Viral Lies: Misinformation and the Coronavirus


In the past three months, COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus, has exploded across the globe. The spread of the virus has been matched by the proliferation of misinformation and ‘hate speech’ directed at individuals of Chinese or Asian descent. Freedom of expression has been one of the casualties of the epidemic, as some governments have used censorship, arrests and the application of repressive laws to address these challenges and control public narratives about the crisis.
In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised concerns about an “infodemic” caused by a flood of false and misleading information about COVID-19. Social media posts advancing bogus cures, conspiracy theories and inaccurate reports of the virus’s spread are viewed more often than information from authoritative sources. At times untruths creep into the reporting of traditional media outlets. In many instances, misinformation has diverted the attention of policymakers, fostered distrust in governments, and sowed confusion among the public.
The COVID-19 outbreak has also stoked fear, discrimination and intolerance in many parts of the world. Individuals and communities targeted with ‘hate speech’ worry that hateful rhetoric may be followed by discrimination or violence.
In their efforts to address these challenges, governments have at times embraced heavy-handed and counterproductive approaches. China’s attempt to stifle public reporting about COVID-19’s emergence impaired the initial response to the outbreak. Governments in Southeast Asia have relied on repressive legislation to arrest and charge those spreading supposedly false information about COVID-19. The Iranian authorities have arrested social media users posting about the virus while simultaneously suppressing information about the outbreak.
Independent journalism, citizen reporting, open public discourse and the free flow of information are indispensable in the global effort to counter COVID-19. Governments must develop policies and responses to the outbreak that embrace freedom of expression and access to information. Approaches to misinformation and ‘hate speech’ that rely on censorship and criminal sanctions should be replaced with those emphasising transparency and media freedom.

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