A UK Government Web Page Is Going Viral As “Evidence” For Conspiracy Theories About The Coronavirus
The UK downgraded COVID-19 from a "high consequence infectious disease" in March, but that was a technical definition and doesn't mean the pandemic is not deadly.
An official UK government web page about COVID-19 has been shared tens of thousands of times on social media as supposed “evidence” for a conspiracy theory that politicians are overhyping the coronavirus crisis and using it to control the public.
The page has had big boosts from online communities dedicated to spreading debunked conspiracy theories about 5G mobile networks, the “New World Order” and “chemtrails” — the false belief that governments pump chemical agents into the sky to control the public.
A post written by Public Health England for the official GOV.UK website says “as of 19 March 2020, COVID-19 is no longer considered to be a high consequence infectious disease (HCID) in the UK”, after it was initially classified as such in January.
An HCID is a category of diseases with extremely high death rates like Ebola virus, Middle East Respiratory Fever (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
The coronavirus is “highly transmissible between humans as demonstrated by the speed of the pandemic, but it isn’t the most deadly of pathogens in terms of the infectious dose required to be lethal,” according to Professor Brendan Wren of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“Only 1% of infected humans succumb to the infection. This compares to, for example, 11% for SARS1 and 50% for Ebola” he told BuzzFeed News. As a result, the disease was downgraded for scientific research purposes.
However, Wren continued: “This slight downgrading doesn’t detract from the seriousness of Covid-19 infection.” He pointed out that the ease with which the virus spreads means it has infected and killed far more people than recent outbreaks of SARS and Ebola.
The Public Health England post does set out all these details lower down the page, but internet conspiracy theorists have highlighted the opening sentence and circulated it in a misleading way.
A post by the Facebook page Energy Therapy, liked by 2 million people, shares a screenshot of the government page and says:“If COVID-19 is no longer considered to be a high consequence infectious disease (HCID), at least in the UK, according to the UK government's own website, why do we have a continuous fear-based narrative from the MAINSTREAM MEDIA that things will ONLY GET WORSE?”
Conspiracy theorist David Icke who claims the coronavirus “is A Carefully Choreographed PANDEMIC” has also shared the screenshot.
The misinformation got an extra boost when it was written up by the Washington Times, a right-wing American news website, under the headline “Before lockdown, Britain quietly downgraded status of virus threat”.
The article, which has been liked and shared over 20,000 times, has been seized upon by conspiracy theorists as supposed proof of governments admitting the disease has been overhyped.
The Facebook groups where the Washington Times article has interacted with the most times included “Chemtrails Global Skywatch” and “Exposing The New World Order”.
The captions on posts accompanying the article included “tyranny in progress” and “the COVID-19 virus did not meet the criteria to qualify as a “high consequence infectious disease but they STILL locked it down - STILL think it is NOT about CONTROL?”
The UK government post was also written up by right-wing US news site The Daily Wire, with the headline “British Government Lowered Its Estimate Of Severity Of Coronavirus LAST WEEK”.
This article and headline have also been used on social media as supposed evidence of fearmongering by governments
The misinformation has also been shared by “anti-vax” groups in the US, and UK Facebook groups sharing debunked claims about 5G mobile phone networks supposedly spreading the coronavirus...
In the three weeks since the government post was uploaded on March 19, the UK has imposed strict social distancing measures to curb the spread of the virus, and prime minister Boris Johnson is in intensive care having contracted it.
"HCID is a technical classification with no current implications on how the government is responding to the coronavirus outbreak," a UK government spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
“We have always said we will take the right measures at the right time — based on the latest scientific evidence — to slow the spread of the virus, protect vulnerable people, reduce demand on our NHS and save lives.”
The original Public Health England web page was shared even more widely on Facebook posts in languages other than English, especially German, Russian and Romanian.
BuzzFeed News has previously reported on how Facebook has struggled to get a grip on misinformation about the coronavirus that goes viral in other languages
The misinformation about the UK government’s response to the coronavirus is especially prevalent in Serbian.
A story was originally picked up in the Balkan country by a doctor called Jovana Stojković, who usually uses her social media accounts to oppose mandatory vaccinations.
It was then picked up in an article on the news website Webtribune, which has been liked and shared thousands of times on Facebook.
