Rumors, myths and conspiracy theories circulating online amid the coronavirus pandemic may have resulted in hundreds of deaths, according to a new study.
Rumors about “cures” included drinking bleach, eating garlic, keeping the throat moist, avoiding spicy foods, taking certain vitamins and drinking cow urine, according to the study that was published Monday in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
With the world’s attention focused on the new, emerging virus and global pandemic, an “infodemic” or “overabundance of information” may have made it difficult for people to find credible information, study authors said.
“Misinformation fueled by rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories can have potentially serious implications on the individual and community if prioritized over evidence-based guidelines,” study authors wrote.
The study extracted information from a range of online platforms, including social media and websites of TV networks, from December 31, 2019, to April 5, 2020. From a content analysis, researchers found 2,311 reports of rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories in 25 languages from 87 countries. Of the 2,276 reports that had text ratings, 1,856 claims were false (82%).
Researchers reviewed and organized the data into three categories: rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories. Rumors were the most prevalent, the majority of which were related to COVID-19 illness, transmission, and mortality, per the study.
One popular myth advised holding one’s breath for more than 10 seconds to self-diagnose infection. Another said consuming highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the virus.
After this misinformation, about 800 people died, 5,876 were hospitalized and 60 went completely blind after drinking methanol as a “cure” for the virus, according to the researchers.
Reports of stigmatization included people of Asian origin experiencing blame for the virus, while conspiracy theories classified COVID-19 as a bioweapon that was engineered by international agencies, researchers said.
“To debunk misinformation,” the study authors said, “health agencies must track misinformation associated with the COVID-19 in real-time, and engage local communities and government stakeholders.”