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The ‘infodemic’ and the importance of fact-checking during COVID-19

By Sejla Rizvic

For anyone trying to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic, accessing reliable information online has become a minefield of mis- and disinformation, myths, and conspiracy theories.

 Responding to the alarming trends that have emerged online, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of an “infodemic,” which they define as “an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not, that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” 

Much of the COVID-19-related disinformation and conspiracy theories being propagated online rely on anti-Chinese and other racist narratives. A recent report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) found that existing extreme right-wing channels have used COVID-19 as a “powerful propaganda tool” to further radicalize their followers on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.

One way to push back against disinformation, according to the ISD, “is to flood the information space with evidence-based accurate information in digestible formats.” 

Diligent reporting and fact-checking is essential to curbing mis- and disinformation. That’s why the Institute for Canadian Citizenship has teamed up with The Walrus Fact-Checking project to debunk claims related to COVID-19. Below are two widespread claims that our fact-checkers found to be lacking in evidence and rooted in xenophobia. 

FACT CHECK: Was COVID-19 intentionally created in a Chinese lab?

One of the most popular myths — recently repeated by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump — is that the virus that causes COVID-19 was intentionally created in a Wuhan lab. The Walrus Fact-Checking project investigated the claim and found no evidence to support it: 

“A team of researchers analyzed the genome sequence of the virus and wrote in Nature Medicine that, based on their findings, ‘SARS-CoV-2 [the novel coronavirus] is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.’ 

According to the study, the genomes of the virus show evidence of natural selection, which means that it has evolved in ways that are unexpected and entirely different from viruses available to laboratories.”

There are other theories about the origin of the virus as well — namely, that the virus was leaked accidentally from a lab, or that it originated in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. But scientists still can’t say with confidence where the original animal to human transmission occurred. 

Though there is some evidence that links several cases of the novel coronavirus to the market location, other data suggest that the earliest cases of the virus had no known link to the market. Unfortunately, rather than relying on the available facts, much of the discussion regarding the origin of the virus has been used to fuel discrimination. Some social media users have taken the “wet market” origin theory and used it to promote damaging prejudice against Chinese food and culture. 

The outbreak has had a decidedly dehumanizing effect,” writes Jenny Zhang for the food website Eater, “reigniting old strains of racism and xenophobia that frame Chinese people as uncivilized, barbaric ‘others.’”

FACT CHECK: Would travel bans against China have prevented the spread of COVID-19 in Canada?

Since the outbreak of the virus, countless anti-Chinese attacks have been recorded worldwide: a family in Perth, Australia had their driveway vandalized with the words “virus get out”; the French newspaper Courrier picard ran an article with the headline “Alerte jaune” (“Yellow alert”); and in Vancouver, an elderly Asian man was shoved to the ground outside a convenience store while his attacker yelled racial slurs and referenced COVID-19.

These individual acts of racism have also been echoed in calls for policy measures that target Chinese travellers. Another Walrus Fact-Checking article examined the claim that an earlier travel ban against China would have protected Canada from COVID-19, and found there was little evidence to support it:

“Not only do targeted bans discriminate against travellers based on their national origin, research on HIV/AIDS, Ebola, influenza, and H1N1 has found that placing travel restrictions on a specific country are not generally effective…Think Global Health compared the number of cases in countries that had implemented travel bans on China with those that had not, and found that travel bans don’t appear to be affecting the spread of the virus.”

Jumping to xenophobic conclusions without ever examining their factual basis is a feature of the “infodemic,” and something that policy makers, the media, and the public must join together to combat. 

As Scott Radnitz writes in the Guardian, although the infodemic and the pandemic are running parallel to each other, there are some clear differences between them. Spreading false information has been made far easier than spreading a virus, with tools like social media making it possible to transmit ideas without ever being in physical contact with others. And unlike people who have contracted COVID-19, those who spread misinformation are not always ”passive conduits” — some, like extremists and hate groups, do so with the intention of sowing fear, panic, and hatred. But transmitting myths and misinformation can be stopped, and, with the right information spread widely enough, can sometimes even be reversed.