Don't hit Forward, take a step back

Published: Feb 04, 2020, 05:01 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

A bogus coronavirus advisory has been spreading through the Internet. I decided to track it down. Here’s what I learned

Many people read the first few lines of a message, think they've got the gist of it and hit Forward. Pic/AFP
Many people read the first few lines of a message, think they've got the gist of it and hit Forward. Pic/AFP

picWhat would you do if you received the message below on your phone?

Please share with families, relatives and friends.

DOH Health Bulletin to the Public

The Upper Respiratory Infection affecting China at present is quite serious. The virus causing it is very potent and is resistant to existing antibiotics.

The prevention method now is to keep your throat moist, do not let your throat dry up. Thus do not hold your thirst because once your membrane in your throat is dried, the virus will invade into your body within 10 mins. Drink 50-80cc warm water, 30-50cc for kids, according to age. Every time you feel your throat is dry, do not wait, keep water in hand. Do not drink plenty at one time as it does not help; instead, continue to keep throat moist. Till end of March, do not go to crowded places, wear mask as needed especially in train or public transportation.

Avoid fried or spicy food and load up vitamin C.

The symptoms/ description are:
1. Repeated high fever.
2. Prolonged coughing after fever.
3. Children are more prone.
4. Adults usually feel uneasy, headache and mainly respiratory related illness.

This illness is highly contagious.

Would you hit Forward? It seems tens of thousands have.

I received this from a close friend of mine on January 27. I am certain she forwarded it convinced that it was a public service. It does sound vaguely medical and vaguely informed. It feels vaguely official. There doesn't seem to be anything malicious about the tips offered, such as keeping the throat moist.

It has only one small problem — it does not mention any disease. The word coronavirus is missing. Assuming that is indeed the disease omitted, it is also entirely incorrect, misinformed and malicious. It took me an hour to figure out why and who.

When you uncritically forward some urgently shared message, you may be furthering someone else's agenda without knowing it. As thinking, reasonable and conscientious people, we all need tools for separating the gold from the garbage in the torrent of facts, stories, opinion and statistics that bombard our mobiles daily. I want to propose four rules that I now use.

1 Read the entire message before you forward it. Many people read the first few lines, think they've got the gist of it and hit Forward. In this case, reading the entire post would have made your antennae prick up when you read Avoid fried or spicy food. Flu is not a digestive infection.

2 Trace the source. Don't forward a message if you can't satisfactorily identify its source. Versions of this message have claimed to come from the DOH (Department of Health), MOH (Ministry of Health) and the UN (United Nations). And there lies the red flag. India has no Department of Health so the message could not be Indian. America's health advisories come from their Centres for Disease Control (CDC). The message is neither Indian nor American. Where is it from?

3 Give it the scam test. Google 10-12 words from the message followed by the word 'scam'. I searched using the first two sentences — "The Upper Respiratory Infection affecting China at present is quite serious. The virus causing it is very potent and is resistant to existing antibiotics." Scam.

The top hit pointed to the fact-check website, snopes.com, who denounce the coronavirus message as fake. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/nwllab-moh-bulletin-coronavirus/3 Check factual authenticity. Check if the symptoms and treatment listed by a trusted health authority such as WHO tally with the message you received. You will see that the symptoms in the forwarded message are wildly incorrect —

The novel coronavirus does not target children. Most deaths have been older people, especially those weakened by other diseases.

A key symptom, breathlessness, is not even mentioned. Prolonged coughing is not a symptom of coronavirus.

The phrase 'repeated high fever' is meaningless.

Dryness of the throat has absolutely nothing to do with disease transmission.

The virus is resistant to existing antibiotics because — well, all viruses happen to be resistant to all antibiotics.

Being the snoop that I am, I kept chasing shadows until suddenly I found myself at the Facebook page of one Aamir Liaquat Husain, a self-described "journalist-politician". I don't believe he started the junk message but he does have a large following in Pakistan and he certainly has shared the information with them. The DOH version circulating in India seems to have originated there.

I believe Pakistan is as much a victim as we are. They are not trying to spread coronavirus misinformation in India. But when you unthinkingly hit Forward, then as sure as the virus gives you a runny nose, you are guilty of helping sow chaos.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com
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