How to Tell Right from Wrong During the Coronavirus Crisis?

Chinese citizens wearing masks on the subway (source: shutterstock)

Everyday we hear tons of rumors, and most of the time it’s not deadly. However, during the outbreak, misunderstanding and misinformation could cause real damage, from deceitful behavior and unfounded discrimination against all Hubei people, to panic from fetching a delivery package. Panic causes hysteria, and hysteria brings disorder.

Why people spread rumors during the crisis

Just after the outbreak had started, rumors started being tossed around door to door. Things like “Wuhan hospitals are filled with dead bodies left uncared for” or “Beijing, capital of China is going to be locked down”, “China’s economy is going to go backwards two decades due to the outbreak” were all over the internet. Most importantly, there are netizens who actually believe in and spread them through word of mouth without giving a second thought about the authenticity of the sources.

As written in Psychology of Rumor by American psychologist Gordon Willard Allport, “When people spread rumors, they feel condescending in front of their listeners. This gratification may be attractive to those who live a dull life, with an imbalanced mindset. In order to maintain this prestige, they listen to everything they can, spread what they hear to their neighbors, and feel proud of it.”

Quite ironically, the first whistleblower of the crisis, Dr. Li Wen Liang, who recently died from coronavirus contracted on duty, was the first one who found out about the outbreak at its earliest stage by the end of 2019. Dr. Li later suffered from the imputation of “causing public angst” and was given a stern warning by the police.

Tencent’s Jiaozhen platform

Tencent’s online platform named Jiaozhen (meaning digging the truth or taking it seriously), began to play a role during this period of time as it is specifically designed to challenge and screen all the information in food and medicine, health care, public safety as well as science and technology.

Launched in January 2017, Jiaozhen could be seen as the first online fact-checking platform in China. In this era of prosperous user-generated content, every self-claimed reporter could go to a hospital, ask around and write an article that goes viral. The explosion of information channels makes screening and fact-checking ever more urgent.

For instance, rumors saying “moderate amount of drinking can help fight the virus”, which is written even in some of the government suggestions for civilians. The source of this rumor comes from the fact that “the coronavirus is not resistant to alcohol. Alcohol with 75 percent concentration could effectively kill the virus. These falsehoods ring reminiscent of the groundless rumor of “smoking kills SARS” over a decade ago. “Only alcoholics and heavy smokers would believe in such nonsense to make themselves feel better,” a Chinese netizen teased.

As for another hilarious rumor spread claiming “human sperm kills coronavirus”, a doctor from reproductive center of First Affiliated Central Hospital of Nankai University wrote on the Jiaozhen platform, “It’s really just nonsense. Men’s sperm is no disinfectant. In fact, it is rather mild to the virus. Some viruses can maintain their activity in the semen for quite a long period of time.”

Rumors, if interpreted in the wrong way, could not only lead to misunderstanding, but also cause actual harm to families. For example, using vinegar as a disinfectant. During the SARS outbreak, schools and public places used edible vinegar for disinfectant, and the sour taste of the air has been lingering in our memories. In fact, acetic acid does have a certain bactericidal effect, but it is way too irritating (otherwise the hospital will use it for disinfection). After boiling, edible vinegar (with already low concentration) diffuses into the air, diluting its concentration even more. However, such a low concentration of vinegar cannot kill bacteria or viruses, but could trigger irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract of human beings. It is especially dangerous for the elderly, children and asthma patients.

Apart from the Jiaozhen platform, there is another WeChat mini-program for refuting rumors, entitled WeChat rumor assistant, which presents the latest real-time epidemic situation and actively alerts users about the articles that they read with rumors.

Interface of WeChat rumor assistant (source: WeChat)

Not everything is contagious

The excessive fear of coronavirus results in discrimination against anyone or anything that might carry the virus, that even including well-intentioned people like the delivery man. As news came that some delivery riders were diagnosed with the disease, people worry about infection through grocery orders.

As written on the Jiaozhen platform, receiving package and deliveries doesn’t necessarily contract coronavirus. The probability is really low. The prerequisite that delivery and takeaway carry the new coronavirus is that the rider or the takeaway is infected. At present, the “Code of Operation for Business Outlets During Epidemic Prevention and Control” requires that service personnel must accurately measure their body temperature before taking the job. They are required to wear medical masks properly and disinfect all kinds of supplies during their time of duty.

Even if there is live virus on the delivery package, it does not mean that people will be infected. According to the World Health Organization, the coronavirus will not live for a long time on parcels or envelopes so that it’s not really that contagious. In a word, no need to be overly afraid as long as necessary safety measures such as wearing a mask and washing hands are maintained.

Baidu’s page for countering misinformation about 2019-nCoV

Tech giant Baidu has also been making efforts in providing more solid and trustworthy information on the coronavirus. Recognizing the potential for damaging misinformation about the epidemic to spread online, Baidu launched a special section that debunks rumors about the epidemic. The page is run by an official Baijiahao account created in response to the epidemic, which is constantly updated with popular epidemic-related notions marked as “confirmed to be false”, “confirmed to be true”, or “awaiting proof”. On the search browser, a link to the special section is highlighted in response to epidemic-related searches. It is also a prominent section on the Baidu App’s “Fight Pneumonia” channel.

In the meantime, the company has curated special results for epidemic-related search queries. The browser will highlight links to expert-curated information about symptoms and causes of infection, medical advice, preventive measures, and treatment in response to any search query about the epidemic.

Through a big data analysis, Baidu identified the 5 most popular questions users had about 2019-nCoV, and asked a group of China’s top doctors and disease experts to answer the questions. Their responses are highlighted when users search for epidemic-related keywords. For instance, now if you enter “symptoms for coronavirus”, the highlighted outcomes verified by two chief physicians from Beijing Beijing Ditan Hospital will come up.

Baidu’s special page on coronavirus (source: Baidu)

Ultimately, always fact-check and resort to trustworthy sources for information, listen to what the qualified experts say instead of online rumors and stay safe.