What is the 'dangerous misinformation' that is stopping Melburnians getting tested for COVID-19?

Some Australians have been sharing social media posts saying there is no COVID-19 pandemic and test kits are "contaminated".

One of the memes and a testing facility in Victoria.

One of the memes and a testing facility in Victoria. Source: Facebook/AAP

As Victoria faces a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, authorities have sounded the alarm that "dangerous misinformation" is stopping people from getting tested for the virus.

On Friday, the state's Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said more than 10,000 people had rejected tests since the blitz began last week with "some people believing that coronavirus is a conspiracy or that it won't impact them".

So what kind of misinformation is to blame?

Ignorant posts

Australia's response to the pandemic has seen it fare much better than many other countries. But this success has resulted in a worrying trend over recent weeks.

A number of social media posts have gone viral that question the existence of the virus or try to minimise its impact.

"This makes me really angry ... It's just so ignorant and careless," said Dr Vasso Apostolopoulos of Victoria University, who is researching COVID-19.

Celebrity chef Pete Evans was one of the thousands of people that shared a post which said "there is NO pandemic".

The post has been marked as "false information" by Facebook.
Source: Facebook

It said there were "unreliable and contaminated test kits [and] ridiculously inflated death counts" with the real agenda being "enslav[ing] humanity with forced vaccines, microchips, and police state surveillance".

Facebook has marked the post as "false information".

Other posts, memes and fake news items have made similar false points in different ways.

A post that has gone viral in Australia.
Source: Facebook

Since material like this has been shared, Dr Apostolopoulos said "I've heard so many people saying there's no coronavirus, it's all made up".

Effect of misinformation

Peter Lewis of the Australia Institute's Centre for Responsible Technology has been monitoring the dissemination of conspiracy theories online since the start of the pandemic.

He said the refusing of tests in Victoria was an example of social media misinformation having real-world impacts.

"Social media is emerging as particularly fragile when you are trying to get information that's important out to the public. The difference between fact and fiction is very, very difficult to ascertain sometimes as it all looks the same," he said.

"Often in a world where veracity is linked to virality, if something is moving and has a large number of likes or shares, it appears to be authoritative, particularly in a public health crisis."

Mr Lewis said it was deeply concerning that "the filters that we've traditionally had to get information out to the public aren't there anymore".

"Social media platforms need to take greater responsibility for the content that they disseminate."

Debunking the misinformation

According to Johns Hopkins University, almost 11 million people around the world have contracted COVID-19 and the death toll is more than 500,000.

The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic in March.

"We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus," WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

Dr Apostolopoulos said people who denied the severity of the virus just needed to look at overseas examples.

"In Italy and Spain, they had so many cases that the healthcare system overloaded. Some people were basically told to go home and die ... Do we want that to happen here?" she said.

"I've been working in this area for 25 years and you get these people who are uneducated or just don't understand and they come up with these theories. They're putting us [in the health sector] down, saying that we don't know what we're doing."

She said a lot of misinformation can be traced back to anti-vaxxers who are "hyping up the community".

A spokesperson for Victoria's Department of Health and Human Services also slammed this misinformation.

"Coronavirus is an incredibly infectious disease that has killed hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, including 20 Victorians," the spokesperson told SBS News.

"Any suggestion otherwise is an insult to the remarkable Victorians working around the clock to control the spread of the virus and care for those infected.

"The spreading of misinformation is particularly dangerous at a time when we are trying to slow the spread of a spike in coronavirus cases."

It was a point echoed by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd on Friday.

"Do not listen to the theories that you may be coming across on social media," he said.

Migrant communities

Health authorities and experts have also warned that misinformation is spreading via social media in Australia's migrant communities.

It comes as state and federal governments face criticism over their outreach to these communities during the pandemic.

"There are people who use social media from their country of origin or amongst their network of friends as their primary source of information," Victoria's Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said.

"A lot of it tells them that it's all rubbish messaging from the government."

COVID-19 testing in Broadmeadows.
Source: AAP

FECCA Chairperson Mary Patetsos told SBS News more work needs to be done in this area.

"Unfortunately there is a disparity in terms of the accessibility of COVID-19 information to different sections of the community," she said.

"The problem is that in the absence of accessible in-language information being available at people's fingertips, people will go elsewhere for that information, whether that be from their country of origin, social media or from friends and family."

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

Published 3 July 2020 at 9:38pm, updated 4 July 2020 at 8:01am
By Nick Baker