Commentary: What to do with all these health rumours and forwarded messages in the time of COVID-19?

BEIJING: Chinas COVID-19 outbreak has also sparked an epidemic of online panic. When SARS hit in 2003, 6 per cent of Chinas population was online; now almost 60 per cent are.

The average user of WeChat, the countrys dominant social media platform, spends 90 minutes a day on the app.



As a result, while more than 40,000 patients in China are fighting the virus, the entire country is facing an onslaught of online media – much of it disinformation.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 outbreak – when social media and chat groups complicate crisis communication


There are important upsides to the proliferation of social media in China. It enables citizen reporting of a kind rarely seen in the country – such as video blogs from Wuhan, the city at the heart of the epidemic.



Such independent reporting is essential in Chinas tightly state-controlled media environment.

READ: Commentary: China in a coronavirus lockdown – life is normal but not really

At the same time, however, the flow of information is bigger than ever. Receiving information straight to your phone, in real time, can make you feel like the virus is closing in on you – even if its not.

Being surrounded by panic-inducing headlines, whether true or false, has its own impact on health.

A recent study in the Lancet about the impact of the Hong Kong protests on mental health found that spending more than two hours a day following such events on social media was associated with an increased likelihood of post-traumatic stress and depression, although the direction of causality is unclear.


A man wearing a mask uses his phone in front of the Beijing Exhibition Center, following the coronavirus outbreak, during the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, in Beijing, China January 27, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Amid the deluge of coronavirus news, some find it hard to distinguish between real and fake.

Last week, my grandpa texted me on WeChat: “Viruses are scared of acid. Twice a day … dab a cotton bud with strong vinegar and stick it inside your nose. It will help greatly with the current virus outbreak.”

I didnt reach for the cotton buds.

Friends told me they had received similar messages from relatives, asking them to dab sesame oil in their nostrils or avoid wearing wool. They often came via that most tricky of social arenas: the family group chat.

Many messages, like my grandpas, were copy-and-paste rumours that looked at first glance like genuine texts. Many begin with conversational openings: “A friend who works in a hospital told me…”

Others include a cry of urgency: “I just got this message!” Or: “Important news.”

READ: Commentary: Don't blame the kids, it's grandparents who share more fake news

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Such messages remind me of those that circulated ahead of last Decembers UK election, after the Yorkshire Evening Post reported the story of a sick child forced to sleep on the floor of a hospital because of a lack of beds.

Once the story broke, social media posts trying to discredit it proliferated, often opening with: “A friend who is a nurse told me…”

In response, James Mitchinson, editor of the Post, asked one critic: “Why do you trust (this social media accounts) claim over the newspaper youve taken for years in good faith?”


People attend a vigil in Hong Kong for dead Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, who tried to warn about the new coronavirus. (Photo: AFP/Anthony WALLACE)

In China, though, people are increasingly unsure whether they can take the media in good faith.

There has been widespread anger at the government over its hushing up of virus cases in the early stages of the outbreak, and over the police punishment of the young whistle-blower doctor who had warned of a new strain of coronavirus, and who, tragically, died from it last week.

The first step in dispelling misinformation is establishing an alternative source of credibility. Conversations within families could be one potent method for this.

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