COVID-19: the battle between fact and fiction

01 April 2020. Published by Emma Kislingbury, Senior Associate

In the era of fake news, and at a time of global panic, how is the government responding to the daily spread of unauthorised health claims around Covid-19?

Search online for "Coronavirus cures" and you will find a myriad of untruths already in circulation. Search again next week and new myths and inaccuracies will be spreading. 

The unfounded claims seen so far range from the frankly bizarre – that blow drying your face can kill off the virus - to the potentially fatal. 

In Iran, around 300 people have reportedly died after ingesting toxic methanol because of baseless rumours that it can help cure Coronavirus. In the US, a man has died and his wife is critically ill after taking chloroquine phosphate, an additive used to clean fish tanks. Chloroquine phosphate is also found in an anti-malaria medication, which Donald Trump has plugged as a treatment for Covid-19.

To try to filter the fact from the fiction amongst the daily bombardment of online updates, advice, tips and reports, the UK Government has established a rapid response unit within the Cabinet Office. Its purpose: to wage war against inaccurate information circulating online.  

Among other issues, the unit is tasked with cracking down on the spread of false medical information by fake "experts", and it is working with social media firms to identify and remove unfounded, and potentially harmful, content.  

The Government is also working with authorised health bodies to promote official medical advice, and the public is being asked to scrutinise the source of any online medical information. 

Next week, the Government will re-launch its "Don't Feed the Beast" campaign to encourage us all to question what we are reading, and sharing, online. It has put together the SHARE checklist which sets out five steps for identifying inaccurate information. 

One MP has gone a step further and called for a new offence of 'knowingly sharing misinformation about Covid-19' because of the inherent danger of "information contagion" around the virus.

At a time when many people across the globe are stuck inside their homes, already in a heightened state of panic, and becoming increasingly addicted to checking the latest Covid-19 updates, the potential for the spread of false information is huge. Throw into the mix unfounded health claims and irresponsible media reporting and there may well be legal / regulatory fallout (the impact of which is illustrated in one of our previous blogs).  

Just as we all have our part to play in staying home and bringing the virus under control, we also have a responsibility to be cautious with what information we share with friends and family. Whilst mainstream media work hard to keep us updated, we need to work together to try to stem the spread of inaccurate and dangerous material.

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