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WHO's SOS Alert Aims to Shut Down Coronavirus Rumor Mill

FILE - Facebook start page is shown on a smartphone in Surfside, Fla.

Agency says false information circulating around social media about the new coronavirus is hampering efforts to tackle the epidemic.

The World Health Organization is warning that false information circulating on social media about the new coronavirus is hampering efforts to tackle the epidemic. This fast moving disease so far has infected more than 20,000 people and killed at least 427. The overwhelming number of cases and all but two deaths have occurred in China.

Health officials say a disease epidemic is likely to quickly generate an epidemic of information. This is not unusual, they explain, because at the start of an outbreak, a lot is unknown about the nature of the disease and the risks it entails.

Unfortunately, they say the search for answers often triggers a lot of misinformation and harmful rumors. Sylvie Briand is the director of WHO's Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness unit. She says trying to deal with the mass of false information and rumors circulating on social media is challenging.

“A few centuries ago, this phenomenon existed as well. But at that time there was no social media and so the information was spreading as well, but much slower than now," said Briand. "Now, the information is spreading very fast and is amplified immediately in every corner of the world, basically. This speed is very difficult to address in a timely manner.”

WHO is teaming up with Google, which has launched a new project called SOS Alert. The system allows people to easily access key and correct information about the coronavirus. It says other social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and Tiktok also are taking steps to limit the spread of misinformation.

Briand tells VOA that getting the right message out to the public is not always easy.

“But I think it is a challenge of the 21st century because we are all beneficiaries of those extremely intense and fast communications, but also we could be the victims of it," said Briand. "This is why it is very important to characterize the phenomenon and to develop methods to tackle it appropriately.”

Briand says confronting false information head on is not censorship. Rather, she says, it is a way of responding to people's concerns in the best way possible given the evidence that exists at the moment. As evidence and understanding about the new coronavirus grow, she says more and better information will become available.