Coronavirus and “Fake News”

Coronavirus and “Fake News”

In today’s post we at The Doan Law Firm, in keeping with our policy of providing a public service to the community, are taking a temporary break from our usual reporting of news from the world of personal injury law to comment on the alarming upsurge in the amount of “fake news” regarding the ongoing Coronavirus outbreak in China and fears that it could spread to the United States. Although most such “news” has been reported in the social media of China and its neighboring countries, if the past is prelude to the immediate future, it is only a matter of time before such “fake news” clogs the inboxes of American internet subscribers. In anticipation of this onslaught, we present the following,

Background

Toward the end of 2019, reports of an influenza-like illness that rapidly progressed to pneumonia in the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province, China began to appear in the regional Asian news media. By the middle of February 2020, Chinese and western media sources were reporting some that some 60,000 cases of the disease had been reported and that over 1,300 deaths had been attributed to the condition, which was later named COVID-19 (Coronavirus Infection Disease-2019).

Contrary to some news media reports, Coronavirus infections are not new. Previous outbreaks of Coronavirus-related infections occurred in China in 2003 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, aka SARS) and in Saudi Arabia in 2012 (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, aka MERS), both of which eventually spread worldwide.

Coronavirus is most commonly found in birds, farm animals, and in domesticated mammals such as cats and even camels. In human, the virus is usually spread through direct contact with an infected animal although some emerging evidence suggests that the Coronavirus variant that causes COVID-19 can be spread via the respiratory secretions of infected humans even though the “carrier” may not be experiencing symptoms of the condition.

The early symptoms associated with COVID-19 are similar to those of influenza. However, in some individuals the condition progresses into a viral pneumonia that is particularly difficult to treat. Fortunately, person-to-person transmission of the virus can be prevented through use of hand washing and avoidance of respiratory contact with a known or suspected virus carrier.

COVID-19 in the United States

According to information posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website, which is updated daily and as new information is made available from reliable sources, here is what has been confirmed regarding the presence of COVID-19 in the United States:

  • On January 31st, January 31, 2020, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar declared a public health emergency for the United States in response to concerns that travelers entering the country from areas impacted by the initial outbreak of COVID-19 (Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China) could introduce the virus into the United States.

  • At the same time, the President issued an Executive Order temporarily banning entry of immigrants and non-immigrant visitors who are deemed to be at risk of infection with COVID-19. US citizens and legal alien residents who are at risk of COVID-19 infection are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine at designated military facilities and are not being held in “internment” or “concentration” camps,

  • Although there have been over 50,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China, as of February 13th there have been only 15 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States, only 1 instance where the virus is know to have been transmitted by respiratory contact, and no reported deaths.

"Fake News,” malicious software, and COVID-19

For lack of a better definition, “fake news” is the deliberate publication of information that the original publisher or broadcaster knew to have been untrue or that the publisher/broadcaster created themselves in order to advance some personal agenda or criminal enterprise. The sheer amount of such disinformation makes it all but impossible to discuss here. However, the following links should give you an idea of how widespread fake news on the COVID-19 outbreak has become.

  • In “China and fake news in the time of coronavirus” the Financial Times (London) reported on the amount of fake news that had appeared on Chinese social media within a month of the first mention of the virus in the mainstream news.

  • Saying that false information is “spreading faster than the virus,” the World Health Organization is urging tech companies such as Facebook to actively curb the spread of fake news regarding the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • In “2019-nCoV, fake news, and racism,” the prestigious medical journal The Lancet discussed how fake news is feeding a wave of anti-Chinese racism that is just now reaching Europe and North America (“2019-nCoV” was the original designation for “COVID-19”).

Fake news also makes us vulnerable to exploitation by cybercriminals, as the following sampling of reports document.

  • Antivirus and malware-blocking software provider Malwarebytes reported that the first examples of malicious software designed to play on deliberate misinformation about the Coronavirus outbreak appeared in Japan within a week of the first news reports from China.

  • Internet security and antivirus software giant Kaspersky has already found malicious software hidden inside “.pdf,” “.docx” (Microsoft Word) and “.mp4” files that claim to contain “information” on Coronavirus detection, infection prevention, and infection treatment.

  • A “phishing” e-mail purporting to come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Phishing” is the use of legitimate-looking e-mail to convince its recipient to reveal personal information that is then used for fraudulent purposes.

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In closing, given the short amount of time that has elapsed since the first reports of the Coronavirus outbreak in China and today, the amount of fake news and criminal activity fostered by such fake news reports is astounding. While we cannot hope to tell you which news reports or social media posts are factual and which ones are deliberate falsehoods, we can encourage you to at least make an honest attempt to at least confirm the validity of what is appearing on social media (and in you e-mail’s in-box) before making what could be a very expensive mistake.

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