Reuters head of digital newsgathering and verification Hazel Baker on the challenges of tackling Covid-19 misinformation as new variants emerge.
“DELTA OMICRON unscrambled is MEDIA CONTROL. Is this some kind of inside joke?” reads one of many social media posts in a similar vein seen in recent weeks by Reuters Fact Check – a fact-checking unit within Reuters which was created to detect and debunk misinformation posted on social media.
News of the Omicron variant was received online with a mixture of exasperation, weariness, anxiety – and a lot of memes. But for some, it also reinforced a misplaced conviction that the pandemic is an orchestrated hoax, with the next move mapped out by the world’s global elite and circulated by complicit news organisations.
Alongside a widely shared screenshot of a bogus document that appeared to list Greek letters alongside dates, one caption claimed: “These are the PLANNED COVID-19 VARIANTS – just look at the dates when they will be ‘released’ to the media”.
This baseless conspiracy has been present throughout the pandemic, but Reuters Fact Check – which has fact-checking partnerships with Facebook and other customers – observed a resurgence of such messaging in response to Omicron. Social media posts described the virus variant as “fake”, suggesting it had been created to distract from other high-profile news, such as the Ghislaine Maxwell trial. In the US, one representative tweeted: “Here comes the MEV – the Midterm Election Variant! They NEED a reason to push unsolicited nationwide mail-in ballots.”
An alternative conspiracy theory suggested that the variant had been created to punish South Africa after it delayed delivery of further vaccine doses due to oversupply. This idea was entirely unsupported by evidence, and moreover, while the variant was first observed by scientists at Lancet Laboratories in Pretoria in early November, this detection was not proof that Omicron originated in South Africa.
“We may never know” the origin of the variant, the WHO chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, said at the Reuters Next conference in early December.
The appetite for answers faster than the available data can provide continues to accompany every twist and turn of the pandemic, and leaves the door open for possible misunderstandings and misinformation.
Early reports from South Africa seemed to suggest the Omicron variant caused symptoms that were mild – a finding that was also seen in later data, but this initial information was based upon a relatively small number of patients. Many reports did acknowledge this fact, but it was not often reflected in headlines.
Meanwhile, on social media, a misleading take on the reports quickly gained traction: “Basically they’ve taken the common cold and renamed it Omicron,” read one such post encountered by Reuters Fact Check.
Headlines were also important when it came to discussion of “flurona”, a term used to describe co-infection with the flu virus and novel coronavirus. A memorable neologism, but also one that benefitted from clear explanation: flurona is not, as social media speculation suggested, another new variant of SARS-CoV-2, or worse – something cooked up in a lab.
One question which has repeatedly arisen in response to the arrival of new variants is how health authorities know which type is circulating in a population – even when individuals do not.
In August, Reuters Fact Check responded to a question posed online that asked: “”Since there is no “Delta Variant” test, how exactly are people being diagnosed with the “Delta Variant”?”
A good question given that much of the diagnostic process, notably genomic sequencing and statistical analysis, remains hidden.
Finally, the interaction between Omicron and vaccines led to a wave of misleading claims, particularly as evidence began to emerge suggesting vaccination was less effective against infection by the new variant. Studies that attempted to estimate vaccine efficacy were distorted by some who sought to claim they were proof Covid-19 vaccines were harming immune systems. This theory failed to consider differences in behaviour and exposure patterns, epidemiologists explained.
There is perhaps little to deter committed conspiracy theorists from incorporating the latest developments into an alternative world view. But when media organisations report on a new variant, we can consider where an absence of information may allow misleading narratives to creep in – and better anticipate some of the likely questions by explicitly disclosing in our stories the facts that we don’t know.