Fake news on COVID-19 claims 800 lives worldwide

The barrage of misinformation and fake news triggering rumours, stigma and conspiracy theories pertaining to COVID-19 have been circulating in at least 25 languages in 87 countries, a study by the  American Journal of Tropical Medicine has revealed. And that’s not all. At least 800 lives have been lost due to fake news in the first three months of this year.

Researchers say many deaths occurred after people drank methanol or alcohol-based cleaning products, wrongly believing the products to be a cure for the virus. At least 5,800 people have had to be hospitalized after falling prey to fake news infodemic.

While a BBC probe found links to assaults, arson and deaths as a result of misinformation about coronavirus, online rumors led to mob attacks back home and even mass poisonings in Iran. Telecom engineers too have been threatened and attacked and phone masts have been set alight in the UK and other countries because of conspiracy theories that spread like wildfire online.

Fake News in the time of Corona

World Health Organization (WHO) has previously said that the infodemic with regards to COVID-19 spread just as quickly as the virus itself, with conspiracy theories, rumors and cultural stigma all contributing to deaths and injuries.

The team of American researchers followed and examined COVID-19–related rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories circulating on online platforms, including fact-checking agency websites, Facebook, Twitter, and online newspapers, and their impacts on public health. Information was extracted between December 31, 2019 and April 5, 2020, and descriptively analyzed.

Nearly 2,311 reports of rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories in 25 languages from 87 countries were studied. Claims were related to illness, transmission and mortality (24%), control measures (21%), treatment and cure (19%), cause of disease including the origin (15%), violence (1%), and miscellaneous (20%). Of the 2,276 reports for which text ratings were available, 1,856 claims were false (82%).

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Among all categories of infodemics tracked, rumor was the most prevalent. The volume of rumors increased from February and continued until the end of the study period, peaking in the middle of March 2020. Most of the rumors were related to COVID-19 illness, transmission, and mortality, followed by interventions focusing on infection prevention and control measures. There were reports about eating garlic, keeping the throat moist, the need to avoid spicy food and the importance of taking vitamins C and D to help prevent the disease. Moreover, there were reports of rumors that spraying chlorine could prevent coronavirus infection.

Monitoring social media data was identified as the best method for tracking rumors in real time and as a possible way to dispel misinformation and reduce stigma. However, the detection, assessment, and response to rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories in real time are a challenge.

Researchers advised health agencies to track misinformation associated with the COVID-19 in real time, and engage local communities and government stakeholders to debunk misinformation.

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