A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Coronavirus Misinformation Spreads Like a Virus


China first reported an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases in the city of Wuhan on Dec. 31, and, within a month, the internet was infected with misinformation about the responsible virus, now called the 2019 novel coronavirus.

Fact-checking organizations, including FactCheck.org, from 30 countries collaborated through the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute to debunk the false claims as they developed. So far, those organizations have published more than 80 fact-checking articles.

On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency. As of the same date, there had been 170 deaths from the virus, all of them in China. Globally, there had been 7,818 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus.

Despite those facts, false claims were circulating widely on social media that as many as 10,000 people had died from the virus. We debunked those claims as well as budding conspiracy theories that misrepresented an unrelated patent and blamed the virus on a “Chinese spy team.”

Here’s a round-up of what we’ve debunked with links to our stories:

  • A post on Facebook falsely claimed comedian Sam Hyde was responsible for the spread of the new coronavirus. Researchers are still working to determine the source of this latest coronavirus, though evidence suggests it was first transmitted to humans from an animal. See “Comedian Sam Hyde Not ‘Behind’ Spread of Coronavirus” for more.
  • Websites and social media posts circulated the erroneous claim that there are “thousands” or “10,000” dead as a result of the Wuhan coronavirus. When we published this story on Jan. 27, the estimated death toll was 81. As of Jan. 30, it had risen to 170 — all of them in China. See “Misinformation on Coronavirus Death Toll” for more.
  • Social media posts falsely claimed that a “Chinese spy team” working in a Canadian government lab sent “pathogens to the Wuhan facility” prior to the coronavirus outbreak in China. Two Canadian agencies told us those claims are wrong. See “Coronavirus Wasn’t Sent by ‘Spy’ From Canada” for more.
  • A conspiracy theory website distorted the facts about an emergency preparedness exercise to suggest that the “GATES FOUNDATION & OTHERS PREDICTED UP TO 65 MILLION DEATHS” from the coronavirus now spreading. The event dealt with a hypothetical scenario involving a fictional virus. See “New Coronavirus Wasn’t ‘Predicted’ In Simulation” for more.
  • Numerous social media posts falsely suggest that because Clorox and Lysol products list “Human Coronavirus” on their bottles, the new coronavirus driving the outbreak in China was already known. It wasn’t. There are many human coronaviruses, and these products were tested against a strain that causes the common cold. See “No, Clorox and Lysol Didn’t Already ‘Know’ About New Coronavirus.”