Misinformation adds to danger of virus outbreak

The coronavirus outbreak has unleashed a flurry of conspiracy theories and fake news.
Sunday 15/03/2020
Lebanese men wearing protective masks smoke water pipe or nargileh in Beirut on March 12. (AFP)
Lebanese men wearing protective masks smoke water pipe or nargileh in Beirut on March 12. (AFP)

The coronavirus outbreak has unleashed a flurry of conspiracy theories and fake news. With the help of social media, the unwelcome inflow of misinformation is adding to the confusion and anxiety sparked by the epidemic.

MENA, among all parts of the world, is no stranger to conspiracy theories and to disinformation practices. In the coronavirus crisis, conspiracy theories could maybe alleviate fear and anguish. Illusory beliefs about impending cures and vaccines are at times better than desperation.

Elizabeth Petrun Sayers, a behavioural and social scientist with the RAND Corporation, explained conspiracy theories by the need to “help reduce anxiety. If folks are looking for explanations, conspiracy theories can sometimes help them feel better.”

However, in the current global health emergency, misleading information can hinder efforts to curtail the epidemic and further endanger the population.

Since the first days of the contagion, there were unsubstantiated charges that the outbreak was man-made. The virus, some claimed, was maliciously manufactured as a bioweapon. The United States, they alleged, wanted to cripple China for being a challenging economic competitor. Others said the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation encouraged the contamination to further vaccine sales.

It did not matter that, on March 6, US billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates was discussing with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan the means of global cooperation to stem the epidemic.

Others pushed false and potentially dangerous cures, such as “miracle minerals” and “drinkable silver.”

Not only are such claims not backed by science, they are potentially dangerous. They can imperil the health of millions and distract public health authorities from their focus.

“At the WHO we’re not just battling the virus, we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theories that undermine our response,” said World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The WHO has devoted much of its precious time to countering outlandish claims and sensationalist accusations, some probably aimed at drawing attention and generating internet traffic.

Sarah E. Kreps, a professor of government at Cornell University, said she considers deliberately spreading distortions to be practitioners of “algorithmic capitalism,” in which people scare up traffic and sell against it.

That was the case it seems of the fake video of Saddam Hussein boasting about brave Iraqis who are undaunted by coronavirus threats.

More strikingly political, however, were Tehran’s officially sanctioned conspiracy theories.

After weeks of denial of casualties, Iranian authorities accused the United States of manufacturing the virus to harm China, then Iran.

The semi-official ISNA News Agency quoted Hossein Salami, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as saying: “Today, the country is engaged in a biological battle.

“We will prevail in the fight against this virus, which might be the product of an American biological [attack], which first spread in China and then to the rest of the world.

He added: “America should know that, if it has done so, it will return to itself.”

In a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad echoed similar conspiratorial thoughts. “It is clear to the world that the mutated coronavirus was produced in lab, manufactured by the warfare stock houses of biological war belonging to world powers,” he was quoted as saying.

Conspiracy theories channel hostility to convenient targets. For those in Tehran who believe in them, they offer easy explanations because they are buttressed by decades of animosity towards the United States.

For Tehran, the accusations had the added advantage of deflecting blame on outside actors for inept handling of the epidemic.

“Conspiracy theories promoted for political gain do not kill like viruses do but, by infecting the public discourse with false or harmful ideas, they make it harder for citizens to ascertain the truth and hold politicians accountable,” Scott Radnitz, director of the Ellison Centre at the University of Washington, wrote in the Guardian newspaper.

A more useful exercise for Iran and the rest of the region’s governments would be to devote their time to the dissemination of information that can save lives.

Accurate information could have saved the lives of the 27 people or more in Iran who died from alcohol poisoning trying to protect themselves from the coronavirus.