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Technology

Internet turns into double-edged sword in coronavirus fight

Coronavirus outbreak
Since the Coronavirus outbreak, the Internet has been brimming with pervasive conspiracy theories. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

In December 31, 2019, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) China office heard the first of a previously-unknown virus behind a number of pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan, a populous city of over 11 million in Eastern China.

To date some 119,317 patients have been confirmed to have been infected by the virus, according to WHO, while there are 4,298 associated deaths occasioned by the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO), one of a few sources of trusted information on the disease which has so far engendered a plethora of falsehoods and half-truths, says the pandemicformerly known as Coronavirus and renamed Covid-19, has hit over 100 countries.

From claims that it is a bio-weapon developed in a lab, racially selective and to allegations that could be treated using, well, a number of unproven and unorthodox tonics like alcohol or herbs, numerous conspiracy theories have got a vehicle on the Internet as have the credible sources of information on the disease.

Alarmist information and rumours catalysed by the digital space about newly infected patients and deaths, too, have flooded phones through WhatsApp or have been transmitted on Twitter, Facebook and Google some of the most vibrant social media platforms.

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The massive and universal nature of subscription to these social media channels has enabled information, both false and true, to spread cross borders instantaneously.

In Kenya, every so often hoax stories about a new patient suspected to carry the virus, or to have died hit the digital rumour mills.

Already, if you are a citizen of the net, then you have likely heard that the virus cannot infect ‘native Africans’. You most likely have also come across posts on social media and digital news platforms ‘explaining’ the genesis of the virus. Yet WHO has stated that it is still not clear where the virus started. All that is known is that it may have started in a food market selling wildlife in Wuhan.

Indeed, one of the most disseminated posts about the virus might be a photo of a page in Dean Koontz’s fictional The Eyes of Darkness. The post suggesting that the 40-year-old book predicted coronavirus decades ago, spread like a bush fire on social media. Media outlets picked on it and numerous stories have since been published about it, fanning the theory even further.

The photograph containing excerpts of the 1981 book talking about a son who mysteriously disappeared on a camping trip only to later turn up in the site of a deadly virus outbreak in China, more specifically in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, has probably been the most shared on the Internet. But it is also the scariest account to have been bandied about since the pandemic broke.

In the highlighted passage, Dombey, a character, narrates how the virus christened ‘Wuhan-400’ which was developed at the RDNA lab outside the city of Wuhan, spread. He goes on to narrate how “it was the four-hundredth viable strain of man-made microorganisms created at that research centre”.

The passage then gives intricate details about how the virus affects the human body, in a chilling account that graphically paints similarities between ‘Wuhan-400’ and coronavirus.

This hard-to-dismiss photograph of excerpts which went viral almost as soon as the outbreak started, and a host of other misinformation, has continued to be disbursed on social media even as the virus reaches a near pandemic proportion.

Fact-checkers have also been working to debunk hoax stories being spread in form of old videos from movies, or scenes apparently in China showing patients being shot dead, as well as scenes with bodies lying on the streets to paint a picture of the impact of the disease in China.

Since its outbreak, the Internet has been brimming with pervasive conspiracy theories too about the virus being a bio-weapon, including a hoax that variously claims that the US and in some accounts the Canadian government, had secretly created the virus against political and economic rivals.

And some purported news publications have not been left behind in spreading the theories.

“Coronavirus is a bio-weapon experiment gone wrong” read a headline by the Economic Times (ETPrime) publication of India. But ETPrime’s article isn’t the only one disseminating this information on the cyberspace. A publication by conservative Israeli think tank, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, was among several others that carried the story.

Silicon Valley giants Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Google have said they are trying to contain the situation but that some of the conspiracy theories are being spread through private posts which are hard for overseers to monitor in real-time.

FactCheck.org one of several organisations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media, said these accounts seem to have emerged from ZeroHedge’s “false claim” originating from a Texas money manager’s Twitter account. On January 25, Kyle Bass tweeted: “A husband and wife Chinese spy team were recently removed from a Level 4 Infectious Disease facility in Canada for sending pathogens to the Wuhan facility. The husband specialised in coronavirus research.”

After the twitter post by ZeroHedge, various news platforms then scoured through the Internet to find the CBC article and would then categorically connect the dots. Some even quoting global scientists in their reportage.

Some reports by supposedly credible source of news quoted global scientists in their reportage.

“In July 2019, a rare event occurred in Canada. Suspected of espionage for China, a group of Chinese virologists was forcibly evicted from the Canadian National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, where they had been running parts of the Special Pathogen Program of Canada’s public health agency. One of the procedures conducted by the team was the infection of monkeys with the most lethal viruses found on Earth,” said the ETPrime.

“Four months before the Chinese team’s eviction, a shipment containing two exceptionally virulent viruses — Ebola and Nipah — was sent from the NML to China. When the shipment was traced, it was held to be improper and a possible policy breach.”

The article goes on to recount how the virus is an invasive DNA-genetic biological weapon engineered and stolen from a Canadian lab by a Chinese spy team. It details how the Chinese scientists among them Dr Xiangguo Qui and her husband Keding Cheng, were caught spying and allegedly smuggling bio-weapons among them the coronavirus back to Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, before the coronavirus outbreak in China.

ZeroHedge, a website that has severally been flagged for publishing misinformation, posted a story with the headline Did China Steal Coronavirus from Canada and Weaponise It?”

crucial figures

A screenshot of the post has since circulated to millions of walls on social media. The website quoted the CBC News article, which had in July reported about the expulsion of the Chinese scientists from the Canadian labs on allegations of “a policy breach”. But the CBC has denied any links between the two incidents.

FactCheck.org, one of several organisations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media, said their investigations had not confirmed that Qiu was “removed” from the Canadian lab “for sending pathogens to the Wuhan facility,” as the ZeroHedge tweet says.

Fact-check says if information is not from the WHO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which have near-daily updates on the outbreak, one should probably not trust it. A phone app, www.Coronavirus.app shows a map of where there are reported cases around the world detailing too the crucial figures.

The websites also have helpful information like what symptoms to look out for, how to protect oneself from catching or spreading the disease, as well as emerging treatment protocols.

Authorities across the globe too have appealed to their citizens not the spread unsubstantiated claims and rely on health authorities for information.

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