Commentary

COVID-19 Pandemic Spawns Dangerous Online Hoaxes

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a distressing onslaught of dangerous online hoaxes that profiteer from fears about the spreading contagion. Dozens of websites posing as legitimate news outlets have published false information that deceives readers with conspiracy theories and incites hatred toward immigrants.

NewsGuard, a press watchdog startup cofounded by journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill, found more than 130 websites that push coronavirus conspiracy theories.

The sites publish false claims that the coronavirus is a Chinese biological weapon and can be cured with vitamin C and other oddball concoctions. Some of the sites pose as legitimate sources of news with bylines that don't provide a way to contact reporters, which is a standard practice for authentic news sites.

The yarn about the coronavirus' origin as a bio-weapon started on a website called GreatGameIndia.com, which on Jan. 26 published a story titled "Coronavirus Bioweapon – How China Stole Coronavirus From Canada And Weaponized It."

The story claimed two Chinese spies smuggled the virus from a high-security laboratory in Winnipeg to a military facility in China. The virus escaped and started infecting people, according to the bogus claims. PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation debunked the story.

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However, financial website ZeroHedge republished the story, which was then picked up by RedStateWatch.com, an anonymously published website that ranks in the top 150 online publications by web traffic, according to NewsGuard.

The incident highlighted how easily misinformation goes viral as people share online stories on social-media platforms. With the coronavirus pandemic showing no signs of ebbing in the U.S., it's likely more websites peddling false information will crop up, making an alarming situation even worse.

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