MANILA—At a time when misinformation can spread faster than diseases, Philippine health officials have adopted a stronger social media campaign to combat fake news about the deadly Wuhan coronavirus.
A new Department of Health website is dedicated solely to updates on the disease, formally known as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, which has killed more than 130 people in China and sickened nearly 6,000 others as of Wednesday.
As officials work to prevent the disease from entering the Philippines, managing what Health Secretary Francisco Duque III described as an “epidemic of misinformation” also poses a challenge.
Groups of fact-checkers from 30 countries have also been working to correct false information being spread on social media.
In the Philippines, Duque cited questionable videos circulating online showing coronavirus patients supposedly dropping dead while awaiting treatment at a Chinese hospital.
The public should be “discriminating and at least verify” the source of such videos, he said.
The health department’s website “urges the public to source information only from official DOH channels and social media accounts.”
Among the common victims of fake information during a public health crisis situation are hospitals, said Dr. Lulu Bravo, a former official of the Manila-based National Insitutes of Health at the University of the Philippines.
Word can easily spread around that a patient of the Wuhan coronavirus is admitted and prompt others to seek discharge even if they’re still unwell, she said.
While existing health protocols have so far successfully kept the disease out, she said “fake news spreads quickly here in the Philippines” so the public should turn only to official information from the DOH.
“Let’s trust the government,” she told ABS-CBN, recalling systems put in place during previous outbreaks such as that of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
“Beterano na ang DOH dyan.”
A World Health Organization official on Tuesday took the opportunity during a press briefing in Manila to reassure those worried about catching the disease.
Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, the WHO respresentative in the Philippines, pointed to several journalists wearing surgical masks.
People should do so only if they have “signs and symptoms of a respiratory infection” or if going to places where there is a “concentration of people that can trigger infections,” he said.
“Normal people going about their normal work don’t need to wear surgical masks or N95 masks,” he told reporters.
“You don’t need to wear a mask from morning till evening.”
Like the DOH, the WHO has also been dealing with false information being spread around, which makes it more difficult for authorities to contain the new coronavirus.
Abeyasinghe urged the public to get information from the WHO website.
“People are free to access social media and sometimes access incorrect information,” he told ABS-CBN News. “That’s what we’re trying to manage.”
One way to combat the spread misinformation is building “resilient health systems that are well-resourced and prepared to stop outbreaks before they begin,” according to a study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Rather than engaging in censorship to counter actors or ideas individually,” it said, “policymakers and industry should focus on building a resilient information system that is ready to mitigate the effectiveness of misinformation without restricting the free marketplace of ideas.”