#BBCtrending: How panic about Ebola is spreading faster than the virus

A woman covering her nose at a hospital. Image copyright Nicole Vega San Martín (Youtube)

Besides a small number of cases in the US and Spain, the Ebola outbreak remains confined to West Africa. But that hasn't stopped the spread of rumours and false alarms, spurred on by on social media.

On Sunday afternoon at one of Chile's busiest hospitals, an announcement blurted out over the loudspeakers. "Can I have your attention, please. We have a patient who is suspected to have Ebola. Please leave the room and go to another hospital," it said. Covering their mouths, the patients began to flee, but not before one recorded the announcement on a camera phone. She posted it to YouTube under the name "Possible Ebola case in Chile" and, of course, it went viral. In less than 24 hours, the video was seen more than 120,000 times.

From YouTube, the rumour spread to Twitter. The hashtag #EbolaenChile (Ebola in Chile) started trending soon after, and was used almost 20,0000 times over the following day. Mainstream media outlets who saw the tweets started reporting that there was an Ebola case. But the initial announcement in the hospital had said there was a "suspected" case, and it was never in fact confirmed. A few hours later, Chile's ministry of health revealed what had actually happened: the patient in question had travelled to Equatorial Guinea, where have been no confirmed cases of Ebola. But many in Chile were confusing it with Guinea, one of countries actually hit by the outbreak, which is thousands of miles away.

"The case blew up very quickly and the government failed to react to what was happening on social media," explains Eduardo Arriagada, a prominent Chilean Social Media analyst and columnist. "They took too long to say that the patient came from a country free of Ebola." The ministry eventually confirmed that that patient had malaria, not Ebola.

False Ebola rumours have spread in other countries, too. After a Spanish nurse became the first person known to have contracted the virus outside West Africa, conspiracy theories began to spread there as well. Many received a message which said there were secret government-controlled isolation areas in parts of Madrid, and that two other medical staff were showing symptoms. Images of fake news headlines were sent via Whatsapp, and posted on Facebook. "New case of Ebola found in Burger King," read one. None of the claims turned out to be true.

And when Brazil's ministry of health announced a suspected Ebola case last week - which turned out to be a false alarm - it triggered pandemonium online. The word "Ebola" was used 120,000 times on Twitter in Portuguese in less than a day. BBC Brasil's social media editor, Bruno Garcez, says racist associations soon began to emerge. "People started associating the deadly virus with the skin colour of the man from Guinea thought to have it," he says. "Ebola is a black people's thing," tweeted one. "Could someone tell me why these black people from Africa with this bacteria have to live here (sic)," another wrote. Both tweets now appear to be deleted. "Black" was the term most used in association with "Ebola" on public Facebook profiles.

Reporting by Constanza Hola Chamy

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