Photo/Illutration A large crowd wearing masks commutes through Shinagawa Station in Tokyo on March 3. (AP Photo)

As the new coronavirus has spread widely in Japan, a rash of lies, rumors and other forms of false information about the infection has appeared in the nation, causing serious confusion in society.

Such virus-related misinformation has generated unnecessary problems, such as empty shelves at supermarkets usually stocked with toilet paper and facial tissues due to panic buying.

Consumers have been frightened into stocking up on these paper products by groundless rumors that have spread mainly through social media.

Their rush to snap up toilet rolls and tissue boxes has been triggered by an array of untrue claims, such as that imports of these products from China have stopped, or that they are made of the same material as that of face masks, which many stores have already run out of stock.

The fact is that these tissue paper products sold in Japan are mostly made at home and there are sufficient stocks of them. But consumers should be forgiven for their behavior if they try to secure the supplies for their homes when these products run short even if they know the rumors are probably false.

Social unrest could be triggered by a small bit of misinformation and spread quickly through the nation like a highly contagious virus. 

We need to protect ourselves from groundless rumors and falsehoods by maintaining a sufficient level of information literacy. We need to make reasonable efforts to evaluate the quality of information and the credibility of sources so that we will not allow misinformation to cause us to lose our cool.

Since this disease is caused by an unknown, novel pathogen, the epidemic tends to stir up fear among people.

This collective anxiety is acting as a hotbed of misinformation concerning all elements of the epidemic, from patients and transmission routes to preventive measures and cures. Even a potpourri of conspiracy theories has popped up.

While sounding the alarm about the possibility of a pandemic, the World Health Organization has also warned about the blazing spread of rumors and false information, which it calls an “infodemic.”

Globalization has become an even more powerful force to change the world since the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic. Today, information travels across borders to all corners of the world at lightning speed.

The explosive growth of social media and other internet-based communication services has provided a highly efficient infrastructure for gathering reams of information and making correct judgments based on them.

But using these tools effectively entail the tough challenge of distinguishing truth from falsehood while sifting through masses of information. 

In a society woven together by intricate and sophisticated webs of interdependence, it is almost impossible to fully contain the spread of either such a contagious virus or false information.

The government needs to play a vital role in the fight against the infodemic by providing accurate information as quickly as possible and in a way accessible to the masses, along with facts that support the credibility of the information.

Information that cannot be perceived as fully reliable can only breed public distrust and incite irrational actions.

The government should pay serious attention to the opinions and advice of experts in infectious diseases and other areas.

It has a duty to work out plans to deal with the consequences of the epidemic by considering the possible economic and social impacts from a broad perspective and explain them meticulously to the public.

Human history is littered with gloomy episodes of vicious rumors about specific races and minorities spreading during social unrest caused by earthquakes and other disasters. 

When gripped by the crippling fear of uncertainty about the future, people can easily be trapped by prejudice. We should also be aware of this danger so that we can keep acting in a reasonable, level-headed manner.

With no end in sight to the coronavirus epidemic, our society will continue facing rough going, at least for the time being.

News media should also perform their crucial function of providing accurate information based on solid facts.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 8