What is behind the wide reach of  fake news about Coronavirus?

fake news 2020

(Markus Winkler, Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Carolina Vissoci Lima, a 2nd year medical student at Universidade Regional de Blumenau (FURB) and a member of IFMSA Brazil since 2018. She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

Fear. This is the main reason why many people died in an emblematic case of fire that happened in the southern Brazil club Kiss by being trampled even before they could get intoxicated by carbon dioxide.1 As the numbers of infected individuals rise, people’s despair increase along with it. In such wise, the same principle of behavior is behind the high-speeded spreading of fake news. Once these misinformations are propagated and reach a large public, the impacts may be very hard to rectify.2

Although Coronavirus is not the first context of an outbreaking disease which the widespread use of social media is a tool for broadcasting fake news about it, society never seems to learn its lesson. In the same manner, caregivers had to fight both the infection and the false informations that were spread during the Ebola outbreak.3 Likewise, misstatements had way more global reach then valid data when Zika virus arised a few years ago.4 These and so many others are background that men apparently forgot when a new virus came up in China last December.5

As people react the same way to a new virus rising, it is possible to realize that some impacts are going to be repeated. When the Ebola virus got its worldwide reach, the fear of the most vulnerable lead to xenophobic misconceptions dissemination such as prejudice toward West Africans, support for restrictive travel policies, prejudice against undocumented immigrants and ethnocentrism. The same research that pointed out these indicators of xenophobia determined that collectivism is the best key to cope with this scenario.6 Still, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), other nations must be supportive to China.7

Yet the fake news attract more attention and the access to trustworthy scientific information are limited,8 it is very important to reinforce the use of fact-checking tools in order to fight misinformation. The countermeasures for that can include provenance, engagement, transparency, narrative and reputation.9 Another fundamental approach is demanding from decision makers to stimulate more investments on researches about Coronavirus intending to develop an specific treatment for the disease it causes.

Therefore, people should not trample those who need just as much or even more help than themselves but offer the assistance required. Since neither the nationality nor the ascendance of a person are directly related to the disease as a risk factor, xenophobic attitudes must be highly despised. Thus, solidarity and empathy for the sick ones are essentials to get through any outbreaking disease aiming to obtain favorable outcomes. Those are the reasons why fear and prejudice must not lead on society and fake news must be combated.



  1. ABRANTES, Talita. Veja fotos da tragédia na boate Kiss em Santa Maria (RS). 2013. Available in: <https://exame.abril.com.br/brasil/veja-imagens-do-resgate-do-incendio-em-santa-maria-rs/&gt;. Access on: Feb. 6th 2020.
  2. GILLIGAN, Jeffrey T.; GOLOGORSKY, Yakov. #Fake News: Scientific Research in the Age of Misinformation. World Neurosurgery, [s.l.], v. 131, p.284-284, Nov. 2019. Elsevier BV. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.wneu.2019.08.083.
  3. MARTIN, Andy. Ebola is killing people but rumours about Ebola are killing even more. 2019. Available in: <https://www.independent.co.uk/independentminds/long-reads/fake-news-ebola-outbreak-drc-red-cross-a8956816.html&gt;. Access on: Feb. 6th 2020.
  4. SOMMARIVA, Silvia et al. Spreading the (Fake) News: Exploring Health Messages on Social Media and the Implications for Health Professionals Using a Case Study. American Journal Of Health Education, [s.l.], v. 49, n. 4, p.246-255, Jun. 7th 2018. Informa UK Limited. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19325037.2018.1473178.
  5. UNITED NATIONS. Coronavirus global health emergency: Coverage from UN News. 2019. Available in:  <https://news.un.org/en/events/un-news-coverage-coronavirus-outbreak&gt;. Access on: Feb. 7th 2020.
  6. KIM, Heejung S.; SHERMAN, David K.; UPDEGRAFF, John A.. Fear of Ebola. Psychological Science, [s.l.], v. 27, n. 7, p.935-944, May 20th 2016. SAGE Publications. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797616642596.
  7. UNITED NATIONS. Coronavirus: UN health agency moves fast to tackle ‘infodemic’; Guterres warns against stigmatization. 2020. Available in: <https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/02/1056672&gt;. Access on: Feb. 9th 2020.
  8. PETERS, A. et al. Fighting the good fight: the fallout of fake news in infection prevention and why context matters. Journal Of Hospital Infection, [s.l.], v. 100, n. 4, p.365-370, Dec. 2018. Elsevier BV. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jhin.2018.08.001.
  9. MERCHANT, Raina M.; ASCH, David A.. Protecting the Value of Medical Science in the Age of Social Media and “Fake News”. Jama, [s.l.], v. 320, n. 23, p.2415-2417, Dec. 18th 2018. American Medical Association (AMA). http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jama.2018.18416.

About the author

Carolina Vissoci Lima is a 2nd year medical student at Universidade Regional de Blumenau (FURB) and a member of IFMSA Brazil since 2018. She is part of the local Standing Committee on Human Rights and Peace (SCORP) team and the first local Capacity Building director of IFMSA Brazil FURB. She is interested in the humanized practice of medicine and the medical educational tools that aims to achieve this goal by empowering and motivating the undergraduate caregivers.

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