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Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories and Social Media Misinformation

Apr 13 , 2020
  • Leonardo Dinic

    NYU Alumnus with a Master’s Degree in International Relations

The spread of coronavirus baffles the western audience because while politicians present China as a formidable economic and military threat, Beijing is less prepared to deal with the Wuhan virus than expected. China’s struggle to contain the virus had led to the emergence of various conspiracy theories that misinform readers on social media platforms. Such theories can arise when the public lacks access to comprehensive and clear information. The conspiracy theory, in a way, simplifies an intricate issue. How could China, America’s primary economic and military adversary, fail to contain such an outbreak? Is China covering up the Wuhan virus statistics as it did with SARS in the early 2000s? Such questions may lead people to develop farfetched theories to simplify the multifaceted world we inhabit. As active thinkers, we should be careful and critical about the information we encounter online. 

The Chinese political system is centralized, and this centralization often projects a sense of organization, agility, and capability. I remember attending a climate change conference when one of the panelists stated that only authoritarianism could solve an issue as complex and vast as a climate catastrophe. He noted that China was best suited because the government could act swiftly with none of the restrictions common to liberal democracies. If there is any parallel between climate change and a world health emergency, China has not lived up to the expectations shared by many western academics. This is not the first time that western intellectuals romanticized centralized governments over the institutional strength of liberal democracies. This fundamental gap in understanding Chinese conditions and capabilities, as many misunderstood Soviet ones, opens up opportunities for conspiracies to thrive and misinform the public. 

Ever since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus (2019-nCoV) a public health emergency, China received criticism from various western health specialists. In a recent CNBC interview, former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb stated that China could be underestimating coronavirus cases by ‘tens of thousands.’ He argued that daily testing for the virus in China maxed out at about 3,000 – 4,000 cases, while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could test for 50,000 cases per day.  

Gottlieb further claimed that China had not contained the Wuhan virus, and that epidemic spread could exist in Singapore, which has proved true. During his interview, a viewer stated that officials might be suppressing the truth surrounding coronavirus and its spread to protect global markets during a worldwide period of ever-increasing private debt and slowed economic growth. Although a valid concern, even this statement could feed conspiracies on social media. There is a fundamental western mistrust of Chinese reporting of statistics. Just as economists express concern about Beijing’s economic and financial numbers, American health experts worry about Beijing’s Wuhan virus statements. Nonetheless, western interpretations of the outbreak should remain constructive but equally cautious. 

American health officials are not in China, and much of the news from China emerges online. Statements and videos are editorialized or forged and sensationalized. Since the outbreak of the Wuhan virus, rumors in Russia advanced the idea that coronavirus originated in US labs to hurt the Chinese under the direction of intelligence agencies and pharmaceutical companies. Arabic media labeled the virus a psychological and economic ‘bioweapon’ developed by the US and Israel. Even British and US tabloids contributed to the surge of conspiracy theories when a video of a woman eating bat soup emerged. Reports later confirmed and debunked the footage since it originated in the archipelago of Palau in the western Pacific Ocean, and not in China. Other accounts attempted to link the virus to snakes, a connection made from a widely shared scientific paper. As images and videos of collapsing individuals and struggling health officials continue to appear on social media, it is impossible to determine authenticity. It is so important to rely on credible sources during a period in which we find so much ‘clickbait’ and fake news. Premature global reaction to the virus sparked by lousy information can cause additional problems, and social media platforms are becoming more active in censoring conspiracies. 

ZeroHedge, a libertarian financial website often accused of ‘alt-right’ views, recently received a permanent suspension on Twitter for abuse and harassment when its account with 670,000 followers posted the personal information of a Chinese scientist. BuzzFeed reported on the doxing by ZeroHedge’s pseudonymous author Tyler Durden in the piece, “Is This The Man Behind The Global Coronavirus Pandemic?” In response, spokespeople from ZeroHedge stated that they “neither incited harassment nor did we ‘dox’ the public official, whose contact information is as of this moment listed on the Wuhan institute’s website.” In an earlier article, ZeroHedge circulated false claims that the virus was manmade and contained HIV “insertions.” Alex Jones, far-right radio and online personality recently censored from social media platforms for his theories on the Sandy Hook shooting, spread similar claims and argued that the virus was bioengineered. 

One of the first conspiracy theories about the Wuhan virus emerged on Jordan Sather’s YouTube channel. He argued that a 2015 patent filed by the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, England discussed the development of a weakened version of coronavirus for use in vaccines. The claims gained increasing popularity with anti-vaccination groups on Facebook and other social media platforms. Sather further expanded the theory after stating that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated to both the Pirbright Institute and vaccination development organization to suggest that Pirbright engineered the Wuhan virus to attract funds for vaccine development. Other social media claims stated that the virus unintentionally leaked from China’s “covert biological weapons program,” specifically from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

Although it may be challenging for the public to identify accurate information, we must be cautious in creating nefarious simplifications for complex problems. Conspiracy theories inevitably emerge after every unexpected tragedy and challenge we face, but we should, with an open and nuanced mind, rank information in order of authenticity and credibility, and hold our governments and media outlets accountable. While Scott Gottlieb is in a position to evaluate China’s testing capabilities, the average viewer should be careful before developing intellectual scaffolding to support the idea that the Chinese developed the Wuhan virus to crash Trump’s economy. Since many global figures have a variety of complex economic and political interests, you could spin the coronavirus story in an infinite number of fascinating but untrue narratives. Conspiracies are dangerous precisely for this reason – they are fun but mostly rooted in fantasy. 

In an ideal world, the coronavirus emergency would not be politicized, and governments would work together to provide accurate and comprehensive numbers to global health organizations. With an upcoming election in the US, a remerging migrant crisis in Europe, and a precarious global economy, countries should do their best to work together to properly address coronavirus. Governments should address the public frequently with complete information on how to contain its spread. The media’s role in this overly politicized environment should be diminished by responsible and fact-based institutional statements on the virus and its projected course. We need leaders to sort through the chaos.

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