s people increasingly social distance themselves to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, social media is an appealing way to stay in contact with friends, family and colleagues. But it can also be a source of misinformation and bad advice – some of it even dangerously wrong. Finding reliable information in the digital age is already challenging enough, even more so during a global pandemic when fake news, misinformation and hyperbole are rife.
The fatal ‘infodemic’ explored
1. Spraying chlorine or alcohol on skin kills viruses in the body
Applying alcohol or chlorine to the body can cause harm, especially if it enters the eyes or mouth. Although people can use these chemicals to disinfect surfaces, they should not use them on skin.
These products cannot kill viruses within the body.
2. Only older adults and young people are at risk
SARS-CoV-2, like other coronaviruses, can infect people of any age. However, older adults or individuals with preexisting health conditions, such as diabetes or asthma, are more likely to become severely ill.
3. Children cannot catch COVID-19
All age groups can become infected. Most cases, so far, have been in adults, but children are not immune. In fact, preliminary evidence shows that children are just as likely to become infected, but their symptoms tend to be less severe.
4. COVID-19 is just like the flu
SARS-CoV-2 causes illness that does, indeed, have flu-like symptoms, such as aches, fever, and cough. Similarly, both COVID-19 and flu can be mild, severe, or, in rare cases, fatal. Both can also lead to pneumonia.
However, the overall profile of COVID-19 is more serious. Estimates vary, but its mortality rate seems to be between about 1% and 3%.
Although scientists are working out the exact mortality rate, it is likely to be many times higher than that of seasonal flu.
5. Everyone with COVID-19 dies
This statement is untrue. As we have mentioned above, COVID-19 is only fatal for a small percentage of people.
In a recent report, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that 80.9% of COVID-19 cases were mild.
The WHO also report that around 80% of people will experience a relatively mild form of the disease, which will not require specialist treatment in a hospital.
Mild symptoms may include fever, cough, sore throat, tiredness, and shortness of breath.
6. Cats and dogs spread coronavirus
Currently, there is little evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect cats and dogs. However, in Hong Kong, a Pomeranian whose owner had COVID-19 became infected. The dog did not display any symptoms.
Scientists are debating the importance of this case to the epidemic. For instance, Prof. Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, says:
“We have to differentiate between real infection and just detecting the presence of the virus. I still think it’s questionable how relevant it is to the human outbreak, as most of the global outbreak has been driven by human-to-human transmission.”
He continues: “We need to find out more, but we don’t need to panic — I doubt it could spread to another dog or a human because of the low levels of the virus. The real driver of the outbreak is humans.”
7. Face masks protect against coronavirus
Healthcare workers use professional face masks, which fit tightly around the face, to protect them against infection. However, disposable face masks are unlikely to provide such protection.
As these masks do not fit neatly against the face, droplets can still enter the mouth and nose. Also, tiny viral particles can penetrate directly through the material.
However, if someone has a respiratory illness, wearing a mask can help protect others from becoming infected.
“There is very little evidence that wearing such masks protects the wearer from infection,” Dr. Ben Killingley, Consultant in Acute Medicine and Infectious Diseases at University College London Hospital in the U.K., explains.
“Furthermore, wearing masks can give a false sense of reassurance and might lead to other infection control practices being ignored, e.g., hand hygiene.”
The WHO recommend that people who are caring for someone with suspected COVID-19 should wear a mask. In these cases, wearing a mask is only effective if the individual regularly washes their hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
Also, when using a mask, it is important to use it and dispose of it properly.
8. Hand dryers kill coronavirus
Hand dryers do not kill coronavirus. The best way to protect yourself and others from the virus is to wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.
9. SARS-CoV-2 is just a mutated form of the common cold
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, all of which have spiky proteins on their surface. Some of these viruses use humans as their primary host and cause the common cold. Other coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, primarily infect animals.
Both Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) began in animals and passed into humans.
10. You have to be with someone for 10 minutes to catch the virus
The longer someone is with an infected person, the more likely they are to catch the virus, but it is still possible to catch it in less than 10 minutes.
11. Rinsing the nose with saline protects against coronavirus
There is no evidence that a saline nose rinse protects against respiratory infections. Some research suggests that this technique might reduce the symptoms of acute upper respiratory tract infections, but scientists have not found that it can reduce the risk of infection.