UK Government Launches Unit To Deal With Fake Coronavirus News
The British government has created a special unit to deal with online misinformation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
The Rapid Response Unit is being run by the Cabinet Office and Number Ten and is attempting to tackle everything from misinformation about the virus to criminal fraudsters running phishing scams.
It forms part of a wider Counter Disinformation Cell led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and consisting of both government and tech sector representatives.
"Holding your breath for ten seconds is not a test for coronavirus and gargling water for 15 seconds is not a cure - this is the kind of false advice we have seen coming from sources claiming to be medical experts," says paymaster general Penny Mordaunt. "That is why government communicators are working in tandem with health bodies to promote official medical advice, rebut false narratives, and clamp down on criminals seeking to exploit public concern during this pandemic."
The new unit will coordinate with government departments on the appropriate response - from direct rebuttals on social media to working with platforms to remove harmful content and making sure that public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources.
"We’re working with social media companies, and I’ll be pressing them this week for further action to stem the spread of falsehoods and rumors which could cost lives," says culture secretary Oliver Dowden.
Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have all pledged to remove false coronavirus content, from fake cures to conspiracy theories about the virus's origins.
The UK government is endorsing NewsGuard, which recently launched the Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center, which rates sites on their credibility on the basis of nine criteria, including previous behavior, headline accuracy and willingness to publish corrections and clarifications.
In terms of scams, the unit has been investigating fake texts that purport to be from the government, as well as scam messages offering tax refunds to those that click a link.
"There is evidence of cybercriminals using a range of online techniques to trick people into handing over money or reveal sensitive information," says the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) in a statement. "
Example scams include the targeting of people looking to buy medical supplies, those looking for health advice, and encouraging people to donate money to fake charities."
Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, has repeatedly promoted the idea - without evidence - that Covid-19 might have originated in the US.
On 12 March, he said in a tweet that it might have been the US army that brought the virus to Wuhan.
A day later, he tweeted an article by the website Global Research headlined "Further evidence that the virus originated in the US", and urged users to read and share it. The article has since been deleted.
Chinese daily The Global Times echoed Mr Zhao's sentiment. While stressing the diplomat had made the claim in a "personal capacity", his remarks resonated "with similar doubts raised by the Chinese public", the paper said.
Mr. Zhao's claims have also been amplified by a number of Chinese embassies and social media users in different parts of the world.
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BBC Monitoring's China specialist Kerry Allen said that while Mr Zhao is known for being an outspoken figure - particularly on social media - he has a different persona within mainland China and does not necessarily always represent the view of the leadership.
Founded in 2001 in Canada, Global Research is the website of the Center for Research on Globalization. According to PolitiFact, a US-based independent fact-checking website, Global Research "has advanced specious conspiracy theories on topics like 9/11, vaccines and global warming".
he article Mr. Zhao tweeted was penned by regular contributor Larry Romanoff, who reiterates the conclusion from his earlier piece - now deleted - that the virus did not originate in China.
But the Chinese research and articles in the magazine Science that he quotes do not actually call into question China being the place where the outbreak started. Instead, they only suggest that specifically, the animal market in Wuhan may not have been the origin of the new coronavirus.Mr. Romanoff also claims that Japanese and Taiwanese scientists "have determined that the new coronavirus could have originated in the US".
But the conclusion appears to be based on a now-debunked Japanese TV report from February and claims made on Taiwanese TV by a pharmacology professor-turned-politician from a pro-Beijing party who Mr. Romanoff wrongly describes as a "top virologist" on first mention.
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Mr. Romanoff also claims - without evidence - that the US military germ laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland, may have been the original source of the virus. He adds that "this would not be a surprise" since the facility was "totally shut down" last year due to "an absence of safeguards to prevent pathogen leakages".
In fact, as the New York Times reported at the time, the facility was not shut down, but only suspended its research, and a spokeswoman said there were "no leaks of dangerous material outside the laboratory".
Mr. Romanoff identifies himself as a "retired management consultant and businessman" and a "visiting professor at Shanghai's Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes".
According to The Wall Street Journal, officials at the university's two MBA programs were unfamiliar with Mr. Romanoff.
