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‘Fantasies about coronavirus are more contagious than the disease itself’

Fake news about ‘patient zero’ and hyperbolic headlines warning about the ‘yellow peril.’ Leiden researchers have spotted fake news galore about coronavirus as well as racial stereotypes about the Chinese. How harmful is this?

This is the Chinese market where the coronavirus began! A video of the market in question travelled all around the world in January and had 28m views within days. But observant viewers noticed that it was a market in Indonesia. This is just one of the examples of fake news that Leiden media expert Peter Burger is trying to debunk on Twitter. His tweets about coronavirus hoaxes illustrate how viral fake news is. Burger emphasises that although he is not conducting academic research into this at present, he is in contact with an international network of fact-checkers who investigate attention-grabbing news and share their research findings.

Bat soup and conspiracy theories

Fake news about viruses, on social media in particular, often relies on the same formula, says Burger. Photos and videos are posted that do not actually portray the matter at hand. Popular photos are doing the rounds of Chinese people eating bat soup, for instance, which is claimed to be the source of the virus, when it hasn’t been proven that the soup is the culprit at all. Conspiracy theories also play an important role. It has been suggested that the virus leaked from a lab, either accidentally or deliberately. Burger notes that the amount of fake news in the Netherlands appears to be fairly limited. ‘But this could change if the virus pops up here too.’

The stigmatising Spiegel cover page

‘Yellow peril’

Objectivity has more or less disappeared from much of the media, says Florian Schneider, Sinologist and Director of LeidenAsiaCentre at Leiden University. He is keeping close tabs on the international media. Some papers use clumsy stereotypes to describe China and the Chinese. From time immemorial China has been portrayed as full of oriental mystery or as a waking dragon that is becoming more powerful by the day, says Schneider. French newspaper Le Courrier Picard used hyperbolic headlines such as ‘yellow peril’ to attract the reader’s attention (it has since offered its excuses). Various German media outlets have also published sensational and stigmatising reports, not only tabloids such as Bild Zeitung, but also more serious magazines such as Der Spiegel ‘Made in China: When globalisation becomes a deadly peril,’ see photo).


Schneider has seen misplaced jokes and cartoons in many media outlets. Chinese people are generally depicted in photos and illustrations, which are accompanied by supposedly funny comments, wearing a mask and hazmat suit. ‘This reinforces their dehumanisation. The jokes and stereotypes strengthen xenophobic reactions on the street at a time when the Chinese deserve extra empathy from us.’ Various media outlets, including Dutch news broadcaster NOS-Journaal, have reported that Dutch Chinese people have been the recipient of more negative comments than usual. It’s not just Dutch Chinese people, however: reports from around the world show that people of Asian appearance are facing more discrimination. He believes that researchers have an important role to play: ‘We should continue to keep a very critical eye on the news raise the matter with the media if their reporting is incorrect.’ He also thinks it is important for educational institutions to provide their students and staff with the necessary information and to be extra alert to whether Asian students and staff are experiencing discrimination. For more information, see Leiden University’s announcement about coronavirus.  

Chinese media

What about the Chinese media? ‘The reports in the Chinese state media have to be overwhelmingly upbeat,’ says Schneider. The virus’s spread has been presented as a kind of war that can only be won if the state takes comprehensive measures to contain it.’ He finds this worrying because it is presented as an existential crisis, which thus allows the state to tighten its grip on its citizens. The various commercial media outlets in China have been somewhat more critical in their reporting about the state’s response to the virus, says Schneider. ‘The state permits this because this allows it to gain local information about public opinion.’

Patient zero

Sara Polak, Assistant Professor in American Studies, is putting the finishing touches to her book Embodying Contagion, an interdisciplinary volume about the depiction of contagious diseases in the 20th and 21st century. Eleven authors explain how the spread of viruses such as HIV (AIDS), Ebola and Zika is depicted in literature, the media and films. Polak has also discovered recurring patterns. Soon after the outbreak of a virus, a story will appear about the virus’s outbreak and reports will circulate, mainly on social media, about ‘patient zero’, the first patient to contract the virus. It is usually suggested that this first patient deliberately infected others. Polak’s own article shows how Donald Trump (before he was president), and indirectly the American Centers for Disease Control, stoked fears of Ebola virus on Twitter and elsewhere. A supposedly funny public information campaign with zombies only served to further stigmatise the disease.


Polak is following the news about coronavirus. She concludes that reporting in the American media is much more sensational than reporting in the Dutch media. ‘Prompted by the stronger culture of sensation and commercialisation, the media in the United States sows fear. Fantasies about coronavirus are more contagious than the disease itself.’ Most of the Dutch media outlets are trying to de-escalate the situation by pointing to the plans that are ready and waiting for if the virus does rear its head. Hopefully, they will continue to do so.’

Student research

The three researchers are also discussing the fake news with their students. Burger is doing so, for instance, in his annual Science, Media and Society course, which started on 4 February. In previous years he discussed news about Sars virus. This year he will give the group, with students from over ten different countries, the assignment to research news reports about coronavirus in their home country. Burger: ‘This will probably produce new examples of framing and misinformation.’

Text: Linda van Putten
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