Covid-19 Has Fueled More Than 2,000 Rumors And Conspiracy Theories

September 23, 2020

From the idea that drinking bleach could kill the coronavirus to the theory that the virus was created in a lab as a biological weapon, the COVID-19 pandemic generated a cascade of misinformation that hatched more than 2,000 reports of rumors, conspiracy theories and discrimination, according to a new study.

This disinformation can have serious consequences – researchers in the new study found that COVID-19-related rumors were linked to thousands of hospitalizations and hundreds of deaths. For example, the myth that consuming high levels of alcohol can kill the coronavirus was linked to more than 5,900 hospitalizations, 800 deaths and 60 cases of blindness due to methanol poisoning (which can happen when people drink home-brewed or illegally manufactured alcohol), according to the report. Many of these cases were in Iran, where alcoholic beverages are illegal. According to the new report, 12 people, including five children, fell ill in India after drinking alcohol made from the toxic seed Datura, which is believed to be a cure for COVID-19.

“Misinformation fueled by rumors, stigmas, and conspiracy theories could have potentially serious implications for individuals and communities if evidence-based guidelines are prioritized,” the authors write in their study, published Monday (Aug. 10) in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.” Health agencies must track misinformation related to …. COVID-19 in real time and engage local communities and government stakeholders to debunk misinformation.”

For the study, an international team of social scientists, physicians, and epidemiologists reviewed content on social media, including Twitter and Facebook posts, as well as newspaper and television reports, from December 2019 to April 2020.

They identified more than 2,300 independent reports of rumors, conspiracy theories, and stigmatization related to COVID-19 in 25 languages from 87 countries. Of these, the majority (89%) were categorized as rumors, or unsubstantiated claims surrounding COVID-19; about 8% were categorized as conspiracy theories, or beliefs about people working in secret with malicious targets; and 3.5% were categorized as stigmas, or reports of people being discriminated against because of illness, travel history, exposure to infected people, or ethnic origin. (For example, the study found 26 instances of stigma-related violence, such as a case in Ukraine where people threw rocks at a bus carrying evacuees from Wuhan, China.)

Like the COVID-19 pandemic, this “information epidemic” of misinformation came in waves, the first between Jan. 21 and Feb. 13, the second between Feb. 14 and March 7, and the third between March 8 and March 31. The third wave was the largest in terms of the number of reports, the authors said, with reports peaking in mid-March.

About a quarter of the claims were related to COVID-19 disease, transmission or death, and another 19 percent were related to treatment and cure of the disease. For example, it has been rumored that drinking bleach, eating garlic, keeping your throat moist, avoiding spicy foods, taking vitamin C, and even drinking cow urine can prevent or cure the disease. On its website, Cola has a pop-up message warning consumers about the dangers of drinking or ingesting bleach.

About 15 percent of the message has to do with the cause or origin of the disease. For example, some conspiracy theories suggest that COVID-19 was designed as a biological weapon.

The authors say, “It is important for governments and other agencies to understand the pattern of rumors, stigmas, and conspiracy theories circulating around the world related to COVID-19” so they can better disseminate COVID-19 information and debunk disinformation.

The authors recommend that governments and health agencies continue to post accurate scientific information about COVID-19 on their websites. In addition, agencies should not only identify and debunk COVID-19 rumors, but also work with social media companies to “spread the right information,” they conclude.