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Troll Watch: Misinformation Around The Coronavirus


The disease caused by coronavirus has killed more than 1,500 people and has spread beyond China. But the World Health Organization says there's another threat spreading faster - false information. They've called the spread of misinformation about the disease an infodemic (ph). And we wanted to learn more about how coronavirus misinformation is spreading online, so we're going to discuss it in our regular segment Troll Watch.


FADEL: Carl Bergstrom is a professor of biology at the University of Washington. He researches the spread of scientific disinformation on social media and has been looking at coronavirus misinformation. He's with us now from member station KUOW in Seattle.

Welcome to the program.

CARL BERGSTROM: Thanks a lot, Leila. It's great to be here.

FADEL: What are the myths that are out there? Let's start there.

BERGSTROM: Well, there's a wide range of different stories that are out there. They range from misinformation about - simply about the rate at which the disease is spreading, misinformation about how many people it's killing. And then you get some really wild stuff out there like stories that it might have been a bio-weapon - it is not - sort of anything that could capture the imagination, get people scared, get people to spread them further.

FADEL: So what's behind all this disinformation, this misinformation? What's behind it?

BERGSTROM: This is a really fascinating case because there are a whole bunch of different sources of misinformation, and they have a whole bunch of different motives. Disingenuous actors - they want to spread misinformation to make China look as bad as possible and decrease trust of people within China for their own government and decrease trust from people outside of China for the Chinese government. They could potentially lead to various kinds of disruptions of, you know, normal international relations or normal international commerce and so forth.

FADEL: Right.

BERGSTROM: Then you get people that are simply spreading misinformation for profit, using this to sell, you know, snake oil treatments of various kinds. And then finally, there are a lot of well-meaning people that are scared and are not able to get good information and are sharing that because they're trying to take care of their friends and family, which is a very natural human emotion, of course.

FADEL: Why does this misinformation spread so quickly?

BERGSTROM: One of the things that's making the misinformation spread so quickly in this particular case is that there's a information vacuum. There's a ton of uncertainty surrounding what's actually going on with this virus. People are looking for answers that provide certainty. Most experts are unwilling to give answers like that because we simply don't know. I can give you a very broad range of how infectious the disease might be, how many people it might reach, how likely it is to kill you. But I can't give you a sharp number.

What people really want to hear are these sharp numbers, and if someone makes them up and states them in ways that seem authoritative, those are the kinds of pieces of misinformation that are likely to go spreading rapidly across social media.

FADEL: What happens when you get that wrong information?

BERGSTROM: I think there are a whole bunch of things that go wrong when a - when the public gets misinformation about a epidemic like this. One is, of course, people may believe that they should be spending their money on some kind of bizarre health tonic that'll protect them when it actually won't.

Another risk is misinformation can drive bad policy decisions. So if people believe that this is a very, very dangerous disease that's spreading very, very rapidly that might be able to be controlled by strict nation-level quarantines, that can drive hardcore isolationist policies that will not necessarily help control the spread of the disease - could even make it worse.

FADEL: So how do you even start combating this misinformation? We see that it spreads so fast. And frankly, it often looks like it's coming from somewhere that's reliable.

BERGSTROM: The main thing that I would encourage people to do is to try to pay attention to trusted media sources.

FADEL: Have you at any point seen mainstream media, fact-based media amplifying some of these stories that are out there?

BERGSTROM: Of course. Especially in a fast-breaking situation like this, it's inevitable that, you know, fact-based media make these mistakes. We even see cases where top scientific journals in the world publish things that turn out to be false because we simply don't have the best possible information as fast as we want it, and there's a premium on immediacy.

What's good is they very, very rapidly are corrected. Taking information that may be 12 or 24 hours old from fact-based media is often a much safer strategy than trying to find information from the last hour in the swamp of misinformation that social media represents right now.

FADEL: Carl Bergstrom is a professor of biology at the University of Washington. He was with us from member station KUOW in Seattle.

Professor, thanks for joining us.

BERGSTROM: Thank you. It was great talking to you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.