The Black Lives Matter protests have been increasingly blamed on social media for the most recent COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne, despite the state’s health officials saying otherwise. We ask an expert what the dangers are when misinformation spreads online.
The current cluster of coronavirus cases in Melbourne has seen some link the ‘second wave’ to the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in the city in June.
The Australian reported on Wednesday there was a link between the protests on June 6 and the current outbreak at the Melbourne public housing towers.
“Victorian health authorities have confirmed a link between two COVID-19 cases in people who attended the Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne’s CBD just over a month ago, and the cluster of at least 242 cases in public housing towers in the city’s inner northwest,” the article reads.
The story was shared widely on social media. Avi Yemeni, a right-wing commentator, took the opportunity to share the information both on his social feeds as well as his YouTube channel, which has over 400,000 subscribers.
Numerous Facebook pages, many of which have followings in the hundreds of thousands, also shared the report from The Australian, with many people attributing blame to the protests for the recent outbreak in their comments.
The Department of Human and Health Services released a statement after the article was published to clarify the link between the protests and the current surge in cases.
"We are aware of six confirmed cases who attended the Black Lives Matter protest. Currently, there is no evidence to suggest they acquired the virus from the protest," a spokesperson said.
"None of these cases are known to reside at a major public housing complex.
"Currently, no known, nor suspected episodes of transmission occurred at the protest itself."
At the time, the Victorian government urged people not to attend the protests.
What happens when a story like this spreads?
Axel Bruns is a professor in the Digital Research Center at the Queensland University of Technology.
Prof Bruns told The Feed the dangers of misinformation spreading is that people begin to live and consume different realities.
"If you are already disposed to attribute blame to particular parts of the population, of course, you might be looking for stories that confirm your biases and prejudices," he said.
"If you think that the Black Lives Matter protests are the contributing factor to the outbreaks...you're going to look for stories that concern those prejudices."
The selective reading of stories that confirm biases is a worry for Prof Bruns. He says as a collective, we may end up with different understandings of what's going on with the pandemic and how best to protect ourselves and others.
Prof Bruns uses the example of the Melbourne protests and the subsequent confirmed, coronavirus cases. While there is a kernel of truth that there were cases in the aftermath of the protests, he says, "it's being essentially drawn out of context."
"So you might have different strains of the society essentially, who have some very different views of the reality of what's going on, of what should be done as well to control the new outbreak for instance," he said.
The implications, according to Prof Bruns, may result in some sections of the community responding differently, or no longer following health advice from officials.
Can we fact check COVID-19 claims on social media?
Yes, and no. Prof Bruns says in principle more fact-checking of politicians, public speakers, and accounts with large audiences would be useful. However, there's a problem of scale.
Fact-checking US President Donald Trump, as Twitter has sought to do, is one thing but broadening that out to hundreds of thousands of accounts might prove difficult.
"The more you try to fact-check, the more there is really significant labor involved for these platforms," Prof Bruns said.
"So it is genuinely very difficult for them to do fact-checking at a larger scale - even fact-checking Donald Trump is lots of work already."
But there is another issue with fact-checking, Prof. Bruns says, "you also run into trouble with statements that aren't simply objectively true or false."
He points to statements that misrepresent or highlight particular aspects of an issue while ignoring others -- they are still not factually untrue.
"It's just that I'm sharing selective facts rather than the full picture and that in itself isn't necessarily against the rules of the platform," Prof Bruns said.
What's the alternative?
Well, for Prof. Bruns that's the million-dollar question. There are limits because it's not just simply a question of truth or falsehoods.
"There is a lot of grey in between and employing rules to contain highly biased information," Prof Bruns said.
"The problem that we're having now is that perhaps particular voices that see the world in a very biased way are charismatic enough to attract a lot of followers to that view."
The answer, maybe not the million-dollar one, for Prof Bruns is more with us all -- apart from obvious cases of misinformation. He cautions to be wary of statements that neglect major points of an issue, and amplify others.
"Do some fact-checking, do some critical reading of overall statements," he said, "also speak back when we see someone quite egregiously twisting the facts ultimately, to suit a particular political narrative."
Residents in metropolitan Melbourne are subject to stay-at-home orders and can only leave home for essential work, study, exercise or care responsibilities. People are also advised to wear masks in public.
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