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How viral coronavirus hoax videos are blowing up on TikTok

The app has fast become a breeding ground for misinformation, fake doctors, and conspiracy theories about the deadly disease

TikTok has come under fire for hosting a series of hoax videos spreading false information on the coronavirus outbreak – across the young social media platform, short-form videos see some users pretending to be doctors or victims, and others promoting fake health advice, as well as multiple anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant memes.

Declared a “public health emergency” by the World Health Organisation, the outbreak of coronavirus has seen 17,459 confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University, with the death toll sitting at 362 people, and 489 recovered. Cases have been confirmed in other countries including France, the US, and UK. It has been met with mass hysteria and, in the panic, a lot of misinformation shared.

One viral video on TikTok, which has since been deleted but has been captured in duet videos (a feature that allows users to put one video beside another by a different user, so that they can be watched simultaneously in the app), sees a man posing as a doctor – he shows a purple vial of blood, claiming it’s from coronavirus “patient zero”. “This is from patient zero, the one we treated yesterday,” he says. “I haven’t opened it yet. I’m going to get it out on some paper here and show you guys, but that doesn’t look right to me. Something’s not good about that blood.”

It’s currently unclear if the user removed the videos following criticism, or if they were removed by TikTok following complaints, but just to make it clear: purple blood is not a symptom of coronavirus.

One of the top posts on TikTok’s #coronavirus hashtag page, with over two million likes, shows a portion of an online article that says “coronavirus is spread through the EYES making surgical masks useless...” and “Coronavirus is turning into something else.”

Conspiracy theorists are also becoming more active on the app, claiming that the disease was in fact patented years ago, that the patent is owned by Jacob Rothschild (of the prominent banking family linked frequently to the Illuminati by conspiracists) and that Bill Gates successfully predicted the virus. That theory has been invigorated by a 2019 Netflix documentary in which the Microsoft founder details how outbreaks – allegedly like the coronavirus – spread in live animal markets, ending with a warning that it would take years to find a cure. It’s all based on the idea that the coronavirus was made and patented to make money off of a vaccine.

This theory has been widely debunked though – the patent for coronavirus was made to clarify the strain of the virus from Wuhan, China. “There are many types of coronaviruses – and seven kinds which can infect humans… the Wuhan coronavirus is a new strain and there’s currently no vaccine for it,” said Teresa Maughan, a spokesperson for Pirbright, which owns the patent for a number of different strains.

Another theory circulating around the app claims that China created the disease as a form of population control, one that is also gaining traction in far-right conspiracy group QAnon’s Facebook pages. 

While you can put most of these rumours to bed with a quick Google search, it’s still concerning that this misinformation is being fed to TikTok’s 500 million users, made up mostly of teens and young people who are vulnerable to fake news. TikTok has come under fire in recent months for restricting the content of LGBTQ+, fat, and disabled users to “prevent bullying”. In November, the Chinese-owned app was forced to apologise after blocking 17-year-old Feroza Aziz’s account after she posted a video criticising China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.

Some teenage users on TikTok are even pretending to have the virus for clout. Last week, a teen in Vancouver, Canada, posted a TikTok video of a boy wearing a breathing mask in a school lunch room and coughing into bins in the hallway. The person behind him dials 911, which transitions into a screenshot of a news article: “First presumptive case of coronavirus confirmed in B.C. (British Columbia).” 

“Our friend was being monitored for coronavirus,” the clip reads. “He had to call 911 if he started coughing violently. Turns out he had it (grimacing emoji).” 

The words, “That’s him”, appear onscreen, pointing to the picture of the friend in the article. The poster captions the clip: “Not a joke…” and soundtracks it to yungtubesock’s “Oh no! (I got a disease)”, a popular TikTok soundbite.

The video, which has over 4.1 million views, is fake. “The actual story doesn’t have a picture of that person in it. We only have one confirmed case in B.C., and that’s the one that’s been reported,” Stephen May, a spokesman for the British Columbia department of health, told The Daily Beast.

Since the outbreak, there’s been a significant rise in xenophobia directed toward Chinese people, who’ve reported racist abuse linked to the virus. In France, the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I am not a virus) is being widely used, while the University of California, Berkeley has faced backlash for a now-deleted Instagram post listing xenophobia as one of the possible reactions to the virus spreading. “Please recognise that experiencing any of these can be normal reactions and that over the next few days or weeks you may experience periods of… xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings,” the post by the University Health Services’ Tang Center read.

Asian teens have been reacting to this on TikTok too. The pervasive joke is how white, western people have become overly suspicious and aggressive towards any Asian person they encouner. One video’s text caption reads, “Coughing around white people so they think I have coronavirus so they leave me alone,” while another shows an Asian person walking into class, and the next clip – labelled “the whole class” – shows a sea of people in face masks. 19-year-old Eros Corpuz, from Toronto, who made his own TikTok addressing the current strain of racism, told Buzzfeed: It’s all down to paranoia and where the sense of threat really comes from. This disease isn’t racist, so I don’t know why everyone should be.”

Videos of people eating fried rats and bat soup at Wuhan market are also circulating around TikTok and other social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, with racist and insensitive comments attached. Research from the Institut Pasteur of Shanghai has found that the most recent strand of the disease has been traced back to bats, but there has been no direct connection between bats and humans.

Like TikTok, other social media platforms are struggling to combat the large amounts of misinformation. 

In a blogpost, Facebook said it would remove content about the virus “with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organisations and local health authorities”, detailing that content violating their guidelines includes any material promoting misinformation leading to “physical harm”. Facebook also announced new “educational pop-ups” approved by WHO for anyone searching for coronavirus on its platform. YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit, confirmed to the New York Times that they do not consider inaccurate information about health to infringe on their current policies, and would not be acting against any corona virus-related. Twitter, however, did confirm its launch of a newly dedicated “search prompt”, a function that will “ensure that when you come to the service for information about the #coronavirus, you’re met with credible, authoritative information first,” as a blog post from the microblogging platform reads.

In a statement, a spokesperson for TikTok asserted that the platform “does not permit misinformation that could cause harm to our community or the larger public,” adding, “(w)hile we encourage our users to have respectful conversations about the subjects that matter to them, we remove deliberate attempts to misrepresent authoritative sources of news.” From the end of last week, if you search #coronavirus on TikTok, it encourages users to verify facts using the WHO website and trusted sources, as well as report content that breaches community guidelines

Right now, it seems like a mammoth, impossible task to combat every false coronavirus post as and when they appear – created, posted, retweeted, dueted with, re-upped. Nevertheless, we’re just over a month into the coronavirus panic, and it seems more important than ever that social platforms take responsibility for content on their sites that could impact health and wellbeing.