Rebekah Jones, data scientist and manager of the geographic information system team at Florida’s Department of Health was removed from her role a month ago. Through his communication director, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said Jones “exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors”.

On the other hand, Jones said her superior asked her to alter some of the data. For example, changing the state’s coronavirus positivity rating from 18% to 10%, so that it met the target for reopening. She was also asked to delete evidence that a community spread may be on its way. Jones refused to obey, as she saw it as unethical and was fired on 18 May. Recently, Jones had set up her own portal to report the state’s coronavirus data. Her attempt is not novel; there are many like her who wants the public to know what exactly the pandemic looks like.

Attempts to downplay the severity of a global health crisis

Hashtag #FilmYourHospital was a trending topic on Twitter back in April as it showcases empty hospitals to underplay the severity or totally deny the existence of COVID-19 pandemic by accusing it to be a media exaggeration. Some Twitter personalities also urged their followers to capture less busy wards and parking lots within medical institutions to prove that the coronavirus is a hoax.

Two Canadian researchers from Ryerson University investigated the hashtag by pulling out more than 100,000 public tweets and retweets posted by 43,000 public accounts published since 28 March till 9 April, when the epicenter of the pandemic shifted from Europe to the US. Their analyses suggested that these Tweets are full of false information and misleading claims about the pandemic. The conspiracy theory lies on a baseless assumption – as long as the hospital appears to be empty, COVID-19 must not be real.

In reality, healthcare facilities appeared to be less busy most probably because they are adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and authority’s advice to postpone non-urgent medical procedures and healthcare providers are now turning to remote consulting instead. Some hospitals also dedicate a separate premise and waiting area for suspected or confirmed cases to receive treatments, so that the emergency departments are left for patients with other acute conditions like stroke, heart attack and even accident.

Most of these senseless comments came from active accounts and showed no sign of being generated by social bots. Nevertheless, some prominent conservative politicians and far right political activists did boost the hashtag by using it in their campaigns and urged followers to find out what’s going on in their local hospitals. The hashtag was also used by Trump supporters before gaining attention outside of the US.

Ways to reduce the spread of disinformation

Even though the hashtag comes and goes, researchers warned of their adverse consequences. They said the progress of this hospital-targeting conspiracy, as well as the allegations that 5G wireless technology plays a role in the spread of COVID-19 virus and consumptions of silver particles and drinking lemon water help to prevent or cure someone with coronavirus and more recently need to be stopped. They have already created a COVID-19 misinformation portal with fact-checked resources for the public to combat that.

Other academia joined in by suggesting five steps to reduce the spread of disinformation. First of all, one ought to stay alert when reading and engaging with COVID-19 related information on the internet, especially social media platforms. Stop to think, when the encountered information is particularly fearful; confusing; differ too much from what has been reported officially. Always carries doubts, if unsure, check it out. Report it if one is able to locate the source of the misinformation and last but not least, share credible information.

Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and YouYube issued joint statement and pledged to collaborate in their fight against misinformation back in March. However, a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at University of Oxford found that one third of social media users had come across misleading information about coronavirus and one in three still believe the whole pandemic is an exaggeration.

Because some of these stories are “too good to be true”, so they tend to accumulate traffic and reactions faster than authentic information. This often leads to a state whereby the information becomes extremely “easy to spread but hard to stop”. Ideally, listening to information that are travelling at all levels helps but since lies co-exist with facts, misinformation will not be eliminated totally.

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Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.