With coronavirus hoaxes flooding social media, governments scramble to fight misinformation

To social media -- the cause of and solution to all of misinformation's problems.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
4 min read

Government agencies are using social media to dispel rumors about quarantines and shutdowns. 

James Martin/CNET

While government agencies are working around the clock to prevent the coronavirus pandemic from spreading even further, they're also tasked with containing the digital outbreak of misinformation. 

Multiple government agencies in the US have had to post on social media to dispel widely circulated rumors about mandatory quarantines and city shutdowns. On Sunday night, the National Security Council tweeted that rumors about a national quarantine going into effect were fake, and that there would be no national lockdown. On Monday, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr knocked down a false conspiracy theory that 5G was the cause behind the coronavirus.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, took to Twitter on Monday morning to plead with people to stop spreading rumors about government actions in response to the coronavirus. 

"Please stop spreading stupid rumors about marshall (sic) law. COMPLETELY FALSE," the senator wrote

New York, which has the most coronavirus cases in the US, has had to send out multiple messages dispelling myths circulating online. On March 12, the NYPD sent out a statement on its Twitter page that "there are no plans by the NYPD to shut down roadways or subways," calling out a specific tweet for sharing wrong information. 

New York's public transit service had to do the same, as did the city's emergency management service.

Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube said in a statement Monday evening they're collaborating on solutions to combat online misinformation.

"We are working closely together on COVID-19 response efforts," the companies said. "We're helping millions of people stay connected while also jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates in coordination with government health care agencies around the world.

"We invite other companies to join us as we work to keep our communities healthy and safe."

The wave of misinformation is a drain on resources and a distraction at a time when countries are trying to contain the spread of COVID-19, a pandemic that has swept through the world, with the US now facing a surging number of cases. Misinformation, hoaxes and nation-state efforts to spread rumors on social media did not start with COVID-19, as tech giants and government agencies have spent years trying to deal with the issue in political discourse. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has exacerbated the problem, with government agencies worrying that panic could be quickly spread through social networks. 

Internationally, the United Nations has warned on Twitter against believing rumors spreading online, and organizations like the UK's National Health Services have set up websites for verified information from the government

On Monday, Stewart McDonald, a member of Parliament in the UK, sent a letter to Twitter, Facebook and Google calling on the tech giants to enable better disinformation reporting capabilities. The lawmaker said that social networks play a key role in making sure public health guidelines are properly provided, and that false information's spread could be dangerous. 

"It is therefore necessary that social media platforms -- a key part of the information space -- are kept as clean as possible and are not weaponized to spread false information which could endanger lives or cause unnecessary panic and alarm," McDonald said. "Although this is not a new problem for social media platforms, during an international pandemic it is vital that efforts to combat the spread of disinformation are heightened." 

Twitter said it has not seen a significant coordinated disinformation effort on its platform, but is continuing to monitor for activity, as well as providing government agencies with resources they need to provide proper information on COVID-19. 

"With a critical mass of expert organizations, official government accounts, health professionals, and epidemiologists on Twitter, our goal is to elevate and amplify authoritative health information on our service," a Twitter spokesman said. "We're working in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization, and ministries of health in nearly 64 countries to provide people with access to credible information." 

Google said it's been tackling the effort on YouTube by promoting authorized voices on the platform and removing content that promotes misinformation about medical treatment for COVID-19. 

Facebook didn't respond to a request for comment. 

The false information about coronavirus and government responses to the outbreak vary, but they tend to follow the same formula: Someone with a loose connection to a government staffer or employee has heard that there will be drastic measures taken soon to contain the outbreak.

It can be about a quarantine, or roads shutting down, pointing at measures taken in areas like New Rochelle, New York or countries like Spain and France. The messages also tend to end with the same call to action -- urging people to stock up on groceries and supplies in preparations for a shutdown. 

While it's wise to be prepared, stockpiling on items you don't need is exactly what health experts have recommended against. The concern is that if people are panic buying, it will take away resources from people who may actually need food and face masks that are sold out.

These hoax messages about shutdowns play on people's worst fears during the coronavirus outbreak, and government officials are worried that it'll spread panic and harm throughout the community. 

Rep. Michael Waltz, a Republican from Florida, warned that there would be consequences if these disinformation efforts are linked to nation-states. 

If you see a message in your group chat or rumor spreading among your friends on social media, it's best to take these posts with a grain of salt. You should seek out official government sources for news on measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak. 

Local communities can also offer legitimate resources on government actions, like NYC's texting updates about COVID-19.  

Watch this: Pandemic: Here's what's changed about the coronavirus