Fake news on the coronavirus has spread faster than the virus itself.

We are all aware that dealing with something you know nothing about is never easy. Especially if that something is a disease that is said to be transmitted through air, and especially if you live in Italy where the commentary on what is happening in the socio-political sphere gets pretty much always out of hand. However, the latest scenario  has exceeded expectations.

The panic trigger was the appearance in mid-February of the first cases of Italians affected by the coronavirus. These people have had no contact with the two Chinese tourists already hospitalized in Rome. A 38-year-old man from Codogno, a town near Milan, felt sick and went to the local ER but was sent home; after a couple of days, he came back to the hospital and admitted he had lunch with a friend of his, a businessman who had recently came back from a work trip from China, and the medical staff tested him for the coronavirus. Almost simultaneously, in Vo ‘Euganeo, a town near Padua, an elderly couple tested positive for the coronavirus and the 78-years-old husband died. 

This was the moment when panic broke out

The morning after, major newspapers published headlines such as: ‘Virus, the North of fear (La Repubblica), ‘Infections and death, the disease is among us’ (Il Giorno), ‘Vade retro virus’ (Libero), ‘Italy infected’ (Il Giornale). After a 10-hour-long meeting, the government decided to completely isolate the areas in which the virus was spreading, sending military reinforcements to the local police. Next, people lost their self-control. In less than a day, pharmacies ran out of masks and hand-sanitizing gel and the prices of these items on Amazon skyrocketed.

My university in Venice closed, since we were in the same region of Vo’ Euganeo and my parents and the ones of most of my friends forced us to come home, fearing that the government would isolate our city too where the first two cases had occurred. In the meantime, people looted supermarkets even in regions where no cases of the illness had been found and social media was invaded with videos of people running through supermarket aisles with two shopping carts full of food and water.

It is debatable whether talk shows and the media as a whole were the major cause of this exaggerated and hysterical reaction to a possible pandemic. However, after the first case was officially linked to Covid-19, television media started inviting virologists on a daily basis, sometimes more than one at a time, to discuss the virus, often exploiting the differing explanations among them as in a political debate.

When the government and the press realized that the situation was getting completely out of control, not only among the citizens but also with regards to the economy — with a 4 per cent decline in the Milan stock market by the second day, an increase in the spread between the Italian BTP and the German BUND and an increasingly dramatic situation for small business owners — they changed their tune. Overnight, newspapers switched from a ‘the end is nigh’ attitude to ‘it’s little more than a flu, you just need to wash your hands’ and the government, which frantically ordered the closure of churches, museums and theatres, gave permission to reopen almost everything.

Unexpected consequences

All the measures applied in order to pacify the population, backfired. People mistrusted the new calm and language of reassurance, relying instead on social media and talk shows as their primary sources of information.

Too much had been revealed to the population, and now the main goal was to keep people calm, even though the danger was increasing. Instead of creating panic and sensationalising news of the virus, the press, urged by the government, finally started giving actual numbers and data in place of spreading alarmism with catchy headlines. Fake news under the form of voice messages of people who pretended to be doctors started circulating on WhatsApp, spreading completely wrong and non-scientific information about the nature of the virus and how to protect yourself from it. Fake cases were reported daily and conspiracy posts on social media regarding the reason of the spreading of the disease were taken as legitimate press. 

People’s confusion was such a concern for the authorities that the Italian government activated the public utility number 1500 in order to answer citizens’ questions about the virus. 

Social media was once again used as a quick and inexpensive propaganda machine by the League and Fratelli d’Italia, two major far-right parties, to mobilize their voters against immigrants and demand for the closing of our ports in Southern Italy for health-related safety. This, despite the fact that three of the most affected regions (Lombardia, Veneto and Emilia Romagna) are all in the North and two of them are and have been governed by the League and centre-right for years. Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, the leaders of the aforesaid parties, called for the resignation of the government which, according to them, is not doing enough to stop the spread of the disease. Even Alessandra Mussolini, the niece of Benito Mussolini, was invited on TV to say what she thought about the coronavirus situation.

The latest official data shows 3,858 as infected, among which 1,155 are not even hospitalized but at home in self-isolation. So far, 148 are dead and 414 have recovered. The numbers should not have caused such fear in a nation composed of over 60 million citizens. However, in a nation where the current government is mistrusted and people have to relearn how to receive and give news properly, the most reliable information continues to be what one finds on their favourite Facebook group.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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