Image for Separating fact from deadly fiction: the London team factchecking the coronavirus

Separating fact from deadly fiction: the London team factchecking the coronavirus

As Covid-19 spreads, misleading information in the news or on social media can be at best confusing and at worst fatal. Full Fact, the UK’s independent factchecking charity, is working flat out to tackle a flow of falsities

As Covid-19 spreads, misleading information in the news or on social media can be at best confusing and at worst fatal. Full Fact, the UK’s independent factchecking charity, is working flat out to tackle a flow of falsities

The arrival of the new coronavirus has sent factchecking charity Full Fact into overdrive. It’s no exaggeration to say that at a time like this, ensuring the accuracy of information that people receive is a matter of life or death.

In our age of soundbite populism, social media and fake news, disseminating complex scientific information about the new coronavirus is a huge challenge. But if experts are able to get accurate information to people, it could save lives, and so the Full Fact team is throwing most of its resources at the new virus right now.

“Many of the ways we are used to communicating information aren’t terribly well suited to communicating information about [the new coronavirus],” explains Tom Phillips, Full Fact’s editor. “We have got into lots of habits both in terms of how we conduct debate on social media, but also in terms of how the media reports on things, that we have to rethink – because the virus doesn’t work according to our rules of public debate.”

Managing misinformation about the new coronavirus is currently almost a full-time occupation for the team at Full Fact, which employs around 30 people, including seven editorial staff. One of the main challenges, admits the charity, is that scientists know relatively little so far about SARS-CoV-2, to give it its proper name. And this jars with our modern expectation for instant information.

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“People are finding out new things about coronavirus all the time, but honestly we’re unlikely to be absolutely sure of many things about it for months or potentially years,” says Phillips. “One of the big challenges we face is communicating that level of uncertainty, while still providing authoritative and useful information to people.”

The Full Fact team have daily editorial meetings in which they identify newspaper articles, social media posts, television broadcasts and political statements that contain potentially misleading claims or unsubstantiated medical advice and that are likely to have reached large audiences. They then decide which claims to pursue “based on what we think is most important and where we could possibly prevent harm,” explains Phillips.

Full Fact, which has an epidemiologist on its team, then does what all diligent news organisations do – it carries out extensive research, conducts interviews with experts and presents the information it gathers clearly and without bias or sensationalism.

Information doesn’t have to be completely false for it to do harm

One of the charity’s more recent investigation concerned a Facebook post that had reportedly been shared 400,000 times. The post claimed that people with runny noses did not have the new coronavirus, but instead were suffering with a common cold.

“A runny nose is a rare symptom – only something like five per cent of cases in China had a runny nose as part of the symptoms – but five per cent is still a lot of people,” says Phillips. “[After reading that post] people could be going around saying ‘it’s fine, I’ve got a common cold, don’t worry’ and potentially spreading the disease and becoming seriously ill.”

The post has been edited since Full Fact’s investigation.

Donald Trump highlighted the dangers of misinformation surrounding the new coronavirus by falsely claiming that the medication chloroquine had been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat coronavirus. It hadn’t, and this week a man from Arizona died after reportedly self-medicating with a fish tank cleaner that contained chloroquine.

While chloroquine is used in anti-malaria drugs and has reportedly shown some anecdotal potential in treating coronavirus, it is still very much unproven.  “Information doesn’t have to be completely false for it to do harm,” warns Phillips.

People are sharing our work with their friends and family in order to provide each other with reliable information about the new coronavirus

Full Fact is not alone in separating reality from fiction. In the US, the Annenberg Public Policy Center runs its own fact-checking website, FactCheck.org. The nonpartisan, non-profit ‘consumer advocate’ was founded with the aim of reducing “the level of deception and confusion in US politics”. Similar organisations exist in dozens of other countries.

Like many foreign counterparts, Full Fact has chosen to almost exclusively focus on the coronavirus pandemic for the time being.

“The work we do is always important, but it’s particularly acute in a situation like this because misinformation has the potential to cause real harm,” says Phillips. “But we can’t do this alone – we need everybody, from the country’s medical authorities to the media to the public in general – to all be working together to ensure good information spreads and bad information doesn’t.”

