Nature gave us the coronavirus, but the conspiracy theories, myths, and outright lies that accompany it are all manufactured by people, and have killed, maimed, and hospitalized thousands, a new study finds.
There’s a worldwide “infodemic,” the international team of researchers said, an overwhelming flow of information about the coronavirus. Some is helpful, some is pointless, but some is harmful — as there is no shortage of misinformation buried in all that noise.
The team scoured social media, news outlets and other sources, identifying more than 2,300 reports of misinformation in 25 languages, from 87 countries.
Those false and misleading pieces of info — fake cures and treatments, unsupported claims about disease transmission, mortality, and more — are responsible for nearly 800 deaths, 5,876 hospitalizations, and at least 60 cases of permanent blindness, according to the study.
Researchers looked at rumors, such as “drinking bleach may kill the virus,” or “common cold had been renamed coronavirus.“ They also scrutinized conspiracy theories, including that the virus was created in a Chinese lab, or that the CIA is manufacturing it, or that Bill Gates masterminded the pandemic.
These kinds of misinformation erode public trust in experts, leading some to ignore scientific truths and life-saving recommendations, researchers said.
People with conspiracy mentalities and who follow conspiracy theories are more likely to reject any advice that comes from a place of authority, a separate study found.
In Iran, over 700 have died from alcohol poisoning, spurred by a rumor that ingesting methanol can cure coronavirus, Al Jazeera reported.
Bleach, like methanol, is toxic, but that hasn’t stopped some Americans from drinking it to ward of COVID-19.
The week after President Donald Trump suggested disinfectant could be used as treatment, two men in Georgia drank bleach for just that reason, McClatchy News reported.
A Florida-based organization had to be ordered to stop selling industrial-grade bleach, which it marketed as its “Miracle Mineral Solution.”
Overall calls to poison control have soared since the start of the pandemic, with disinfectant and bleach ingestion high among them, McClatchy reported.
Even seemingly less harmful misinformation can have devastating effects, researchers said, highlighting an instance where dozens of faithful at a South Korean church were infected with COVID-19 after the same saltwater spray bottle was used to spritz the inside of their mouths, thanks to the incorrect belief the practice could help protect them from the coronavirus.
Given their findings, researchers argued it’s not enough for health agencies to share advice and valuable data, they must actively combat the spread of misinformation.
“Misinformation fueled by rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories can have potentially serious implications on the individual and community if prioritized over evidence-based guidelines,” researchers said in the study. “Health agencies must track misinformation associated with the COVID-19 in real time, and engage local communities and government stakeholders to debunk misinformation.”