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Hoaxes, lies and coronavirus

Mar 31, 2020 • 15m 00s

With misinformation about coronavirus rampant, we look at what the spread of the virus is telling us about news, social media, and who we trust.

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Hoaxes, lies and coronavirus

193 • Mar 31, 2020

Hoaxes, lies and coronavirus

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

As we try to contain the outbreak of Covid-19… health authorities, governments and social media platforms are also battling the spread of misinformation about the virus.

Today - Mike Seccombe on the question of who we can believe in a crisis.

Archival tape -- news snippets:

I feel like the more I learn about this, the less there is to worry about
I was about to say the same thing!

Fifty thousand. That’s the number of people killed by automobile accidents, and that’s the wheel! Do we ban the wheel? No! We’ve just come to accept it

All the talk about coronavirus being so much more deadly just doesn’t reflect reality. Without a vaccine, the flu would be far more deadly.

480 people have lost their lives after consuming methanol. In Iranian social media alcohol is being touted as a Covid-19 cure.

RUBY:

Mike, we're being inundated with information, posts, articles, videos about Covid-19. We're also seeing and hearing a lot of misinformation. Can you talk me through some of it?

MIKE:

We're seeing it all across the globe from all sorts of different sources, things like supposed remedies for Covid-19, including drinking bleach solution or vinegar or rubbing alcohol or taking all sorts of herbal medicines, or drink lots of water because a friend of a friend of my sister said that would wash the bugs into your stomach where the digestive juices would kill them. Blowing a hairdryer up your nose, that was one that I liked.

RUBY:

Mike Seccombe is the national correspondent for The Saturday Paper. He wrote about misinformation surrounding Coronavirus in the latest issue.

MIKE:

In India, the authorities have had to intervene because lots of people were drinking cow urine thinking that would protect them. In the US, we have religious fundamentalists suggesting that the rapture is upon us. So there's all sorts of odd stuff out there. And some of it, of course, is far more sinister.

Archival tape:

Some people, and this includes a few actual experts on the subject, are considering another possibility: that the Coronavirus was made in a lab in Wuhan.

MIKE:

There are all sorts of conspiracies out there being widely shared on social media groups, but increasingly being publicly articulated on sort of right wing media. You know, Fox News in the US, Sky News here, along the lines that Covid-19 is a Chinese bio weapon.

Archival tape:

I don’t know where it began. I do know that we need to get to the bottom of it, and we do need to ask the questions about the super-laboratory that is in Wuhan

Here’s another fact: the Wuhan institute of virology has the only P4 lab - that is for pathogen-4 - it’s the most secure lab you can have. There’s only one in China that’s declared, and it’s in Wuhan. And it’s like 20miles from this market. That’s a fact.

MIKE:

And of course, there are various groups that are leaping on all this sort of stuff as part of this sort of racist and xenophobic campaigns, and they hope that it will change society to their advantage.

Archival tape:

Australia should begin rebuilding its manufacturing base, stop this overreliance on Chinese-made goods, ban Chinese foodstuffs pronto, and pull the shutters down on the mass-looting - and that’s what I call it - of key grocery items, we are sick of it.

RUBY:

Mike, some of these videos and articles sharing completely fake information have got millions and millions of views. How are they spreading so fast?

MIKE:

Studies have shown us that a lot of people will share articles on social media without even reading past the headline. So part of the reason that you're getting misinformation spreading is because people just pass it along without actually checking whether it's right or not.

Another reason they're spreading in a particularly virulent way is that the social media platforms themselves are less well able to cope. There's huge spikes in traffic around the world, and yet the social media companies have got all their staff working from home. They've sent them home. And of course, some of them are getting sick or their families are getting sick and they're dropping out. So the actual human moderation is less able to cope. The other point is that a lot of the moderation is done by algorithm. The algorithms that they use are often intended to filter out things like nudity or hate speech. They're not taught how to deal with medical jargon or dodgy folk remedies that the algorithms just can't handle it.

The real problem, though, is with the private spaces, you know, things like WhatsApp. In those sorts of spaces, misinformation and disinformation can circulate almost without challenge because very often these groups are formed around shared interests and shared ideas and shared identities. You know, you have anti-vaccine groups, for example. It's on these private groups where the really bad stuff, and the flakiest and most dangerous material about the disease itself and potential cures for it. That's where these things tend to circulate.

RUBY:

It sounds like a lot of this information is meant to be misleading and is spread maliciously. But what about people who are sharing stories based on well-meaning but conflicting advice by experts and by leaders?

MIKE:

That's a very good question, Ruby. You know, do we trust the ABC health reporter, Norman Swan, or do we trust the chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, who have been delivering slightly different messages?

Do we believe Scott Morrison or the state premiers because they have been in dispute over certain things. And then the list of actions being taken by the authorities changes constantly. Y’know there's such a constant, overwhelming flood of information that, you know, the trivial and the deadly serious constantly competing for our attention. And the important stuff tends to get a bit buried. And all of this serves to foster distrust in institutions.

You know, when we have government agencies, federal and state, blaming one another for allowing cruise ship passengers with Coronavirus loose in the community, when we have Stuart Robert, the minister responsible for Centrelink, passing false information about the cause of the crash of the MyGov website.

You know, we have state education authorities here in New South Wales saying, don't worry, the state schools will cope with remote learning. Well, they're not. And we know that because the parents of the state school kids know that it's a shambles.

So all this misinformation can have really serious consequences. And it can even be deadly.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Mike, we're talking about misinformation about the Covid 19 epidemic. Some of it is circulating on social media from unverified sources, but some is actually being spread by world leaders, people like Donald Trump. Talk me through what he's been saying.

MIKE:

Trump has been talking up the prospects of a drug originally developed as an anti-malarial medication, also useful, as I understand it, for certain autoimmune diseases and a couple of other things.

