On March 19th at 6PM CET, we are going live with an educational session on “How can Data Science help in the times of a pandemic”. In particular, how can data science help manage facts vs fiction in the current situation? Will the public listen to scientific advice and implement it? Sign up here!

The spread of the coronavirus has become a rare event in which the entire world is affected and concerned. Open the newspaper, Facebook, or talk to literally anyone and the virus is the first topic that pops up. 

Initially, you might have thought the virus was just flu. Not a big reason for concern. But then offices and schools closed their doors, followed by theatres and clubs like Berlin’s famous Berghain. Soon it all went downhill: countries started closing their borders. Now you are wondering whether you can even go on holiday this year. 

Where China and Italy have been warning the world, the extent of the crisis only started to get through in the past week to many people elsewhere. As Europeans started to stockpile on products -or as Germans call ‘Hamsterkaufen’ (buying like hamsters)- America had the worst day for its markets since 1987. So far, 169.387 patients with the coronavirus have been confirmed in all continents of the world.

You can’t escape the Infodemic

You can’t escape news about the coronavirus these days. We are all concerned and many follow the news the whole day long. But the overabundance of information in the online world makes it more difficult for people to find trustworthy sources and guidance when they most need it. An ‘infodemic’, as the World Health Organisation (WHO), has named it. 

The infodemic has brought all kinds of disinformation. Such as that the coronavirus is a biochemical weapon that leaked from a Chinese laboratory. That it is caused by 5G because technology would absorb oxygen from the lungs, or that it is spread by people in China eating bats, fuelling racism online. 

Scammers are trying to sell products online that are supposed to help against the virus. That can be dangerous: one ‘miracle mineral drink’ was likened by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to drinking bleach. Cybersecurity experts recently warned that there is a massive increase in scam emails that try to get financial information or infect computers with malware through a message about the coronavirus. 
That’s why last week, the White House urged companies to fight misinformation. Chief of Technology Officier Michael Kratsios said: “Cutting edge technology companies and major online platforms will play a critical role in this all-hands-on-deck.” And social media giants have really stepped up to fight hard against coronavirus misinformation. Mid-February, tech companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon got together with WHO to discuss how to deal with fake news about the virus and plan to do so regularly.

Right information first

The simplest strategy to deal with false information is to promote the right information. Most tech companies now prominently link to health organizations when searching for the coronavirus. Facebook said it is giving the WHO free advertising on their platform. Tiktok has also collaborated with WHO. The organization now has a channel with videos on how to protect yourself against the virus. 

That is useful because a lot of common misconceptions spread on platforms like Twitter. In a myth-busting article, WHO says that contrary to what some believe, the virus can be transmitted in all climates, so the coming summer heat is not going to stop the virus. Taking a hot bath also won’t heal COVID-19, just like eating garlic and rinsing your nose with saline won’t. Washing your hands frequently, avoiding physical contact and not touching your face are still the measures advised by the health organization. 

Also, chatbots have been key in providing the right information to the public. They kept travelers updated in order to figure out their travel plans as flights were canceled and borders closed. And through WeChat, users can access free online health consultation services. 

Taking out false information

But demoting false information or keeping it from appearing in the first place is more difficult to achieve. Facebook uses Artificial Intelligence to take out suspicious content and passes them to hired fact-checkers. When flagged by fact-checkers or health organizations, a message pops up when a user wants to share the content that it is factually incorrect. 

The problem is, human fact-checkers can’t keep up with AI, as tons of false information are posted every day. Even though Amazon took down more than a million products in recent weeks that claimed to prevent, treat or cure the coronavirus, they keep appearing. AI should be a solution here, but we are still far from creating AI against misinformation that works at scale and in all languages. Because lots of contexts are involved, it is a difficult task for AI to achieve. 

But there is a lot we can do, even as individuals. Interesting data science projects around the coronavirus keep popping up. For example, by analyzing government data, news reports, and social media, the Canadian startup BlueDot trains AI to identify the outbreak of an epidemic. And see here an article on how to track the coronavirus in your country with Python. 

Willingness

But what the coronavirus crisis shows is that it is ultimately also a question of willingness. The coronavirus is a clear enemy and tech companies have been working together for the benefit of users and governments. 

When it comes to political topics though, Facebook and other social media companies have been more reluctant to act. One issue is that removing content about conspiracy theories can feed the conspiracy, by seeming like organizations and companies are trying to keep information from the public. On topics like climate change, a lot of disinformation is not removed, even though there is broad scientific consensus about the topic. 

But with the coronavirus, Facebook has acted differently. A spokesperson told Recode that the company removes false claims, flagged by fact-checkers, that have been shared by politicians or elected officials. 

Let’s hope that one positive thing will come out of the coronavirus: a whole that is better equipped for the future against fake news. 

Want to get informed about the virus? Here are some sources to check:

  • The Coronavirus Project to debunk misinformation, by the Federation of American Scientists
  • In the UK, here is information from the NHS
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