Study: Pandemic rumors may have killed hundreds of people

Pandemic rumors and information overload make separating fact from fancy difficult, putting people's health and lives at risk.

two people digging graves in white coveralls

Relatives watch as a family member is buried in Caju cemetary in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

  • An "infodemic" describes a dangerous time when an overload of information makes evaluating that information difficult.
  • A new study found that pandemic rumors and conspiracies lead to people mistrusting governments and health agencies, leading to hundreds of avoidable deaths.
  • Experts recommend that health agencies track misinformation, while individuals take steps to protect themselves from the infodemic.

    The reason sanitizer kills novel coronavirus is that it contains north of 60 percent ethyl alcohol. To kill any viral invaders swarming your body, you need to drink enough alcohol to sterilize your system. According to research by Dr. John Lee Hooker, it only takes one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer to begin feeling the salutary effects.

    That is, of course, utter bunkum. Dr. Hooker's field of study was the blues, not epidemiology, and a blood alcohol concentration of 0.40 percent can be fatal, a level well below antiseptic action. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), excessive alcohol consumption during the pandemic increases your risk as it can compromise your immune system.

    But those facts didn't stop similar pandemic rumors from assailing social media and offline social networks. Other rumored "remedies" espoused ingesting bleach, garlic, and hot peppers or exposing the body to extreme temperatures. Such cures can have dire consequences: None of them kill the coronavirus, some are actively harmful to a person's health, and even the benign ones can provide a false sense of protection.

    These pandemic rumors, and many more, are the dark side of the "infodemic," which the WHO defines as "an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it."

    Recently, an international team of researchers sought to determine the impact of this "infodemic" on public health. They combed the internet for COVID-19-related rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories, and their findings suggest that hundreds of people have needlessly died as a result of the misinformation found online.

    The dark side of the information age

    A South Korean church became a viral hotspot after church officials sprayed a salt water "cure" in congregants mouths, without disinfecting the nozzle between uses.

    (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getting Images)

    On December 31, 2019, the researchers began chronicling COVID-19-related posts circulating the internet. They examined agency websites, online newspapers, and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, extracting reports until April 5, 2020. They then compiled and analyzed their data.

    In total, the researchers discovered more than 2,300 reports of COVID-19-related reports. These reports were mostly classified as rumors (89 percent) followed by conspiracy theories (7.8 percent) and stigmas (3.5 percent). They came in 25 languages and from 87 countries. However, most of the false and hate-filled news spread from five countries: China, India, Spain, Brazil, and the U.S.

    Of their accumulated reports, 2,276 had text ratings available, and these show the vast disparity between the dark and illuminating sides of the infodemic. False claims consisted of 82 percent of text-rated reports, while misleading and unproven claims took 8 and 1 percent, respectively. Correct claims made up a paltry 9 percent.

    Their finders were published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

    "Rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories have the potential to decrease community trust in governments and international health agencies. Rumors can mask themselves as credible infection prevention and control strategies and have potentially serious implications if prioritized over evidence-based guidelines," the researchers write in the study.

    In their discussion, the researchers point to a telling anecdote from Iran. There, a rumor spread that ingesting methanol—non-drinkable alcohol that is even poisonous when absorbed through the skin—would disinfect the body of novel coronavirus. After the rumor gained purchase in the milieu, the country saw a 10-fold increase in alcohol poisonings. Close to 800 people died, thousands were hospitalized, and as many as 60 developed blindness. Other countries, including Turkey, Qatar, and India, have witnessed a similar, if less severe, trend.

    In another story, also relayed in the study, a South Korean church told congregants they could be cleansed by spraying special saltwater into their mouths. The church soon became a viral hotspot as they used the same spray bottle on church-goers without disinfecting the nozzle. Nor are WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) societies immune to pandemic rumors. In April, the FDA issued a warning to Alex Jones, of InfoWars infamy, to stop peddling fake coronavirus cures, including a silver-laced gargle and toothpaste.

    The researchers do note their study's limitations. For example, the speed at which COVID-19 information changes, especially during the study's report-gathering phase, means some report categorization could be subject to misclassification. Also, the researchers did not follow up on the misinformation, so they could not say how many people on average believe any rumor or conspiracy they came across online.

    But the connection between the infodemic and real-world actions, as seen in Iran and other countries, shows the lethal implications if people cannot discern sound information from the flimsy. As we've seen with other outbreaks in the past, such as the HIV epidemic and the 2019 Ebola outbreak, when people are afraid, they will grasp for beliefs that return a sense of control to their lives. In that desperation, rubbish can be just as appealing as reality.

    As Michael Shermer told Big Think in an interview earlier this year: "Whenever there's a high level of anxiety or uncertainty in an environment, your personal life or society at large, conspiracism goes up. That is to say, people find comfort in attenuating the anxiety or uncertainty they are feeling by concocting some overarching plan."

    The cure for bad information is good

    That doesn't mean we are defenseless. The best cure for rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories is good, evidence-based information. We just have to know how to recognize it when we find it. Unfortunately, that's difficult in the center of the infodemic vortex.

    "Information overload is incredibly anxiety-provoking—which is true even when the information is accurate," Jaimie Meyer, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist, told Yale Medicine. "But here, if people get the wrong information from unreliable sources, we may have more trouble slowing the spread of the virus. And we can't afford to get this wrong."

    In their study, the researchers concluded that governments and health agencies should study the patterns of pandemic rumors, track the misinformation, and develop communication strategies to circumvent these messages.

    In the Yale Medicine article, Meyer provides advice for helping individuals deal with information overload. She recommends looking at data and graphs carefully, considering how individual studies connect with established facts, and considering the whole story (not just the eye-catching headline).

    When it comes to garnering information from social media, proceed with caution.

    "Everything looks the same on Twitter," Meyer said. "When you have a tweet from Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Association of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, next to a tweet that says the opposite thing from a celebrity or some random person—and they all appear similar, you have to weigh the credibility of your sources."

    She recommends following health agencies like the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and your local and state health agencies. When you come across a pandemic rumor or something that seems suspect, you can double-check it against these authoritative sources, such as the WHO's COVID-19 mythbusters page. And if you find yourself stressing out over the news and your social media feed, take a mental break.

    We all would like a return to some form of normalcy, but that return will not emanate from a miracle cure. It will be a slow, steady course of handwashing, social distancing, and learning to navigate the infodemic.

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