Officials battle misinformation, trolls and conspiracy theorists on coronavirus

The World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) leadership has condemned online “trolls” spreading misinformation about the new coronavirus, saying the fight is as important as the clinical one. 

At his daily media briefing on Saturday, Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he wanted to talk about “facts, not fear.

“At W.H.O., we’re not just battling the virus; we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response,” he said.

There are now 34,886 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in the world, with daily diagnoses upwards of 3000.

In China alone, the epicentre of the outbreak, there are at least 37,558, around 6101 severe cases and 813 deaths (as of Monday morning).

The number of deaths in has now surpassed the number of people killed by the S.A.R.S. (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic in 2003, which claimed 774 lives globally. 

Dr. Adhanom Ghebreyseus said while health workers around China and the world work overtime to treat patients, quarantine potential cases and gather scientific data to help end the outbreak, misinformation is hindering their capacity to succeed.

“While the virus spreads, misinformation makes the job of our heroic health workers even harder. It is diverting the attention of decision makers. And it causes confusion and spreads fear to the general public,” he said.

To manage this, the W.H.O. is mobilising its Information Network for Epidemics, and a risk communications and ‘infodemic’ management unit is tracking misinformation online, as well as promote correct information.

“This includes addressing rumours by publishing “myth busters” and live Q&A interviews with experts on our website and social channels and through the media.”

The organisation is also trying to enlist the help of online ‘influencers’ on social media, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, to “help spread factual messages.

“We are also engaging with search, social and digital companies such as Facebook, Google, Tencent, Baidu, Twitter, TikTok, Weibo, Pinterest and others,” Dr. Adhanom Ghebreyseus said.

“We are asking them to filter out false information and promote accurate information from credible sources like W.H.O., C.D.C. (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) and others. And we thank them for their efforts so far.”

The W.H.O. is deploying a team to China this week to investigate the source of the outbreak, as China finally agreed to allow a unit to enter the country. He said he hopes officials from the C.D.C. will also join them.

On Monday morning, he saw off Dr. Bruce Aylward to lead an advance team to China.

Last week, the New York Times revealed Beijing had not accepted offers from the C.D.C. or the W.H.O. to get boots on the ground for more than a month.

Privately, Chinese doctors and nurses are calling for outside expertise and help, but President Xi Jinping had not accepted any offers. 

At the end of January, Mr.  Adhanom Ghebreyseus made a trip to China, during which President Xi agreed to let an international mission land.

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