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'Waves of emotion,' misinformation about novel coronavirus spreads on Chinese social media

FILE - People wear masks as a precaution due to the coronavirus outbreak as they wait for the arrivals at the International terminal at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Saturday, January 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

The World Health Organization has given a new name to the novel coronavirus, CoVid-19, as misinformation spreads online

Social media has become a trusted source of news for many Chinese speakers through sites like WeChat and Weibo

An expert says combatting misinformation is going to be a challenge

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Novel coronavirus now has a new name, but the same problems with misinformation. The newly renamed COVID-19 continues to kill dozens of people every day in China as the fear and rumors surrounding the virus are creating their own problems on social media.

Given an inherent mistrust of Chinese-government news, particularly in the Chinese language, social media has become a trusted source of news for many Chinese speakers. However, through sites like Weixin, or WeChat as it’s known in Canda, along with microblogging sites like Weibo, misinformation is becoming a significant concern, according to an expert.

Yves Tiberghien, a political science professor at UBC, says combatting the spread of misinformation is going to be a challenge given what is happening right now in China.

“In China, you have hundreds of millions of people mostly at home without much to do, except social media,” he tells NEWS 1130. “Given the experience at what happened in January, a lot of people in China and outside China question whether we know everything yet.”

Tiberghien says the Chinese government is also facing an uphill challenge, given its history with SARS information, as well as its handling of the new virus when the outbreak first began back in December. He points to the doctor who was reprimanded for first raising the alarm about the virus and later died from it.

RELATED: Doctor’s death unleashes mourning, fury at Chinese officials

“This whole episode has raised so much emotion in China. The sense that there was a coverup, so there’s been a lot of social media demand for more transparency,” he explains. “We’ve got good data now coming out every day out of China, but there’s a lot of questioning going on. I’ve seen groups, social media groups, on Weibo or WeChat where people are fighting with each other,” he says.

He says this is becoming a problem beyond China, given a large number of Chinese-language speakers in Canada.

“When it comes to Canada or Vancouver, we know we have a lot of human flow in terms of transfer. We know that this virus is tricky and treacherous,” he says, “Getting a full understanding of the risk that we face, and whether anyone who is affected will be separated or self-quarantine will generate some uncertainty.”

The World Health Organization has warned the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus has become a major obstacle.

Meanwhile, the Provincial Health Officer, Doctor Bonnie Henry confirms there are no new cases of the virus in B.C. All four patients in Metro Vancouver are recovering, but still symptomatic.