Public health professionals trying to provide the nation with facts about the spread of coronavirus are battling a wave of misinformation, as they wrestle with the first major British health crisis of the smartphone era.
Officials are providing regular updates to the media on the spread of the infection, but at the same time half-truths about the best way to treat the illness are already going viral on WhatsApp and other messaging services.
Some are suggesting dubious herbal remedies, while one viral message – which claims to be advice from an uncle who is a Chinese doctor – mixes standard best practice with unverified claims about how best to kill the germs.
While the inherently private nature of WhatsApp makes it hard to track the spread of such material or judge how many people are reading it, some of the posts seen by the Guardian use the standard language of internet chain letters and urge people to forward the advice to friends and family – circumventing the official health communications in the same manner that has allowed anti-vaccination movements to flourish online.
Prof David Harper, a former chief scientist at the Department of Health, said the UK’s established communications strategy for a public health crisis is to have a trusted medical figure rather than a politician deliver regular updates to the public.
He said this approach worked well during the 2009 influenza pandemic: “It was decided early on that the designated person would be very visible even if there was very little to say. If no one is saying anything then it becomes a cause of concern. It’s much better to be visible and be seen by the public, even if it’s just to repeat what’s been said or say there’s not been much change.”