BBC News asked Fudan University to confirm whether Mr. Romanoff had any affiliations to it as a visiting professor but did not get a response.
Claims by elements in the Chinese government and media about the US being a possible origin of the virus prompted a response from US President Donald Trump who referred to Covid-19 as a "Chinese virus". And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that China stop spreading "disinformation".
President Trump recently announced that he was going to halt funding for the World Health Organization (WHO), accusing it of being "very China-centric". In response, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was "not the time" to cut funds to the UN agency.
But a number of US politicians and commentators have also made unfounded claims about the origin of the virus.
Fox News primetime host Tucker Carlson cited a study raising the possibility that the coronavirus "accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan".
And Republican senators Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz have both raised the same prospect.
The study was published in early February as a "pre-print", or early draft, by two Chinese researchers - Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao from Guangzhou's South China University of Technology - and was not formally peer-reviewed. It concluded that "the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan".
But Mr Xiao has since told the Wall Street Journal that he subsequently withdrew the study. "The speculation about the possible origins in the post was based on published papers and media and was not supported by direct proofs," the Wall Street Journal quoted him as saying.
The Washington Post reported in mid-April that two science diplomats from the US embassy paid several visits to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2018 and warned Washington about "inadequate safety at the lab, which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats".
Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the US government's response to the Ebola outbreak, tweeted in response to reports about an accidental lab leak: "The science doesn't preclude a lab origin but does indicate it's quite unlikely."
BBC Monitoring reports and analyses news from TV, radio, web and print media around the world. You can follow BBC Monitoring on Twitter and Facebook.
Conspiracy beliefs reduce the following of government coronavirus guidance
The research, led by clinical psychologists at the University of Oxford and published today in the journal Psychological Medicine, indicates that a disconcertingly high number of adults in England do not agree with the scientific and governmental consensus on the coronavirus pandemic. The findings indicated that:
60% of adults believe to some extent that the government is misleading the public about the cause of the virus
40% believe to some extent the spread of the virus is a deliberate attempt by powerful people to gain control
20% believe to some extent that the virus is a hoax
From 4 to 11 May 2020, 2,500 adults, representative of the English population for age, gender, region, and income, took part in the Oxford Coronavirus Explanations, Attitudes, and Narratives Survey (OCEANS). Results indicate that half of the nation is excessively mistrustful and that this reduces the following of government coronavirus guidance.
Daniel Freeman, Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, and study lead, said: 'Our study indicates that coronavirus conspiracy beliefs matter.
Those who believe in conspiracy theories are less likely to follow government guidance, for example, staying home, not meeting with people outside their household, or staying 2m apart from other people when outside. Those who believe in conspiracy theories also say that they are less likely to accept a vaccination, take a diagnostic test, or wear a facemask.'
Guidelines are only effective if the majority of people use them. This pandemic requires a unified response. However, the high prevalence of conspiracy beliefs, and low levels of trust in institutions, may impede the response to this crisis.
The figures suggest a breakdown of trust between political and scientific leadership and a significant proportion of the English population.
Professor Freeman continues, 'There is a fracture: most people largely accept official COVID-19 explanations and guidance; a significant minority do not. The potential consequences, however, affect us all. The details of the conspiracy theories differ, and can even be contradictory, but there is a prevailing attitude of deep suspicion.
The epidemic has all the necessary ingredients for the growth of conspiracy theories, including sustained threat, exposure of vulnerabilities, and enforced change. The new conspiracy ideas have largely built on previous prejudices and conspiracy theories.
The beliefs look to be corrosive to our necessary collective response to the crisis. In the wake of the epidemic, mistrust looks to have become mainstream.'
Dr Sinéad Lambe, Clinical Psychologist, observed, 'Conspiracy thinking is not isolated to the fringes of society and likely reflects a growing distrust in the government and institutions.
Conspiracy beliefs arguably travel further and faster than ever before. Our survey indicates that people who hold such beliefs share them; social media provides a ready-made platform.'
It is important to counter conspiracy theories directly and reduce the spread. That needs to be against a backdrop of building up trust again in important institutions and reducing the sense for too many people that they are in the margins. Trust is the foundation stone of communities, which a time of crisis makes only more apparent.
This research project is funded by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre.
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