A study looking at rumors and conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19 has identified over 2,000 cases of dangerous misinformation spread on social media and other websites in at least 87 countries, some of which led to harm, including one that caused an estimated 800 deaths.
Published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, the team from various institutions around the world looked at three types of Covid-19 misinformation – rumors, stigma and discrimination, and conspiracy theories, found online between December 31 and April 5, 2020.
Of the three, rumors – defined in the study as any unverified claims centering on Covid-19 circulated on online platforms – were by far the most prevalent, making up 89 percent of the 2,311 reports they analyzed. These included "miracle cure" claims, some of which you've probably come across online, like drinking bleach can make you immune, or consuming cow dung and urine is a cure, and a few you may not have, such as consuming camel pee with lime as a cure.
Just because you're drinking camel urine doesn't mean you can't make it fancy with a squeeze of lime, I guess.
Conspiracy theories were defined as statements, claims, and discussion of various theories related to the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and its malicious goals, and made up 7.8 percent of reports. They included everything from the idea that Bill Gates released the virus as a bio-weapon to increase vaccine sales to Donald Trump sending the virus into Iranian cities to "damage its culture and honor in Iran”.
The third type of misinformation was stigma surrounding Covid-19 (which made up 3.5 percent of the reports), defined as "a socially constructed phenomenon through which a person is directly or indirectly labeled by their illness, exposures, travel history, and ethnic descents that further led to negative actions and discrimination". The study found that in several countries, people of Asian origin – including but not limited to healthcare workers – had been bullied or physically assaulted as a result of discrimination following "high-profile people" referring to the virus as the "Chinese" or "Wuhan" virus. One busload of people being evacuated from Wuhan was pelted with rocks by people in Ukraine.
The findings also showed that in a number of countries stigma around getting the illness contributed to the spread of the disease, with people unwilling to get screened, and others hiding their symptoms and exposure histories when visiting hospitals.
While some rumors and conspiracies can be mostly harmless, there were a few with obvious dangers, such as “spraying chlorine all over your body can prevent coronavirus infection”. One rumor that spread in South Korea in early March, for instance, said that rinsing your mouth with salt water can prevent infection, which it cannot. One church believed it, however, and sprayed salt water into the mouths of churchgoers. This resulted in more than 100 infections, according to the study, because they were spraying contaminated water directly into their mouths.
The most harmful of the misinformation in the study by far was a false cure.
"A popular myth that consumption of highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the virus was circulating in different parts of the world," the authors wrote in the study. "Following this misinformation, approximately 800 people have died, whereas 5,876 have been hospitalized and 60 have developed complete blindness after drinking methanol as a cure of coronavirus."
The researchers say that to tackle the dangerous messages out there, it isn't enough for governments to merely debunk dangerous rumors, they must now engage social media companies to spread correct information.
"Misinformation fueled by rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories can have potentially severe implications on public health if prioritized over scientific guidelines," the team wrote.
"Governments and other agencies must understand the patterns of Covid-19–related rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories circulating the globe so that they can develop appropriate risk communication messages."