credit for educational campaigns in affected regions. This is to help share awareness and spread sound advice.

Bravo Facebook! With their 2.45 billion active users, I can’t think of a better way to spread important public information. Let’s hope more social media platforms deploy their impressive resources to stop the spread of harmful fake news.

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