Coronavirus fake news is being fuelled by the top and bottom of society, says Australian expert

A crisis communication expert has warned the flood of fake news about COVID-19 is greater than all the fake news he's witnessed before it combined, and has potentially fatal consequences.

A rally in San Diego

A demonstrator pretends to drink from a bottle of bleach during a rally in San Diego to re-open California. Source: AFP/Getty Images

We're living in a time of great uncertainty, in which a climate of fear is aiding the spread of mistruths, falsehoods and fake news from all parts of society, according to some health and crisis communication experts.

As the World Health Organisation has warned: the world isn't just fighting a viral pandemic - but also an "infodemic".

From conspiracy theories about how COVID-19 began, and its spread being facilitated by 5G networks, to fake photos of dolphins in swimming in the canals of Venice.

Not to mention comments from US President Donald Trump earlier this month that sent White House and US health officials scrambling to clear up any misconceptions about injecting disinfectant.

"To be honest, I’ve never seen anything like it in terms of the amount of misinformation spreading around it," says Associate Professor Adam Dunn, who leads biomedical informatics and digital health at the University of Sydney.

"And also I haven’t seen anything that’s had this much of a detrimental effect on people’s health and their lives as we’ve seen with this pandemic." 

"It’s an order of magnitude bigger than all of the other examples of misinformation I’ve seen before."

Associate Professor Adam Dunn leads biomedical informatics and digital health at the University of Sydney.
Source: Supplied

There’s never been a harder time to know who to trust and who is an 'expert'.

But Associate Professor Dunn says the fake news phenomenon is more complex than misinformation simply being disseminated from the top down, or from the bottom of society up.

He says, at its heart, is the viral rapidity with which information can spread online today - regardless of its source.

"Examples like the studies that originally came out as a pre-print and were withdrawn that suggested that the virus was engineered in a lab in Wuhan," he says.

"Or the weak studies that were originally published showing that hydroxychloroquine might be an effective drug."

"Those sorts of things come from small places and from the bottom, but then get quickly amplified once they reach influential people at the more senior levels.

"And, of course, if it comes from people like the leader of a country, then that can cause additional problems."

Influencers should 'remain silent' on coronavirus

Dr Harry Nespolon, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, says public influencers with vast social media followings - whether they be lifestyle gurus or politicians - can best serve the fight against the pandemic by acknowledging they’re not epidemiology experts and simply remaining silent on the topic.

"Trust is a really important part of what we’re talking about. So if you’ve got a celebrity that you’ve watched daily for potentially years, you believe that they will tell you the truth," he said. 

"The reality is that a lot of celebrities are not experts in healthcare. They are promoting what are, in my view, very dangerous ideas ... Some of these could actually end up with people dying because they’ve followed that advice."

Associate Professor Dunn says public susceptibility to fake news also plays a role but this can be addressed by proper crisis communication at the governmental level.

"And I actually think that the poor quality of crisis communication that we’ve had in Australia has likely created this increasing level of anxiety and panic in the population, that would absolutely make them more susceptible to believing the kinds of misinformation that are spreading around as well."

Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy and Prime Minister Scott Morrison giving a COVID-19 update.
Source: AAP

Mr Dunn says the method known as 'pre-bunking' - alerting people to fake news and misinformation whilst they’re looking at it - used by Facebook has shown some positive results.

"There’s some reasonable evidence that that could work and I think it’s probably an appropriate approach. The risk, of course, is backlash and the potential for these things to inaccurate or to flag things inappropriately or to give us a false sense of security."

The official Australian government information and advice about COVID-19 can be found at health.gov.au

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus


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Published 4 May 2020 at 5:51am
By Darren Mara