As coronavirus races around the globe, so too does unreliable information about the potentially deadly disease. Social-media companies and online watchdogs are responding with unprecedented efforts to provide trustworthy news about the malady while stifling rumors and fraudsters peddling fake cures.
On Wednesday, the social media giant Facebook said it had banned advertisements for products that claim to cure or prevent the disease. No such treatments currently exist, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nor is there a vaccine or a specific medicine to treat coronavirus.
The attorneys general of Michigan and Connecticut have also urged residents to be wary of coronavirus-related scams, such as phony vaccines, which have been promoted online. A spokeswoman for Massachusetts’ attorney general, Maura Healey, urged consumers to avoid responding to spam e-mails or social-media postings that offer coronavirus cures.
In addition, both the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission issued notices earlier this month warning consumers and investors to be wary of online ads and e-mails related to coronavirus. If you’re asked to buy a new vaccine or to invest in the company that makes it, or if you’re asked to donate to a coronavirus-related charity, your safest bet is simply to log off.
As of Wednesday, more than 81,000 people had been infected worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, with more than 2,700 deaths. While the great majority of victims are in China, infected people have been identified in 37 other countries, including the United States.
Facebook’s crackdown on false coronavirus ads stands in sharp contrast to its controversial decision to allow political candidates to make false statements in their campaign ads. In that case, the company said it would let voters make up their own minds about whom or what to believe.
A Facebook spokesman said the company was concerned that tolerating the spread of bad medical advice could result in harm to people who acted on it. Since coronavirus erupted in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year, Internet sites have featured bizarre claims that it can be tamed by eating large quantities of garlic or by consuming a chemical solution containing bits of silver, or even by drinking laundry bleach.
Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said that much of this false information is spread by people out of a misplaced desire to protect friends and loved ones from the disease. But Chakravorti also said that many people simply enjoy the thrill of spreading lurid rumors.
“Misinformation is more exciting than truth," Chakravorti said. "It’s more exciting to hear. It’s more exciting to pass it on.”
Facebook had already been removing posts that included potentially harmful misinformation about treatments or cures for coronavirus, but those efforts haven’t been entirely successful. A search on Wednesday quickly turned up questionable postings, including a claim that a doctor in India had invented an herbal treatment to cure the disease.
Apart from its crackdowns on posts and ads, Facebook is also pointing curious visitors to more-reliable sources of news. Any time a user searches for the word cornonavirus, the first result is a link to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The company has done the same for its photo-sharing network, Instagram. And the messaging service Twitter has adopted the same policy.
Meanwhile, the news monitoring service NewsGuard is keeping tabs on websites that generate the unreliable stories popping up on social media, releasing a list of sites in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany that have allegedly published false information about coronavirus.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.