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COVID-19Rumors, fake news and hasty science in times of corona

The flood of information associated with the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) exacerbates existing questions about how to deal with fake news - and creates a multitude of new problems. Not only are rumors spreading rapidly on social media, the immense time pressure also poses challenges for scientists and can lead to hasty conclusions. In addition, official statements on containment measures are often outstripped by the reality of the rapidly spreading virus.

On March 14, the Federal Ministry of Health warned on Twitter under the heading “Attention Fake News” that false reports were circulating about extensive restrictions on public life. In the days that followed, however, such measures were decided. The ministry's drastic denial was already out of date after two days.

Medical information on the net

Medical notices are also shared online. The Medical University of Vienna warns against WhatsApp messages on Twitter, in which, with reference to alleged research results of the university, connections are made between the intake of ibuprofen and COVID-19. In the meantime, the WHO also advised to resort to alternative drugs, but this had little to do with research at the University of Vienna. In the meantime, the health organization has also withdrawn its cautious warning about the drug.

The episode shows how scientific uncertainty and rumors circulating on social media can be mutually dependent. Of course: Discussions and opposing assessments of facts are an elementary part of scientific debate. However, in abbreviated presentations or rumors on social media, important elements such as peer reviewing procedures and a clearly assignable authorship that characterize scientific practice are missing. This nourishes uncertainty and erodes trust in scientific knowledge.

While calls for a stronger punishment of Corona-related "fake news" are being made, we are therefore giving an overview of educational sites that take the important step of correcting false news on the Internet and preparing scientific findings.

Corrective - fact checks and research

In addition to its own research, which often takes place in cooperation with other media, the non-profit research center Correctiv offers a variety of fact checks - also in cooperation with and on the Facebook platform. Reports that circulate online, for example, are located by employees on the spectrum between correct and incorrect based on their factual content - or categorized as unoccupied.

The medium also focuses on Wolfgang Wodarg's video, which is often shared on YouTube, on a daily basis. The authors come to the conclusion that the former SPD member of the Bundestag, who was also available for an interview on the right-wing portal KenFM, mixed facts with speculation.

For example, he uses existing ambiguities on certain questions to fundamentally question scientific assessments of the coronavirus. A strategy that climate deniers also use on a regular basis.

As a new tool, Correctiv.Faktencheck also provides a so-called crowd newsroom, in which citizens can report where and when they encounter false reports about the coronavirus. The aim is to show how disinformation is spreading in Germany.


The Austrian association Mimikama is dedicated to the topics of internet fraud, false reports and computer security and operates the wide-reaching Facebook page “Think first - then click”. Accordingly, the focus of the initiative is primarily on false reports and fraudulent reports on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. The work of the initiative is more to clarify false news than to do extensive background research. Here, too, clarifications about the coronavirus - for example chain letters with health tips - are present.

Fact checks of the public service media

Public service media are also devoted to the subject of fact checking. The best-known example is probably the ARD fact finder, which counteracts false information on the Internet with its own background research that is more extensive and detailed than would be possible with daily reporting. Bayerischer Rundfunk also operates its own portal, #Faktenfuchs, which, in addition to national fact checks, primarily has a regional focus. In both projects there are currently a large number of reports about false corona news.

Where can I find information on corona studies?

The corona crisis also poses challenges for scientists. Knowledge about the novel virus is urgently needed, after all, it forms the basis for politically controlled containment measures. But scientific practices usually need time - and this is a scarce commodity in view of the rapidly increasing number of corona cases around the world.

This is why traditional gatekeepers, established scientific journals, are increasingly being bypassed and articles are being published directly by researchers without peer review. More than usual, these so-called preprints require a source criticism - and yet this is often neglected in the current situation, reports the Swiss online magazine Republik.

One source for selected scientific publications is the Science Media Center Germany, which aims to act as a link between science and journalism. Research results are curated by the employees of the SMC, evaluated by scientists and made accessible in the form of fact sheets - also on the new type of coronavirus.

Other contact points for reliable scientific findings are of course the websites of the World Health Organization, the German Robert Koch Institute and the Federal Ministry of Health.

In view of the current flood of information, perhaps the first of ten tips against false reports in the Corona crisis that the Süddeutsche Zeitung recommends is the most helpful: Take a deep breath and pause for a moment before we share the news too quickly and thus contribute to its spread.


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About the author

Dominic Lammar

is an intern in the editorial team from February to April. Otherwise studies Science and Technology Studies in Frankfurt am Main and is active in the climate justice movement - especially on the topics of transport and coal. You can reach him at [email protected] - encrypted with pleasure [19D8 152C D8B3 D29F CD33 605A 665A 4DCB 8400 072D].
Published 03/20/2020 at 2:01 PM