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Why those messages you're getting on WhatsApp about coronavirus cases in Ireland are (probably) not true

That WhatsApp message you got might sound believable – but check it out for yourself before sharing it.

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ONE OF THE things that marks the novel coronavirus out as being different from other illnesses is the speed at which information about it has been spreading.

Or, in many cases, misinformation.

WhatsApp messages, videos, memes, Facebook posts and tweets which make claims about the virus being found in Ireland have been shared widely, particularly in the past week. 

It’s likely that you’ve seen an example by now: maybe it was a video showing people in full-body protective clothing entering a building, with a caption saying that there was a confirmed Irish case.

Or maybe it was a WhatsApp message, like this one, which claims that the virus is in the country:

File (3)

The message is often similar: it says that a case has been confirmed, or is about to be confirmed. It names a specific hospital. It seems to come from an authoritative-sounding source: a friend of the person who sent it whose brother is a garda, for example.

It will probably sound believable.

But while some of them may have nuggets of truth, they’re often sowing misinformation and adding to the at-times cloudy conversation about coronavirus.

“I get texts on a regular basis saying ‘X hospital is in lockdown. The coronavirus is here’. Not true,” Minister for Health Simon Harris said on Today With Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio One this morning.

As of right now, more than 100 people have been tested for the novel coronavirus in the Republic of Ireland. None of them have turned out to be cases of Covid-19.

This is not to say that there won’t be a case. Simon Harris said last night that the government has been planning for a case since January, while Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said at a briefing this morning that it is anticipated that a case will be confirmed in the Republic of Ireland.

“We think it’s likely that another case or cases could be imported into this country, like it was in Northern Ireland,” Holohan told reporters.

download (2) Dr John Cuddihy, Dr Tony Holohan and Dr Ronan Glynn at the briefing this morning Source: TheJournal.ie

But every suspected case so far where the results have come back has turned out not to be Covid-19. 

The spreading of these “murky, half-facts” can create mistrust and anxiety, says Ciaran O’Connor of Storyful, a leading social media news agency.

“It contributes to mistrust of public institutions like government and health services,” he toldTheJournal.ie.

Trust in institutions has been decreasing year on year for some time now and this was before social media. If there is an outbreak, then such skepticism – of institutions, of possible vaccines, of entering public places like supermarkets – only furthers the problem.”

TheJournal.ie has been looking out for claims to debunk, as part of our FactCheck project. Here are some of the claims being shared around Ireland right now.

Video of a hotel on Pearse Street in Dublin

There are no numbers available to measure how often something is shared on WhatsApp, but judging solely by how many times this one video has been sent in to TheJournal.ie‘s newsroom over the past 24 hours, this has been widely shared in Ireland.

pearse st

The video is extremely short – it’s just four seconds long. It starts by showing some lines on a road before the camera pans up and shows a person in white full-body protective clothing walking into a building with two large glass double doors and a glass awning.

In the final second, the camera pans to the right where an ambulance is parked close to where the person in the white outfit is walking.

The text accompanying the video has generally identified it as being a named hotel on Pearse Street in Dublin’s city centre, and says that there has been a case of coronavirus in the building. Some versions of it say that it was taken by a garda. Others say that the hotel is now in lockdown.

But while this video may be showing precautionary measures being taken – and that is not known either – there is no evidence that it shows an actual case of coronavirus being investigated or a suspected case. 

The Department of Health is following World Health Organisation guidelines which say that all health workers should wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gowns and masks when dealing with potential cases of Covid 19, so if this was a suspected case, then that is what is happening. This means that it may become a common sight to see photos and videos being shared of medical staff wearing personal protective equpiment as potential cases are investigated. 

Neither the HSE nor the Department of Health would comment – the Department said it will never speak about suspected cases – but Minister for Health Simon Harris appeared to reference the video on Today With Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio One this morning.

“I’ve had a situation last night where many people sent me a Twitter video showing a hotel in Dublin locked down. Not true,” he said.

The premise of the video caption itself is wrong too: the building itself is not a hotel and it’s not on Pearse Street. It is in Dublin but it’s on the nearby Sir John Rogerson’s Quay.

Sir John Rogerson's Quay Source: Google Maps

When contacted, two businesses based in the building did not respond, while a spokesperson for the hotel named in the video caption said that it had no cases of coronavirus and had no hotel on lockdown.

Perhaps the strongest indicator that the video does not show a real case of coronavirus though is to do with the timing. The video has been circulating for almost 48 hours now, if not longer, and the number of cases of coronavirus in Ireland remains at zero.

There have been other videos or photos like this shared before now. Similar imagery spread earlier this month in at least two instances at Dublin Airport where medical staff wearing protective clothing had to board planes where passengers had fallen ill.

The government’s approach to communication around the coronavirus is that it will only confirm any details when there is a real case, and will not say anything to confirm details, dates or locations of suspected cases where patients are tested. This is designed to prevent panic and the spread of misinformation; but in the absence of information, it also allows for videos like this to be spread.

No, there is no media blackout

This is something that comes up repeatedly in some of these WhatsApp messages: a case has been confirmed, or almost confirmed, in Ireland, but there is a media blackout which means it is not being covered.

