The COVID-19 pandemic has caused tens of thousands of deaths globally and wrought huge economic disruption. It has also fed a pandemic of sorts on social media that has unnecessarily stoked fears with falsehoods or spread misinformation that has undermined people’s faith in the efforts of authorities to contain and combat the virus.
During March, AAP FactCheck joined in a global effort by fact-checking organisations to combat misinformation about COVID-19. The Coronavirus Facts Alliance, formed by members of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) has now carried out more than 3,000 checks on fake and misleading information online around the world.
In Australia we have seen a mix of local and imported misinformation, with the spread of fake news quickly jumping national borders.
Conspiracy theories have featured since the start of the outbreak, including the claim that a 1981 horror novel predicted COVID-19 (it didn’t) and that the lockdowns and restrictions on movements imposed to contain the virus are somehow a cover for building 5G mobile phone towers (they aren’t). The AAP FactCheck team addressed claims that pandemics somehow correspond with election years (they don’t), that a bunch of elite CEOs resigned because they knew the outbreak was coming (they didn’t) and resurrected urban myths, such as the claim that an Adelaide ice rink was being set up as a morgue.
While some claims are outlandish, others risk real-world consequences, such as incorrect advice that drinking water will help protect against the virus. Another post claimed, wrongly, that a Victorian business was helping ship food and medical equipment to China, resulting in that business receiving abusive calls and messages.
AAP FactCheck recently began operating in New Zealand, ahead of the national election scheduled for late 2020. Showing that the trend for conspiracy theories is truly international, the NZ team addressed a video circulating on Facebook that claimed a freight train loaded with tanks was rolling through New Zealand’s North Island, suggesting impending martial law. While the original date and location of the video was unclear, the fact that it had been posted a few days earlier in the United States with claims that it was shot in Florida was a quick indication that the Kiwi's have nothing to worry about.