12. You can protect yourself by gargling bleach
There are no circumstances in which gargling bleach might benefit your health. Bleach is corrosive and can cause serious damage.
13. Antibiotics kill coronavirus
Antibiotics only kill bacteria; they do not kill viruses.
14. Thermal scanners can diagnose coronavirus
Thermal scanners can detect whether someone has a fever. However, other conditions, such as seasonal flu, can also produce fever.
In addition, symptoms of COVID-19 can appear 2–10 days after infection, which means that someone infected with the virus could have a normal temperature for a few days before a fever begins.
15. Garlic protects against coronaviruses
Some research suggests that garlic might slow the growth of some species of bacteria. However, COVID-19 is caused by a virus, and there is no evidence that garlic can protect people against COVID-19.
16. Parcels from China can spread coronavirus
From previous research into similar coronaviruses, including those that cause SARS and MERS and are similar to SARS-CoV-2, scientists believe that the virus cannot survive on letters or packages for an extended time.
The CDC explains that “because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures.”
17. Home remedies can cure and protect against COVID-19
No home remedies can protect against COVID-19, including vitamin C, essential oils, silver colloid, sesame oil, garlic, fish tank cleaner, burning sage, and sipping water every 15 minutes.
The best approach is to adopt a good handwashing regimen and to avoid places where there may be unwell people.
18. You can catch coronavirus from eating Chinese food in the U.S.
No, you cannot.
19. You can catch coronavirus from urine and feces
It is unlikely that this is true, but the jury is currently out. According to Prof. John Edmunds from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in the U.K.:
“It isn’t a very pleasant thought, but every time you swallow, you swallow mucus from your upper respiratory tract. In fact, this is an important defensive mechanism. This sweeps viruses and bacteria down into our gut where they are denatured in the acid conditions of our stomachs.”
“With modern, very highly sensitive detection mechanisms, we can detect these viruses in feces. Usually, viruses we can detect in this way are not infectious to others, as they have been destroyed by our guts.”
However, it is worth noting that some research concludes that viruses, which are similar to SARS-CoV-2, might persist in feces. A recent research letter in JAMA also concludes that SARS-CoV-2 is present in feces.
20. The virus will die off when temperatures rise in the spring
Some viruses, such as cold and flu viruses, do spread more easily in the colder months, but that does not mean that they stop entirely when conditions become milder. As it stands, scientists do not know how temperature changes will influence the behavior of SARS-CoV-2.
21. Coronavirus is the deadliest virus known to man
Although SARS-CoV-2 does appear to be more serious than influenza, it is not the deadliest virus that people have faced. Others, such as Ebola, have higher mortality rates.
22. Flu and pneumonia vaccines protect against COVID-19
As SARS-CoV-2 is different than other viruses, no existing vaccines protect against infection.
23. The virus originated in a laboratory in China
Despite the swathes of internet rumors, there is no evidence that this is the case. In fact, a recent study demonstrates that the virus is a natural product of evolution.
Some researchers believe that SARS-CoV-2 may have jumped from pangolins to humans. Others think that it might have passed to us from bats, which was the case for SARS.
24. The outbreak began because people ate bat soup
Although scientists are confident that the virus started in animals, there is no evidence that it came from soup of any kind.
25. 5G helps SARS-CoV-2 spread
As the world becomes more connected, some regions are rolling out fifth-generation (5G) mobile technology. A raft of conspiracy theories appears wherever this technology sets foot.
One of the most recent theories to emerge is that 5G is responsible for the swift spread of SARS-CoV-2 across the globe.
Some individuals claim that 5G can help viruses communicate and often reference a paper published in 2011. In this study, the authors conclude that bacteria can communicate via electromagnetic signals. However, experts dispute this theory, and SARS-CoV-2 is a virus, not a bacterium.
Wuhan was one of the first cities to trial 5G in China, which helps explain the origin of some of these theories. However, Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou also rolled out 5G at a similar time. It is also worth noting that COVID-19 has significantly impacted countries with very little 5G coverage, such as Iran.
Where’s the information coming from?
