Hoaxes, Conspiracy Theories Fuel Virus Frenzy

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” – Winston Churchill

US officials: Foreign disinformation stoking virus fears

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is alleging that a foreign disinformation campaign is underway aimed at spreading fear in the country amid the coronavirus pandemic, three U.S. officials said Monday.

On Sunday, federal officials began confronting what they said was a deliberate effort by a foreign entity to sow fears of a nationwide quarantine amid the virus outbreak.

Agencies took coordinated action Sunday evening to deny that any such plans were put in place, as they tried to calm a nation already on edge by disruptions to daily life caused by the virus.

The three U.S. officials did not name the foreign entity they believe to be responsible. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

It was unclear if the disinformation effort was related to administration officials’ complaints in recent days that China was spreading misinformation about the U.S.

“Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown.” – U.S. National Security Council, March 15, 2020 

Trump: some foreign entities “playing games” 

Last week, the Pentagon accused the Chinese government of promulgating “false & absurd conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 blaming U.S. service members.”

At a press briefing Monday, President Donald Trump said it could be that there are some foreign entities “playing games.” But he said it didn’t matter because he was not ordering a nationwide lockdown.

“At this point, not nationwide,” he said. He said there were no domestic travel restrictions, but “we’re talking about it every day.”

“Misinformation about the COVID-19 travels faster than the virus and complicates the job of doctors who are treating those infected and responding to concerns of their other patients.” – Medscape Medical News, March 12, 2020

A day earlier, the National Security Council tweeted that “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown.” The NSC encouraged Americans to follow official government guidance.

States and municipalities have banned large public gatherings, closed schools, bars and restaurants, and advised people to exercise social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday issued guidance recommending against indoor gatherings larger than 50 people for the next eight weeks.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said Sunday that Americans should aim to severely curtail leaving their homes, but he did not indicate the government would order such a move. He was specifically questioned on whether he’d like to see a “national lockdown.”

“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” said Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of coronavirus.

He heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

Russia, China, Iran suspected in efforts to undermine U.S. policy

Also on Monday, national security officials said there had been a “cyber incident” involving the computer networks of the Department of Health and Human Services, but the networks were operating normally. They didn’t detail the scope of the incident.

“HHS and federal government cybersecurity professionals are continuously monitoring and taking appropriate actions to secure our federal networks,” according to NSC spokesman John Ullyot.

Although the officials did not name a specific entity responsible for the disinformation campaign, U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly cautioned that Russia, China, Iran and other countries are engaged in ongoing efforts to influence U.S. policy and voters in elections.

Intelligence officials have warned for years that Russia has been engaging in covert social media campaigns using fictional persona, bots, social media postings and disinformation aimed at dividing American public opinion and sowing discord in the electorate.

The Justice Department said the Russian social media effort during the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterms included spreading distrust for political candidates and causing divisions on social issues, including immigration and gun control.

Earlier this year, U.S. intelligence officials privately briefed lawmakers on Russian efforts to stir chaos in American politics and undermine public confidence in this year’s election.

The briefing detailed Russian efforts to boost the White House bids of both Trump from the GOP and Democrat Bernie Sanders.

Rumors about the government’s response to the spreading virus have circulated online for weeks, prompting authorities in several states to urge residents to seek out trusted sources in government and news.

On Sunday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said he’s been asked about the rumors by “senior leaders in business, health care, politics.”

“I’ve had community leaders and elected officials all text me or call me and say ‘I understand on Monday you’re basically going to order everybody to shelter in place for two weeks. The message has been exactly the same,” the Republican governor said.
“We have no plans to do that.”

He said it shows the need for residents to find trusted sources of news and information, such as legitimate news organizations or public health authorities.

“There’s so much information out there,” Baker said. “Some of which is legit, but a lot of it is wild speculation.”

Texts and posts suggesting Texas, Washington and New York states would be shutting down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus escalated with screenshots of text messages circulating online that claimed that within 48 to 72 hours Trump would place the U.S. under a two-week quarantine.

New York City officials last week debunked a claim passed around in text messages that the city’s Metro-North trains, connecting commuters from the suburbs to the city, would be shut down and that other train service would be limited.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, also said claims that the state would soon be under quarantine were untrue.

Andy Carvin, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, a Washington based think tank, said the rumors circulating via text are the toughest to trace because they often percolate from private messaging platforms and texts, then are copy-and-pasted into public social media posts.

“There’s no way to know if these are organic or intentional, unfortunately, because the sentiment contained in them is so plausible that they could very easily be born out of home-grown rumors,” he said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.

For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The worldwide outbreak has sickened more than 175,000 people and left more than 6,700 people dead. In the United States, there have been more than 4,000 confirmed cases and scores of deaths.

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Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo in Washington, David Klepper in Providence, R.I., and Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report. The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

“Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice … ” 

Doctors, Officials Fight Against COVID-19 Myths, Misinformation

March 12, 2020

Medscape Medical News – Misinformation about the COVID-19 travels faster than the virus and complicates the job of doctors who are treating those infected and responding to concerns of their other patients.

An array of myths springing up around this disease can be found on the Internet.

The main themes appear to be false narratives about the origin of the virus, the size of the outbreak in the United States and in other countries, the availability of cures and treatments, and ways to prevent infection.

Widespread misinformation hampers public health efforts to control the disease outbreak, confuses the public, and requires medical professionals to spend time refuting myths and re-educating patients.

A group of infectious disease experts became so alarmed by the misinformation trend they published a statement in The Lancet decrying the spread of false statements being circulated by some media outlets.

“The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation … Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus,” wrote Charles H. Calisher, PhD, of Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and colleagues.

What Can Physicians Do to Counter Misinformation?

Pulmonologist and critical care physician Cedric “Jamie” Rutland, MD, who practices in Riverside, Calif., sees misinformation about the novel coronavirus every day at home and on the job.

His patients worry that everyone who gets infected will die or end up in the ICU. His neighbors ask him to pilfer surgical masks to protect them from the false notion that Chinese people in their community posed some kind of COVID-19 risk.

As he pondered how to counter myths with facts, Dr. Rutland turned to an unusual resource: His 7-year-old daughter Amelia. He explained to her how COVID-19 works and found that she could easily understand the basics.

Now, Dr. Rutland draws upon the lessons from chats with his daughter as he explains COVID-19 to his patient audience on his YouTube channel “Medicine Deconstructed.”

Simplicity, but not too much simplicity, is key, he said. Dr. Rutland uses a visual aid – a rough drawing of a virus – and shows how inflammation and antibodies enter the picture after infection.

“I just teach them that if you’re a healthy person, this is how the body works, and this is what the immune system will do,” he said. “For the most part, you can calm people down when you make time for education.”

What are best practices? In a series of interviews, specialists emphasized the importance of fact-finding, wide-ranging communication, and – perhaps most difficult of all – humility.

Dr. Rutland emphasizes thoughtful communication based on facts and humility when communicating to patients about this potential health risk.

“A lot of people finish medical school and think, ‘Everyone should trust me because I’m the pulmonologist or the GI doc.’ That’s not how it works. You still have to earn people’s trust,” he said.

Medscape Medical News © 2020

Health Professionals Fight Against COVID-19 Myths, Misinformation – Medscape – Mar 12, 2020.

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