Social media and the spread of the Coronavirus

Dr. Li Wenliang knew something was wrong. In December 2019, he noticed that seven patients were quarantined at his hospital with symptoms resembling SARS. On social media, he alerted the world to the potential of a new deadly disease now dubbed “coronavirus”.

Four days later, police arrested him for making “false statements.” Dr. Li would get no trial. A week later, Dr. Li got infected with the virus. Last month, the virus killed him — but not before Chinese people flocked to social media to hail Dr. Li as a hero.

China’s censorship failure

Try as they might, the Chinese government desperately wants to bury news about the coronavirus. Yet, even in a state infamous for the development of The Great Firewall of China and continual social media censorship, nothing can stop Chinese people from sharing stories about the coronavirus.

On WeChat and other social media platforms, the Chinese government is censoring search terms such as “Wuhan health committee” and “SARS variation. This authoritarian approach to information does nothing to silence voices.

Censorship is not working as intended. However, China’s reactive stance is resulting in a more terrible side. Without information transparency, misinformation and speculation are blossoming across social media. Because of distrust over official Chinese media, there is a dearth of factual information about coronavirus on Chinese internet.

It’s become difficult, if not impossible, for Chinese people to separate coronavirus fact from fiction.

The spread of misinformation in the USA

With its tradition of press freedom and openness, one would think that the USA would be more forthright about coronavirus information. Instead, President Trump has created an environment where misinformation thrives.

Instead of affirming the WHO’s report that the global coronavirus fatality rate is 3.4%, Trump disputed those claims and said deaths are much lower. Trump went on to say that the coronavirus is “very mild,” implying that those affected should just carry on an go to work.

Trump’s response shows that the coronavirus has caught the American government with its pants down. When a renowned health institution such as the CDC botches its coronavirus testing, it is symptomatic of something very troubling. The USA is being neither proactive nor transparent about accurate coronavirus information.

This has created a misinformation hellscape on social media. Conspiracy theories are running amok. Some Americans are dismissing the coronavirus as an attempt by President Trump’s opponents compromise his presidency.

The cost of this misinformation is a windfall of exploitation and bad advice. On Facebook and WhatsApp, ads for “miracle cures” are being peddled. Many social media posts inaccurately insist that garlic, salt water, and tea will get rid of the coronavirus.

Lessons for the next health crisis

Numerous mistakes have been made on social media. Here’s how to fix them.

Instead of censorship, governments need to be transparent and forthright about a genuine health crisis. Doctors who perform a public good should be celebrated instead of persecuted for telling the truth.

Governments should also fight misinformation, not spread it. Diminishing the true nature of a health crisis so one could politicize it doesn’t change the truth. As this pandemic spreads, people are going to die. This isn’t panic; this is letting people know the true stakes.

Finally, misinformation on social media thrives when people lack trust in the institutions that are meant to protect us. Governments need to rebuild trust. This means investing in social media infrastructure that values trust.