Many people write about science, or information related to science, but not everyone who does has been trained how to properly evaluate evidence, interpret jargon or report on statistics in the way that some specialist science journalists have. Stay mindful that information from the original source (most likely a research study) could have been reinterpreted, modified and even ignored altogether depending on the point the person writing wants to get across. If you can find a reference or link to the original research in the story you are reading then it’s probably a good sign that the person writing it actually understands or has questioned the original work. Depending on the nature of the claim, you should check whether it’s also being reported in other media outlets. Chances are that if it really is a “breakthrough” discovery then many other outlets will be reporting the same thing. If it’s a lone WhatsApp message with a certain claim with no evidence, then you should think twice. Because media business models are based on attention economics, bad actors create mal-information (which includes fake news, misinformation and disinformation) about the coronavirus in order to get people to attend to their content, and ultimately make money from that attention. Money is the primary motivation. A second motivation is partisanship and partisans try to lay blame for the crisis with political opponents. The third main motivation is seeking to disrupt and confuse the public. This was the Russian election interference motivation for mal-information and remains their objective along with some other hostile state actors.
Who’s backing up the claim?
Ideally, reports of new scientific research should include comments from the study authors as well as an independent comment from someone in a related discipline who was not involved in the work. That’s not always the case though, and just because someone is a scientist doesn’t mean that they’re qualified to comment on the work as they may not have had training or experience in that specific topic area.
During the COVID-19 pandemic there’s been a lot of “I’m not a virologist or epidemiologist but…” so be aware of scientists in unrelated disciplines being elevated to positions of authority. Other questions to ask yourself are whether the quoted sources have a conflict of interest or stand to benefit in any way from what they’re saying. Are they affiliated with an organization that could be swaying them to comment one way or another?
Which all modes are being used to spread fake information?
1. Text messages attributed to various officials falsely claim cities will go into complete shutdown. Authorities have since clarified that the information is not true.
2. Another fake message claiming to be connected to the UN is spreading hoax claims about a quarantine. The National Security Council has said that those rumors are false.
3. Hoax audio claiming to be from someone with sources at the Pentagon has spread online and across group chats. It mirrors the hoax texts attributed to other authorities, which have since been disavowed.
4. US authorities have been cracking down on fake cures for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — including colloidal silver, vitamins, teas, and essential oils. None of these are approved treatments or preventative measures against the disease.
5. Beware of emails purporting to be from HR departments, executives, and health organizations. Hackers have been using the virus to access computers and steal credentials.
6. A viral post claiming your stomach acid will kill the coronavirus if you drink enough water has some very bad advice, according to various experts.
7. A YouTube video with nearly half a million views falsely and dangerously said that inhaling hot air from a hairdryer can help cure the coronavirus. Inhaling hot air will not thwart COVID-19.
Why do people believe in fake news?
When people are fearful they seek information to reduce uncertainty. This can lead people to believe information that may be wrong or deceptive because it helps make them feel better, or allows them to place blame about what’s happening. This is often why conspiracy theories become so prominent. Again, the best antidote here is subscribing to a reputable news service.
How to avoid fake news?
The best prevention advice is to avoid exposure by practicing social distancing, washing your hands regularly, and avoiding touching your face, mouth, and eyes. If you feel ill, seek medical attention. And instead of relying on viral chain letters, consult the CDC, the World Health Organization, or the real coronavirus advice being offered by Stanford Medicine.
It’s important to check health-related information from established news sources rather than from shared stories in social media. A subscription to any reputable news organization is highly recommended, though many news sites (e.g., the New York Times) are offering free access to coronavirus related news.
Compared to real news, fake news tends to include information that is more surprising, upsetting or geared to trigger anger or anxiety. Any information that fits that (and a lot of coronavirus news can) should be double-checked. Other cues that should raise suspicion include unknown sources, unusual numbers of endorsements (or likes) and memes that focus on partisan topics. These are some telltale signs people can look for when trying to discern fake versus real information online.
The immediate solution here has to come from the media platforms to remove this content and prevent mal-information from spreading on their platforms. This is an important responsibility that they simply cannot shirk. Longer-term, people need to be aware of these forms of mal-information, ensuring they check their sources and get their news from authoritative and reputable news services.
The final note: Embracing uncertainty – responsibly.
This virus was only identified in December 2019, so there has been little time to investigate it properly, let alone conduct large-scale randomized controlled trials or peer review so there is still a great deal we don’t fully understand about COVID-19.
Add to this that the fact that science itself is a process that takes time and sometimes studies will present contradictory evidence (which is okay). Any good science journalist will endeavor to give you the most accurate representation of which way the evidence is swaying but would caution against making statements such as “scientific evidence proves that…” so be skeptical of anything that makes such claims.