March 31, 2020

Fact-checkers around the world have encountered a specific odd chain message about COVID-19 that has nothing to do with false cures or who is immune. It’s about helicopters. And, quite often, it talks about not one but five of them.

The CoronaVirusFacts / DatosCoronaVirus alliance, coordinated by the International Fact-Checking Network since January, will update its database for the third time this week, adding more than 600 debunked falsehoods and surpassing  2,000 pieces of misinformation worldwide.

Among these hoaxes, fact-checkers have encountered this enduring rumor: Helicopters are going to spread “pesticides” in our cities so we better stay home.

Fact-checkers of almost 20 countries have reported that there is no plan, in any city, to use helicopters to spread — from the sky — products against the novel coronavirus. However, over the past three weeks, this rumor has been debunked in the Netherlands, the United States, Turkey, Argentina, Guatemala, Venezuela, Spain, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Italy, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Uruguay, Pakistan, Nepal, the United Kingdom, and Morocco. The list is not exhaustive.

Alliance member Nieuwscheckers tried to retrace (in Dutch) the origin of this hoax and found that it first appeared in Italy, one of the countries most affected by the pandemic, on March 10. The oldest message found on WhatsApp said in Italian: “From 11 pm to 5 am, a helicopter will pass to disinfect everything. I beg you to not leave your clothes and shoes outside and most of all watch out for your dogs!”

Four days later, a similar text landed in Malaga, Spain, this time mentioning “Five helicopters.” No one has ever seen them but the same story arrived in Spanish-speaking South America, in Turkey and in Taiwan.

This is a perfect illustration of what “infodemic” is, the expression curated in February by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization.

Just like viruses, misinformation knows no borders, especially during such a crisis. And it has become just another part of the shared reality we are living in, alongside confinement and constant hand-washing.

Ways to help

The good news is that we can definitely do something about it. Just like we wash our hands to fight the pandemic, we can scrub our chats to contain the infodemic. In replies to a viral tweet about the helicopter hoax spreading in family group chats, people have been sharing screenshots of debunking the rumor.

Several articles, from Quartz, BuzzFeed News and the Conversation, are full of tips on how to talk to those who share false content. Here are some  guidelines:

  • Assess the situation. Do you have the time and energy to get into the conversation? How receptive will the person be? Is it an acquaintance on Facebook who has no reason to trust you, or a relative who knows you and generally believes what you say? Is the post seen by many people? Those questions can help you decide whether to intervene or not.
  • Keep it positive and non-confrontational. We know that watching falsehoods spread is frustrating. However, you’re probably not going to convince anyone by scolding them or shaming them. Try not to pinpoint someone.
  • Be humble. No matter how informed and educated you are, you are not immune from falling for a hoax. Acknowledge this when you respond. Use “we,” not “you”: “There are so many things that can fool us. We should be careful.”
  • Ask questions. The first question you should ask someone who shares misinformation is: “Where did you find this information?” This might lead them to question the source and find another one. You might also say: “I don’t know this source, have you seen this anywhere else?”

Happy scrubbing!

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