How TikTok Influencers Are Fuelling Fake News on COVID-19
From meat-eating to hugging and propagating myths on the novel coronavirus, TikTok has become a hotbed of fake news.
As the coronavirus threat continues to grow with over 4,00,000 confirmed cases across the world, fake news about the virus grows in tandem. Among platforms plagued by the fake news virus amid the worldwide health crisis is social media platform TikTok, owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance.
In India, where the platform is extremely popular and has a massive user base, it is inundated with disinformation around COVID-19.
Outbreak of Fake News on TikTok
From rumours of meat-eating being the cause of coronavirus, to videos that display lack of belief in social distancing despite the crisis, a barrage of disinformation has been doing the rounds. One such video which has been circulated widely claims that the coronavirus can stay in the air for only “8 hours”.
Ahead of the ‘Janata Curfew’ on 22 March announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mridul Madhok, a noted TikTok influencer with 9.1 million followers as of 26 March, put out a video on the platform, taking the fake news a notch higher.
In his video, which has over five million views, Madhok said that India would get rid of the dreaded virus on 23 March if people stayed home and obeyed the ‘Janata Curfew’ on 22 March.
Madhok further claimed that coronavirus can only stay airborne for a maximum of eight hours and since people had been asked to stay home for a period of 14 hours, from 7 am to 9 pm, the virus would die on 23 March. Moreover, he begged people to follow the curfew, and leave their homes and “do whatever you want” after 9 pm.
Why is this fake news?
Because WHO has clearly said that the virus is not airborne and is only transmitted through droplets and contact transmission. Further, while a study in The New England Journal of Medicine claims that COVID-19 is detectable for up to three hours in aerosols, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel, there is no official WHO comment on the same.
While the study published seemed to indicate that in medical settings, the virus could linger in the air for a period of time during aerosol-generating procedures, there is no basis for claiming that the virus exists in the air for only eight hours.
The 14-hour logic presented by Madhok in the video was also viral on social media. But since the survival time of the virus is not known, staying at home for 14 hours on one day cannot be said to be effective in helping the virus cease exist.
PM Modi’s logic with the 14-hour curfew on 22 March was more to implement the idea of social distancing, which is the need of the hour.
Another TikTok user by the name of Tanya Bhalla, with 230.7K followers as of 26 March, also uploaded a video with the same claim, that if people stayed home for 14 hours on 22 March, the virus would be unable to find a human host and cease to exist within eight to 12 hours.
Madhok also shared another video, in which he urged people to consume fruits containing a lot of Vitamin C, which he claimed would build their immunity so much that coronavirus would not be able to touch them.
This claim is also false. Speaking to The Quint, Dr Neeraj Jain, Internal Medicine Gangaram Hospital, said that it is careless to say that increasing the intake of Vitamin C will help in the prevention of coronavirus. Dr Sandeep Budhiraja, Internal Medicine Specialist at Max Healthcare, said that while Vitamin C helps, it is not a proven antidote to coronavirus.
There are other kinds of fake news also persist on the platform. A Twitter user flagged an account by the name of @snofficials, where the user Salman Noman, based in Pakistan’s Karachi, had uploaded a video which encouraged hugging as a practice among Muslims despite the advisory to practise social distancing amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Doctors and WHO have repeatedly advised refraining from touching each other at this time. The TikTok user has since issued an apology on his profile, saying that caution is more important right now.
An archived version can be seen here.
Another TikTok user also shared a similar video, encouraging shaking of hands as a belief in Islam despite advice from doctors against the same.
A Twitter user claimed that users on TikTok and Vigo were sharing the below video, claiming that the helicopter seen in the video is spraying medicine in the air to kill coronavirus. This is also claimed in a viral message which states that the government is planning to spray some ‘medicine’ in the air to kill COVID-19.
An archived version of this tweet can be seen here.
However, various state governments have issued a clarification and rubbished the rumour. The Department of Information and Public Relations in Karnataka released a clarification and said, “No such official information has been sent out by the government”. Even the Delhi government has refuted the rumour calling it ‘fake’.
Interestingly, the helicopter rumour is one that has spread across the world. According to this fact-checker, it originated first in Italy and then went on to move to other countries.
Among other kinds of fake news being shared on the platform is a video which claims that PM Modi has coronavirus and that media in the country is hiding the fact.
A Twitter user also shared a TikTok video with the claim that it showed the Kasturba Hospital “corona chief Doctor”, saying that coronavirus can be killed by drinking hot water with salt-vinegar because it spends four days in the throat before it reaches the lungs.
(An archived version can be seen here.)
While there is no evidence to support the claim that the coronavirus “remains in the throat for four days” before reaching the lungs, there is also no study yet which suggests that drinking hot water can help contain coronavirus. Dr Neeraj Jain, Internal Medicine Gangaram Hospital told The Quint that while it’s important for an individual to take preventive measures while they are travelling to, or from, a high risk region, drinking excessive water can’t be a blanket rule for every patient.
An AFP fact check also said that while gargling with warm water is a common remedy for sore throat in general, it is not recommended in particular for the novel coronavirus.
In another example, a user named AK Technical Point with 1.2 million followers uploaded a video in which he claimed that eating seafood like fish can be a cause of coronavirus, adding that people in China consume fish the most.
While the novel coronavirus was first encountered in a seafood market in China’s Wuhan, there is still uncertainty about the actual source of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. Most importantly, the WHO has not mentioned avoiding non-vegetarian food, but has cautioned against eating ‘raw’ or ‘undercooked animal products’. According to the body, there is no risk in consuming ‘thoroughly cooked’ meat, poultry, fish and eggs.
WHO has said that they are looking into animal sources to find the origin but there is no clarity on what the animal is.
What is TikTok Doing About This?
The Quint reached out to the ByteDance-owned firm to get a comprehensive response regarding steps being taken to counter coronavirus-related disinformation.
In a statement to The Quint, TikTok said, “Our Community Guidelines do not permit misinformation that could cause harm to our community or the larger public. While we encourage our users to have respectful conversations about the subjects that matter to them, we remove deliberate attempts to deceive the public.”
The platform has also tied up with the WHO, which posts informative videos and has hosted two livestreams on 17 and 19 March that featured information about COVID-19, according to Business Standard.
WHO’s page on TikTok is a verified account and has 914.7k followers and 4.5 million likes. While their latest video, a briefing by the organisation's Dr Maria Van Kerkhove has only 385.9k views, many of their videos have 10 million + views. Here are some of their most popular videos, which include one with directions on how to wear a mask properly, measures that can be taken to protect oneself against the virus and a video answering basic FAQs around COVID-19.
There also some campaigns and challenges being posted on TikTok surrounding safety amid coronavirus, some supported by WHO and local governments. Some have also been initiated by the marketing teams of big brands, the Business Standard report said.
BBC reported in February that TikTok had added a link to WHO's website, as well as adding a reminder to users to report information they think might be harmful. However, according to the report, users have to first search for "#coronavirus" and click on it to access the added information.
(Note: This story has been updated with TikTok’s response to our queries. This story has also been updated with screenshots and archive links to replace videos which have been taken down.)
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(You can read all our coronavirus fact-checks here.)
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