A media blackout on anything is extremely rare in Ireland. Requests for the media not to cover an ongoing situation are occasionally issued by An Garda Siochána – such as in this case last week where a teenager was arrested by gardaí in Donegal after a 54-hour stand-off – but not by the government.

The media – both local and national – has been reporting on information given by State authorities alongside original stories, articles from news agencies, videos and podcasts about the spread of the virus since the first cases emerged in China. 

For the past month, the Department of Health has been holding fairly frequent press briefings and releasing statements to the media with updates about the coronavirus.

The National Public Health Emergency Team has been meeting regularly, and a special Coronavirus Expert Advisory Group was formed, which is a multidisciplinary group with experts from differing specialities.

No journalist that TheJournal.ie spoke to had heard anything from authorities about a media blackout on this story. A number questioned what function such a blackout would serve, and how authorities would expect such a blackout to work.

There was one exception: on 25 February, an Irish Examiner journalist tweeted about a blackout, which was also tweeted from the newspaper’s main Twitter account. The reference to a media blackout was included in an article on the newspaper’s website.

The tweet referred to students from a school in Munster being assessed for coronavirus after returning from a trip to Italy and said: “Media Blackout ordered by authorities but full Story on @irishexaminer shortly”.

In the story, which remains viewable on the Irish Examiner website, one line says: “Senior sources have said that a ‘media blackout’ is being advised and the HSE, when contacted, offered no comment to our queries.”

There was no media blackout and there is no media blackout. The tweet and the mention in the article appear to be referring to the HSE’s refusal to comment when no case had been confirmed, coupled with a request from education authorities for the media not to cover details of the story.

“There is no media blackout on information surrounding Covid-19″, a spokesperson for the Department of Health told TheJournal.ie.

“The Department of Health does not comment on individual cases, or groups of cases, other than confirmed cases.”

Journalists had different responses when asked why some people claim there is a media blackout.

Gavan Reilly, political correspondent at Virgin Media News said that it could be to do with trust in the Irish health system. 

“Because people are largely distrustful of the HSE or Irish health management, so when local officials encourage people not to become overly cautious – for legitimate fear of whipping up hysteria – people assume it’s the State being negligent [rather than] action based on expert advice,” said Reilly. 

“It’s a strange self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Seán Defoe, group political correspondent for Communicorp. “People say there’s a media blackout to avoid panic, which just creates more panic.”

Outright false information

As well as the claims based in some truth, there are also messages being shared, frequently on WhatsApp, which have untrue information.

This one message which has been shared says that people should “take a few sips of water every 15 mins at least” to wash the virus into the stomach where stomach acid will kill it.

(Spoiler: this does not work). 

pjimage (1) Source: WhatsApp

There has been so much information on the internet about the coronavirus that the World Health Organisation has described it as an “infodemic” – and while some of the information is accurate, some is not. 

Health professionals and the government have been directing people to the HSE’s website, which has details on symptoms of the coronavirus, how it is spread, and ways to protect yourself from it. 

hse Source: HSE

Definite cases in Dublin hospitals

Since the novel coronavirus began, email and messaging platforms like WhatsApp have been a source of repeated claims about how there has been a confirmed case in various named hospitals throughout the country.

Image from iOS (25) Source: TheJournal.ie

So far, none of these have proven to be true. As mentioned above, more than 100 people have been tested for it in Ireland, but none of the tests have come back positive.

Some of these rumours may be based on suspected cases, as a result of other patients or hospital staff messaging people, but others appear to be not based in fact.

If and when there is a case in Ireland, it is likely that there will be an extremely short window between the test results coming back positive and the public being informed.

In Northern Ireland, for example, an email was sent out to the media at 6.10pm on Thursday night by the Public Health Agency of Northern Ireland about a media briefing which was to take place at 7pm – 50 minutes later – on a case which had been confirmed shortly before.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the Department of Health said that it is “currently in a containment phase, both in Ireland and Europe”. 

“This means that, irrespectively of case severity, all efforts are focused on identifying cases and their contacts early, in order to prevent further transmission (secondary spread,” the Department said. 

“The focus for communication in the containment phase is raising awareness among the general public of the central role that the public plays in mitigating the risk and potential spread of the disease through hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and early notification of the onset of symptoms to their GP, should they occur,” it said. 

“In line with these WHO best practice guidelines, no information will be provided about individual activations or about individual cases of Covid-19 other than confirmed cases.” 

What can be done to prevent the spread of misinformation?

Social media platforms have acted relatively fast to promote accurate sources of information – and for good reason. 

“If you search ‘coronavirus’ on Twitter, YouTube or TikTok, you’ll be given an external link for the HSE,” says Ciaran O’Connor of Storyful. “This is one way to counter the flow of bad information with good information.”

coronavirus search Source: Twitter's search page when someone searches for 'coronavirus'

Facebook has released some new tools for its network of third-party factcheckers around the world to help factcheck misinformation being spread on its platform.

“Facebook announcing it plans to remove any posts that claim to promote a cure for the virus is helpful too,” says O’Connor. “Hopefully the implementation of this policy is effective.”

In the real world though, “gatekeepers at every level of society are important,” he says.

“Teachers in schools, university authorities, nurses and doctors, and politicians providing accurate information to their constituents are all essential to protect information.”

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp us on 085 221 4696 or mail answers@thejournal.ie

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here. 

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