February 20, 2020

Since Feb. 10, when the World Health Organization announced that more than 1,000 people had died from the 2019 coronavirus, fact-checkers involved in the #CoronaVirusFacts / #DatosCoronaVirus alliance started to receive a new wave of misinformation — tons of posts, photos and videos “showing” how sick people were being exterminated. The kind of content that could represent supreme horror for humanity— if it were not completely false.

In recent days, at least five countries (the United States, India, Indonesia, Ghana and Kenya) saw/read that the Chinese government had turned to the Supreme Court to request authorization to kill 20,000 people infected with the coronavirus 2019. A big hoax.

Fact-checking teams from Snopes, BoomLive, Tempo, Dubawa and PesaCheck had to be quick to explain that the original information had emerged on a website that normally publishes false articles (such as reports on restaurants for cannibals), written by authors who only identify themselves as “local correspondents” and who never reveal their sources.

Fact-checkers also stressed that no other media outlet in the world — even the officials one from China — had been able to confirm the “news” and that there was no mention of this possible official consultation on the Supreme Court’s website. So it sounded completely false.

But for some weird reason, people who are on social media channels day and night seemed to secretly wish that the story about extermination was true. So when “satellite photos showing that there were high levels of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere in China” came to the Internet, they suddenly became “obvious evidence that the Chinese were cremating thousands of people infected with the coronavirus 2019.”

On one morning last week, Belgian Maarten Schenk, editor of Lead Stories, connected to the Slack account used by members of the #CoronaVirusFacts / #DataCoronaVirus alliance to communicate, and wrote a short message: “Dropping this here if anyone wants to take a look.”

It was a tweet that, at that time, had been shared more than 10,000 times and that supposedly had data from windy.com and a very impressive graphic with it: a map of China with an orange spot near the epicenter of the coronavirus 2019.

“Data from windy.com shows a massive release of sulfur dioxide gas from the outskirts of Wuhan, commonly associated with the burning of organic matters,” said the tweet. “Levels are elevated, even compared with the rest of China.”

FullFact, in the United Kingdom, contacted NASA to understand what had happened and discovered that the images were actually from a satellite and that they couldn’t consist of evidence that mass cremations were being carried out in Wuhan. The photos were nothing more than manipulated weather forecasts. At the same time, Taiwan Fact-Check Center published its own research – also proving the information was false.

So those beautiful verified articles ended up being replicated in Poland by Demagog and in Brazil by Agência Lupa.

But the wave of false and dreadful stories about exterminations associated with the coronavirus kept ongoing.

In Sri Lanka, a Facebook post suggested that the Chinese police had started ripping people with coronaviruses from inside their cars. FactCrescendo wrote an article explaining that it was not true. The woman who appeared in the story was not sick. She had disrespected traffic laws in the Chinese province of Heilongjiang.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Weibo, YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp were taken by a video that “showed a dead family after the Chinese government had established the siege of some cities.” Fact-checkers at Annie Lab found that the video had been posted online at least 23 days before the ban, which means the deaths had nothing to do with harsh measures imposed by the Chinese government.

And finally, let’s make it clear: It is false that, due to the new coronavirus, Asians started to eat human babies. Maldita.es has verified a popular Instagram post that brings this horrible information. What is shown in the post is an autopsy.

Read this article in Spanish at Univision.


Read the reports published by the #CoronaVirusFacts collaboration project

Report # 1 (published Jan. 28): Coronavirus: Fact-checkers from 30 countries are fighting 3 waves of misinformation 

Report # 2 (published Jan. 30): Photos and videos allegedly showing the coronavirus are now challenging fact-checkers 

Report # 3 (published Feb. 3): Panic and fear might be limiting human reasoning and fueling hoaxes about coronavirus

Report # 4 (published Feb. 6): Google, Facebook and Twitter could do more to surface fact-checks about the coronavirus

Report # 5 (published Feb. 13): These are false cures and fake preventative measures against coronavirus. Help fact-checkers spread the word


* Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.

* Coronavirus collaboration: The collaborative project, coordinated by the International Fact-Checking Network, was launched Jan. 24 and will be active for as long as the lethal disease spreads worldwide. Fact-checkers are using a shared Google Sheet and a Slack channel to share content and communicate in different time zones. Follow #CoronaVirusFacts and #DatosCoronaVirus on social media for the latest updates.

This article has been updated with the Taiwan Fact-Check Center fact-check.

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Cristina Tardáguila is the International Fact-Checking Network’s Associate Director. She was born in May 1980, in Brazil, and has lived in Rio de Janeiro for…
Cristina Tardáguila

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