The Danger of Misinformation and Censorship in a Pandemic

By: Olivia Parise

Toilet paper flying off the shelves;[1]people stock piling bags of lemons, limes and oranges;[2]and perhaps the most alarming, people drinking aquarium cleaner.[3]Fueling the hysteria leading to harmful behavior is the spread of misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic juxtaposed with the censorship of legitimate information. This environment creates panic among the masses,  adding to the danger of an already daunting pandemic.

At the center of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, was a whistleblower doctor, Li Wenliang.[4]After bringing his concerns to the attention of government officials, he was told to stop spreading rumors.[5]Instead of listening to medical professionals, misinformation was spread over having effective treatments for the virus that was said to be contained.[6]Wenliang warned that censorship and misinformation was contributing to the spread of the virus before his death.[7]As we read articles and watch news stories about COVID-19 from our quarantines, we are painfully aware that this was not the case.

Additionally, censorship took the social media world by storm as the communist party tightened control on information about COVID-19.[8]Keywords pertaining to the virus outbreak was banned from a popular messaging platform used in China, WeChat.[9]This strict censorship and misinformation contributed to the way that people responded to the outbreak, possibly contributing to the spread of the virus and the beginning of a global pandemic.[10]

By the time COVID-19 landed in the United States, misinformation had flooded popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.[11]These platforms have taken efforts to stop the spread of misinformation and properly inform their audiences.[12]However, there are many shortcomings to these “fact-checking” operations that are aimed at stopping the spread of misinformation.[13]For example, private groups are beyond the fact-checking apparatus’s reach.

Despite the efforts of many sources of news, misinformation continues to spread. President Donald Trump has given unfounded health care advice against the warnings of various health care practitioners like  pushing for the public to enter back into the workforce, despite drastically increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases.[14]As this misinformation from the U.S. government is on the rise, warnings from the World Health Organization that the United States could become the new epicenter of the pandemic are arising.[15]

Misinformation and censorship of legitimate information is a major factor in the fuel of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the most important thing to do it to stop the spread of misinformation, censorship, and make the public truly aware of the facts.

[1]DeArbea Walker, Coronavirus Crisis: Where to Buy Toilet Paper, Wipes Online, Fox Business(March 20, 2020) available at: https://www.foxbusiness.com/lifestyle/coronavirus-crisis-toilet-paper-wipes.

[2]Saranac Hale Spencer, Fake Coronavirus Cures, Part 3: Vitamin C Isn’t a Shield, FactCheck(February 12, 2020). Available at: https://www.factcheck.org/2020/02/fake-coronavirus-cures-part-3-vitamin-c-isnt-a-shield/

[3]Katie Shephard, A man thought aquariam cleaner with the same name as the anti-viral frud chloroquine would prevent coronavirus. It killed him, The Washington Post(March 24, 2020). Available at:https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/24/coronavirus-chloroquine-poisoning-death/?outputType=amp(Following an urge from President Trump to use an anti-viral with the same name).

[4]Id.

[5]Id.

[6]Id.

[7]Id.

[8]BBC News, Coronavirus: Chinese App WeChat CensoredVirus Content Since 1 Jan, BBC (March 4, 2020). Available at:  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51732042

[9]Id.

[10]Davidson, supra note 8.

[11]Sheera Frenkel, Davey Alba, and Raymond Zhong, Surge of Virus Misinformation Stumps Facebook and Twitter, NY Times (March 8, 2020). Available at:https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/08/technology/coronavirus-misinformation-social-media.html

[12]Id.

[13]Gerrit De Vynck, Riley Griffin, and Alyza Sebenius, Coronavirus Misinformation is Spreading All Over Social Media, Bloomberg (January 29, 2020). Available at:  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-29/coronavirus-misinformation-is-incubating-all-over-social-media

[14]Id.

[15]Eliza Relman, Trumo just gave a disastrous coronavirus town hall full of misinformation that could kill thoursands, Buisiness Insider (March 24, 2020). Available at:  https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-trump-gave-a-disastrous-town-hall-full-of-misinformation-2020-3

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