An Abundance of Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories on the Internet

It started with a conspiracy theory circulating on social media that COVID-19 was made up by the Chinese government in a secret laboratory. They were followed by various medicines - gels, liquids, and powders - claiming to provide immunity against the virus. Next to propagate were unfounded claims against governments and celebrities: Taiwan was hiding deaths caused by the virus and the reality that they are not able to control its spread; Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was accused online that he was the culprit behind the infection's spread despite running a philanthropic organization; Italians blamed Chinese in a street march for bringing the virus in their country and affecting their citizens. However, none of these are proven to be true.


Moreover, news that China is using the virus to undermine Taiwan's government as a self-ruling island has also been present on social media. Claims that Taiwan is concealing the real number of COVID-19 infection in their country; documents that offer free face masks and vaccines; and a still from a news broadcast that was edited to look like President Tsai Ing-wen is stricken by the disease and is being quarantines have been circulating on Facebook these past few weeks.


Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has blamed Chinese internet armies for spreading fake news as published in a statement to The Times. However, he did not explain how he was able to come up with his conclusion.


It should be remembered that Taiwan is being claimed as part of Chinese territory by the Communist Party. On the other hand, Taiwanese authorities have been accusing Beijing of press manipulation both in traditional platforms and social media platforms to destroy President Tsai's credibility and make Taiwanese citizens turn against him for opposing closer ties with China.


Taiwan FactCheck Center EIC Summer Chen leads a group that aims to be vigilant against false information and fake news, and she said that they have been busier since the virus outbreak began at the time when they are preparing for Taiwan's presidential election in January. Taiwanese are on high alert in looking at ways the Chinese government may meddle with their affairs. Chen questions the ability of people to believe in fake news and not on accurate scientific information during epidemics, "throughout this whole epidemic, people have liked conspiracy theories."


With the continuous spread of coronavirus across continents, misinformation about the virus is spreading just as fast despite the best efforts of social media companies to ban an alarming amount of fake news. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are coordinating with the World Health Organization and other government offices to combat misinformation about COVID-19 immediately and to make sure that only real and accurate information is passed on to their users.


However, a casual search on the internet produced some posts, videos, and other content on those platforms that still propagate misinformation and were undetected by the checkers. Not all of them are in English, and some are in languages such as Hindi and Urdu to Hebrew and Farsi. This goes to show that the virus has indeed traveled all over the world and affecting everyone.


Hackers were found to have been taking advantage of the situation. Security researchers found out that they have been using threadbare websites claiming to have vital information about COVID-19 and use it as digital traps to steal personal data and break into devices of anyone who visits them.


Researchers and social media platforms have battled with the quick spread of false and malicious content ever since, and the situation brought by COVID-19 has indeed proved to be another challenge for them in prohibiting such content. Despite their best efforts, they are still overpowered by people hiding behind their screens in spreading lies and wanting to take advantage of the situation.


WHO said that there had been so much inaccurate information spread on the internet about the virus, and they are on top of things in fighting this "infodemic." Jefferson University Hospital Gastroenterologist Dr. Austin Chiang said that "I see misinformation about the coronavirus everywhere. Some people are panicking, and looking to magical cures, and other people are spreading conspiracies."


Various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all announced that they are doing their best to redirect users to reliable sources of medical information and are communicating directly with WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure that they are only publishing facts.


Facebook bans claims that encourage people not to take treatments or not comply with precautions set by the government in fighting against COVID-19 because these content have the potential to cause harm to people. Fact-checkers have been reviewing posts, and videos that propagate conspiracy theories were marked as false. When a user shares them, a notification appears stating that the content contains incorrect information as verified by fact-checkers. However, these proactive actions have not stopped private Facebook groups from posting and sharing fake news about the virus. One group with over 100,000 members has a circulating post about the theory that the pharmaceutical industry invented COVID-19 so they would be able to profit in selling expensive vaccines and drugs.


Some posts were not dangerous because they only encouraged people to eat healthy meals and take vitamins to boost their immune system. In contrast, others were far more dangerous by offering cures or immunity from the virus through mixtures of powders to be consumed, one of these is the "miracle mineral solution" which formula the FDA likened to drinking bleach.


Gastroenterologist Dr. Chiang spearheaded the creation of the Association for Healthcare Social Media, and the group aims to encourage health care workers to counter fake news by posting the facts on social media. He said this is to give people some peace of mind, "people are looking for good sources of information because a lot of what they see when they log into their social media platforms, is just scaring them."


Twitter Vice President of Trust and Safety Del Harvey said that although they know some malicious content is present in their network, it is not that widely propagated. There are no large-scale and coordinated efforts to misinform people about COVID-19. However, after they were contacted for an interview, some users were suspended for spam due to tweets that contained health misinformation on COVID-19.


Facebook already offered a free ad space to WHO in its aim to work closely together with health organizations and lead people to accurate information about COVID-19.


YouTube, a Google-owned platform, is also teaming up with WHO to fight misinformation. Farshad Shadloo, their spokesman, said that they have put in place policies that ban content that promotes "medically unsubstantiated methods to prevent the coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment." However, many videos on YouTube offer a cure for the virus, while others post links on the comment section to redirect users to pages that provide different kinds of treatments. Some of these pages have been shown to steal personal details and credit card information from their visitors.


Check Point's cybersecurity firm confirmed that there are more than 4,000 coronavirus-related sites that were registered since January, the websites have words such as "corona" or "covid" in their name. 3% of these were deemed malicious, while 5% were considered to be suspicious.


Another cybersecurity company, Sophos, also claimed to have seen a rise in spear-phishing messages which target Italians. It should be noted that in the past weeks coronavirus infections have risen in Italy. An example of a malicious message provides a link to download a document with a list of unsupported cures for COVID-19, but when the user downloads it, a malicious malware is installed on their device.


In February, WHO warned people from believing fake emails that carried malicious code to snoop into a person's device, the email sender claims to be a WHO representative.


NewsGuard deputy health editor John Gregory said that since the false contents related to coronavirus is medical, it poses more risk to the community and differs it from other conspiracies dealt by the public before. He added that since the pandemic is "playing out in real-time, it's always going to be easier for someone to make a false claim" and that there is a gap of "a few days before anyone with a scientific background, or journalists, can debunk the claim."


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