The Staggering Scope of the Global Coronavirus Misinformation Epidemic
Scientists identified more than 2,000 false claims about Covid-19 in circulation
At the end of March, shortly after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, the United Nations warned of another looming global threat. Humanity’s common enemy, said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, is the “growing surge of misinformation.” Rumors and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus have become so widespread that they’ve occasionally surfaced on the global stage. President Donald Trump, for example, infamously shared the dangerous idea that injecting oneself with disinfectants could cure Covid-19.
In a new paper published today in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, an international team of researchers attempt to quantify how rampant misinformation has become during the pandemic. Poring through the platforms where misinformation surfaces or is reported — like Facebook, Twitter, online newspapers, and fact-checking websites — they identified 2,311 reports of misinformation that circulated between December 31, 2019, and April 5, 2020. Most of the information came from India, the United States, China, Spain, Indonesia, and Brazil—countries that have been hit hard by the coronavirus.
The researchers say misinformation comes in three flavors: rumors, like the false idea that drinking bleach could cure Covid-19; stigma, like the unjustified belief that people from China carry the coronavirus; and conspiracy theories, like the idea that the coronavirus is intentionally spread from 5G cellphone towers. Most of the claims had to do with the nature of Covid-19’s spread and death rates, control measures, cures, and the cause or origin of the disease.
Rumors were by far the most prevalent, making up 89% of the reports. We’ve addressed a few at the Coronavirus Blog, including the false ideas that drinking strong alcohol or so-called Miracle Mineral Solution, a dangerous solution of chlorine dioxide, can kill the coronavirus. Interestingly, the study authors also flagged region-specific rumors: One circulating in Saudi Arabia suggested camel urine mixed with lime as a cure; another in India suggested drinking tea with cow urine or dung. It bears repeating that there is…