Archival tape - Donald Trump:

Chloroquine, and some people would add to it “hydroxy”... hydroxychloroquine.

MIKE:

It's called hydroxychloroquine. And Trump thinks this could be the treatment for Coronavirus. So I think it's tremendous...it’s a tremendous promise, based on the results and other tests. There’s tremendous promise. Normally the FDA would take a long time to approve something like that but it was approved very, very quickly and it ’s now approved.

MIKE:

And the fact is, there has been some very limited - and I mean very limited - evidence that it might be effective. Clinical trials are only just beginning. Anyway.

But the leader of America's response to Coronavirus, Dr Tony Fauci, was asked about this at a joint media conference with Trump on Friday last week whether this drug was an effective treatment for Covid-19. His reply was very short and to the point. He said: “the answer is no”.

Archival tape -- Dr Tony Fauci:

It was not done under a controlled critical trial, so you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.

MIKE:

And then Trump took over the microphone...and took the microphone from the expert and immediately contradicted him, you know, said, “I think we disagree a little bit”. I wish I could do a Trump voice. “I think we disagree a little bit. I feel good about it.”

Archival tape -- Donald Trump:

That's all it is. Just a feeling, you know? Smart guy. I feel good about it. And we’re gonna see, you’re gonna see soon enough...

MIKE:

Then he went on to say he was only working on what his gut told him. But you know, we ought to give it a try, he said.

Archival tape -- Donald Trump:

Let’s see what happens. We have nothing to lose. You know the expression? What the hell do you have to lose. Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it, but who knows. I’ve been right a lot.

MIKE:

Then the next day he tweeted about it. He's got 75 million followers, right. So this ill-informed tweet goes out to 75 million Americans. And his tweet said that this medication presented, quote, “a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine”, unquote. So anyway, this enthusiastic endorsement of this untested, unapproved drug was picked up and amplified across social media, right wing mainstream media often stripped of even the minor caveats that were attached by the president and and and circulated.

RUBY:

And what were the consequences of that message that Trump spread?

MIKE:

Less than 48 hours after Trump's tweet, Banner Health, which is a non-profit hospital network based in Phoenix, Arizona, put out a press release, including the following and I quote, “A man has died and his wife is under critical care after the couple, both in their 60s, ingested chloroquine phosphate, an additive commonly used at aquariums to clean fish tanks.”

The wife survived and later was interviewed by NBC. And she actually said that they had absorbed the message from Trump. She said Trump kept saying it was basically pretty much a cure. And then she indicated that she had learned her lesson because she went on to say, “don't take anything, don't believe anything, don't believe anything that the president says and his people. Call your doctor.”

I might add, these people won't be the only victims because hydroxychloroquine, as I said, was originally an anti-malarial. And now there's a global shortage because there's been medical panic buying. Well, this is all diverting key resources away from the fight against malaria, which still kills some 750,000 people every year, which is about 30 times as many as have so far died from Covid-19.

Meanwhile, we've got Clive Palmer, who's taken out full page ads in The Australian newspaper claiming the drug has been shown to lead to the virus, quote “completely disappearing” unquote. This misinformation, really dangerous misinformation, has spread from the United States to here in Australia and continues to pose a threat to the lives of people.

RUBY:

So given the mistrust in our institutions, and how quickly misinformation can spread - do you think this is a problem we’ll be contending with for a while?

MIKE:

Unfortunately, I think that's right. Hopefully, when this is all over, there will be a lot of things to reconsider. We should be considering what role do media of all kinds have, in fact, checking their content, including their advertisements. How do they make sure that the stories they write are constructed in a way that doesn't allow the news to be repurposed by people acting in bad faith?

And then the big question, how do we restore trust in government? My hope is that as we're all hunkered down, you know, under effective house arrest in our disparate places across the globe, fearing the pandemic, confused by the info-demic, that maybe we might have a little time to think about this sort of stuff. Particularly, we should really be interrogating the way information spreads and is consumed.

The net effect of all of this is that people find it increasingly hard to know who or what they should believe. And so into this vacuum pour the folk remedies and that fake news and the apocalyptic messages from the religious extremists and the hate speech and xenophobia from the far right.

And some of the reassurances also from the authorities are simply unbelievable because, you know, they don't they don't accord with the lived experience of the populace.

RUBY:

Mike, great talking to you today.

MIKE:

A pleasure. Thanks for your time.

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RUBY:

And the latest in the response to Covid-19:

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $130 billion package for the estimated 6 million Australians who will need economic support during the current crisis.

The wages subsidy will be worth fifteen hundred dollars per fortnight, equating roughly to the minimum wage. It will be paid to employers, to help ensure workers stay employed.

Employers will receive the fifteen hundred dollars a fortnight subsidy from the government, and can top up wages above that.

The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said the payment will be available to full and part time workers. Workers who have already been laid off as a result of the covid-19 pandemic will be eligible for the subsidy, if their employer rehires them.

This subsidy is expected to last at least 6 months, and parliament will be re-called to legislate it.

And Victoria has announced on-the-spot fines of sixteen hundred dollars for people who breach coronavirus restrictions that limit gatherings to just two people.

The two-person limit in Victoria does not apply to people who live in the same house, and excludes workplaces and schools.

NSW has announced fines of one thousand dollars for breaches of social distancing regulations. Most other states have also announced fines, but the ACT government has said the first phase of enforcing new rules would be about education and warnings.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see ya tomorrow.

As we try and contain the coronavirus outbreak, health authorities, governments and social media platforms are also battling the spread of misinformation about the virus. Today, Mike Seccombe on the question of who we trust in a crisis.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Fighting the Infodemic in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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193: Hoaxes, lies and coronavirus