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Jan. 24, 2020, 11:07 a.m.
Audience & Social

The Wuhan coronavirus is the latest front for medical misinformation. How will China handle it?

Plus: Facebook allows “rampant climate denialism” around the Australian wildfires, and female politicians in India face a disproportionate amount of trolling.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

Coronavirus and misinformation. The Wuhan Coronavirus has infected more than 800 people, mostly in and around Wuhan, China, and killed at least 26. (This morning, a second case was confirmed in the United States, in Chicago. The virus has also been found in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam.)

As was the case with the Ebola virus, the coronavirus outbreak is responsible for the spread of a lot of misinformation, although it’s early enough in the epidemic that we don’t yet have tons of info on what that misinformation looks like. From The Wall Street Journal:

A post circulating on the popular messaging app WeChat suggested that cities where patients had fallen sick should set off fireworks to kill the disease in the air. Another viral post declared vinegar and indigowoad root — a flower commonly used in Chinese medicine — to be the “golden pair,” or ideal solution, in preventing infection, forcing China’s cabinet-level National Health Commission to clarify in its own social-media post that the “golden pair” wouldn’t fend off the deadly virus.

The Chinese government’s response to (mis)information about the epidemic is an interesting complicating factor to watch. Back on January 3, the BBC reported:

There has been speculation on social media about a possible connection to the highly contagious disease. Wuhan police said eight people had been punished for “publishing or forwarding false information on the internet without verification.”

Poynter’s Cristina Tardáguila and Summer Chen, editor-in-chief at Taiwan FactCheck Center, note:

More than 20 days have passed since those detentions, and still the world doesn’t know much about what occurred with that group. Were these people actually false news producers? Or were they just sharing content about what is now known as the 2019 coronavirus?

Tardáguila and Chen haven’t been able to find out much about the eight people who were detained. They note that the case has been written about briefly on Weibo by Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a state-run media outlet. (He’s also been tweeting about the broader situation this week.)

Facebook allows “rampant climate denialism” around the Australian wildfires. Read this along with my colleague Hanaa’ Tameez’s recent reporting on how YouTube pushes misinformation about climate change: BuzzFeed reported this week, using data from CrowdTangle, that “during the worst of the [Australian bushfires, which have burned more than 42 million acres, destroyed thousands of buildings and homes, and killed more than a million animals], far-right, fringe and conspiratorial Facebook pages were enjoying unusual success by spreading content that misdirected blame away from climate change.”

In some cases, viral climate-denying content appears to have been used as part of a successful publishing strategy — to take advantage of huge interest in the fires, sow doubt about climate change and increase a page’s audience at the same time.

One climate denial page, “Climate Change LIES,” had a big start to January. In the week starting January 5, it published 36 posts — more than double its average number. Its page likes jumped by an unusually high number that week, 132.

Its most successful post that week blamed arson for the fires, explicitly spelling out that the cause was “not global warming.” The post linked to, and incorrectly described, a Sydney Morning Herald op-ed with a headline ripe for confusion — the figures in the article were about fires more broadly and not the bushfires specifically. The post was shared over 1,100 times, 33 times more than an average post on the page.

That same (still) poorly headlined article has been tweeted more than 3,500 times. Here’s the misleading way it appears on Twitter:

Separately, Media Matters for America has covered the ways that mainstream media has ignored or downplayed the fires’ connection to climate change, especially Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian. Rupert Murdoch’s younger son James and his wife Kathryn have criticized (via spokesperson) the elder Murdoch’s news outlets’ coverage of the crisis, with said spokesperson recently telling the Daily Beast that “Kathryn and James’ views on climate are well established and their frustration with some of the News Corp and Fox coverage of the topic is also well known. They are particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial among the news outlets in Australia given obvious evidence to the contrary.”

If you’re a female politician in India, getting trolled comes with the job. CNN writes up a new report from Amnesty International that tracked the Twitter mentions of 95 Indian female politicians and found that “about one in seven tweets sent to the women were abusive or problematic” — “in other words, Indian female politicians receive “nearly twice the amount of trolling experienced by their female counterparts in the United States and United Kingdom.”

[Dr. Debarati Halder, managing director of the Center For Cyber Victim Counseling and co-author of Cyber Crimes Against Women in India[, whose research has looked at the trolling and abuse of women politicians, journalists, celebrities and activists, says that India’s patriarchal social structure has taken on a new dimension online, where men vandalize women’s internet profiles, use filthy language to describe their sex appeal, publish intimate images without their consent or share doctored imagery — known as “deepfakes” — depicting them in pornography.

India’s youngest parliamentarian, Chandrani Murmu, was subjected to such a “deepfake,” with her face superimposed onto an obscene video, before she was elected last year.

Photo of passengers deboarding a Wuhan–Tokyo flight January 23 for quarantine inspection by The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Jan. 24, 2020, 11:07 a.m.
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