Social media posts, audio files and chain messages announcing that airports, schools, universities, bars and entire cities were being closed or locked down proliferated this week on social media and WhatsApp groups. Some were true; most weren’t.
Texts reporting that President Donald Trump would impose a nationwide “mandatory quarantine” in the next 48 to 72 hours went viral in the United States, for example, urging people to stock food and also testing fact-checkers’ ability to quickly verify content.
In this specific case, FactCheck.org reported that, at least until March 16, the U.S government said that it had no intention of forcing citizens across the country to stay indoors – as authorities have done lately in Italy, Spain and France. It was – at least for now – a false alarm.
Other members of the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, which brings together more than 100 fact-checkers in 45 countries to deal with misinformation related to the COVID-19, also found fake quarantine and closure announcements. They have learned a lot from this situation.
On Monday, the team at France 24 Observers received WhatsApp messages about the closure of the entire country. The text “reported” that the police and the French Army were already mobilized to ensure that no one could be on the streets after a certain hour.
“This message is false right now, but it may become true tonight. We depend on what (French President Emmanuel) Macron says,” fact-checker Alexandre Capron told the IFCN.
For this reason, he added, fact-checkers must provide the exact date and time of their verification in their article.
In India, The Quint and FactCrescendo analyzed on March 13 a WhatsApp chain “announcing” that the central government had decreed a school holiday in four states. The false information generated confusion and concern among teachers, principals, and – of course – families.
Pesacheck, in South Africa, had to deal with a false flight cancellation alert by Emirates Airlines. A Facebook post reporting that all trips to Johannesburg had been suspended because of the coronavirus gained momentum in users’ News Feeds on March 6, causing anxiety among travelers, airport staff and in the local press too. All false.
But why do people share false information about lockdowns?
“This is a difficult question and I think there are two groups here,” said Capron.
In the first group, the French fact-checker puts people who hit the share button willing to alert friends and family about something good or bad. In this situation, about “the difficult times we are living in.”
“In this case, the falsehood comes from someone very close, who is highly-respected. But if we investigate who has been the first one to send the message, we are never able to really track down. No one ever knows,” he added.
The second group is more troublesome. They see their lies as a joke or they are simply trying to incite panic.
Capron said that after the public has seen the information on their mobile phones or computers, it’s difficult for them to believe a fact-checker.
“It is practically impossible,” he emphasized. “People will always say something like: ‘How can you say it is false if it is going to happen?’ People simply do not understand that they are communicating about something that isn’t true in the present.”
Read the Spanish version at Univision.
Read the reports published by the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance
- 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
- Report # 6 (published Feb. 20): Hoaxes about the coronavirus are now trying to prove human extermination
- Report # 7 (published Feb. 27): No race or religion can prevent coronavirus — don’t fall for these hoaxes
- Report # 8 (published Mar. 5): False cases of coronavirus have infected social media
- Report #9 (published Mar. 12): Hoaxes about coronavirus tests have political uses and can push patients away
Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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.