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Encouraging people to spot bad information

What can members of the public do to help? Think before sharing things on social media, advises Philips. “We can look at information and ask ‘is there a good source for this? Does it seem too good – or bad – to be true, and is anybody else reporting it?’ We can all do that.”

A newsletter put out by the team this week offered more advice: “Be wary of anonymous sources. When you don’t know who the source really is, it makes it a lot harder to verify if it’s true or false, so think twice before you share advice from a ‘friend’s uncle’ or a ‘friend in parliament.’”

There are practical tips too. “Images and videos can be misleading,” continued the email. “If you’re using Google Chrome, you can right-click on an image and select “Search Google for image.” Google will tell you where it thinks the image is from and where it has been used before.”

And the team emphasises that people who create false news try to press our emotional buttons, manipulating us to believe it and share it. “They know that making you angry or worried means they’re more likely to get clicks,” read the newsletter. “When it comes to Covid-19, be wary of any story that sounds like a conspiracy or makes sweeping statements about which people are most likely to be badly affected.”

Information brought to light by Full Fact is published for free on its website. “People are sharing our work with their friends and family in order to provide each other with reliable information about the new coronavirus,” sums up Phillips, simply. “At a time like this, that’s a positive thing.”


Five coronavirus claims factchecked

Words by Full Fact

Claim 1: Children are immune from Covid-19

Our readers have asked us whether children are immune from the new coronavirus. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson has also claimed on Twitter that the virus “doesn’t infect children”.

Children are not immune to the virus, and there have been confirmed cases of Covid-19 in children. China has seen several hundred cases of children under 10 with the disease, including newborns. In general, children have been found to present similar, although generally milder, symptoms than adults.

But, as in adults, children with underlying health issues seem to have more severe cases of Covid-19, but the data is extremely limited.

Read more here.

Image: Chen Lei

Claim 2: A runny nose means you have a common cold and not the coronavirus

This claim was notably made in a viral Facebook post, which was shared more than 300,000 times before it was amended by the author (after Full Fact published a fact check).

Having a runny nose doesn’t rule out having Covid-19.

It’s true that early studies on the new coronavirus have found that a runny nose is a relatively uncommon symptom, but some patients did have it.

Read more here.

Image: Brittany Colette

Claim 3: A vaccine for the new coronavirus already exists

A post shared hundreds of times on Facebook claims that a vaccine for cows that treats coronavirus has been available for years and that therefore the virus is not new. There are a number of inaccuracies here. Firstly, coronavirus is a term for a large family of viruses, which can infect a range of species. The vaccination mentioned in the post is for a strain that affects cattle; bovine coronavirus. This causes diarrhoea in calves. The coronavirus at the centre of the 2019/2020 epidemic is known as SARS-CoV-2 and causes the disease known as Covid-19, which primarily affects the respiratory system.

While coronaviruses as a family have been known about since the 1960s, this particular strain of human coronavirus is new, and no vaccine for it exists yet. Scientists are currently developing a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. All vaccine candidates are currently in the pre-clinical stage, and therefore will not be available in the immediate future.

Read more here.

Image: Fusion Medical Animation

Claim 4: Warm weather will kill the virus

Not enough is known about the new coronavirus to say that it will disappear, or even have its spread reduced, in the UK, as the temperature increases.

Evidence from similar viruses suggests that the virus may transmit less efficiently in the spring and summer months. Alongside changes in temperature, it is thought that humidity, differences in human behaviour and human immune system functioning also play a role in this pattern.

However, even if it ultimately turns out to be a seasonal virus, it is unlikely to behave like similar viruses in the short term. This is because it is so new that very few people are immune from it.

Read more here.

Image: Aaron Burden

Claim 5: Hand sanitiser does not work

Hand sanitisers do work against viruses like the new coronavirus and are most effective if they have at least 60 per cent alcohol in them. The virus that causes Covid-19 has a lipid envelope, which has been proven to be susceptible to sanitisers with a high percentage of alcohol. Soap and water is still the best option though.

Read more here.

Image: Kelly Sikkema

Read more of Full Fact’s fact checking about the new coronavirus here

Read more: Positive responses to coronavirus

This is part of our ‘Positive responses to coronavirus’ series:
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