Covid-19: anatomy of a pandemic of hoaxes
Locks, door handles, bolts, doorknobs, padlocks, fences. All of these have opened just a very little over recent months. They have shut in millions of households to prevent Covid-19, a virus which has kept the world in check since late 2019. Millions of people have had to settle for peering out from windows, balconies and courtyards to get a little glimpse of the sky. But people have connected with the outside world mainly through other windows. Televisions, but above all mobiles and tablets, have been the constant lookouts atop the cliffs of the pandemic.
Through these screens, via these social media platforms and other channels such as WhatsApp, another virus has spread, and is still doing so: disinformation. What are the outbreaks? How does false information arise? Who spreads it? Can we avoid becoming inured to liess? What are the symptoms of this disinformation virus? What form does community transmission take? How can we avoid catching it? Is there an antidote, or will we have to learn to live with the disinformation virus?
Here we dissect the outbreaks and chains of transmission of a pandemic of hoaxes threatening online health.
The outbreak of origin
There are various hoaxes which make up this outbreak. No, coronavirus was not created by Bill Gates so as to take over the world, nor does it have anything to do with 5G mobile networks. Nor, of course, is it of extraterrestial origin, nor a prehistoric virus which has spread because of Arctic thawing. The initial uncertainties as the origin of the virus fueled this outbreak, and months later if remains active.
The outbreak of prevention
In the 21st century, shamans still exist. They spread hoaxes which purport to offer a panacea against coronavirus: claiming that you can avoid infection by eating guava, drinking hot drinks, gargling, following an alkaline diet, eating garlic, drinking bleach, adding chili powder to meals, washing your hands with children’s urine… None of this has any basis.
The outbreak of transmission
Scientific information about how the virus spreads was limited and uncertain at the start of the pandemic, which fueled the fire of lies such as that infection could spread by mosquito bites, flies… and even farts. There was also considerable confusion as to whether the virus would spread more depending on heat and humidity, but the WHO confirmed that transmission occurs in all types of climate.
The outbreak of treatment
On a scenario in which the scientific community, despite its greatest efforts, has still not found a cure or even a vaccine for Covid-19, any rumors and hoaxes doing the rounds about treatment will generate hope, false hope, for many people in need. There has been much talk of the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, substances used in treatment of other diseases which are being studied as to their potential use against Covid-19. But the process of drug approval is slow, and self-medication can be very dangerous, or sometimes fatal.
The outbreak of cases
Hoaxes and gossip combine to create the most lurid disinformation about who does and does not have the famed virus. This has affected numerous public figures, but there is also a more societal and xenophobic facet, accusing immigrants of introducing the virus among certain populations, and of devastating hospitals.
The outbreak of denial
Covid-19 exists. Could anyone deny this after more than 30,8 million cases and over 957,000 deaths according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus map? Well yes, some people do, although not that many. What is more common, and hence more dangerous, is trivialization, which at the outset of the pandemic included public, political and health authorities, when they attempted to assuage the population by claiming that the illness was similar to the flu. It was later that evidence demonstrated that this was not the case – it is worse. Now that this has been confirmed, the rumors and denials focus on methods of prevention: that face masks can cause hypoxemia (lack of oxygen in the body), cancer, that they damage the immune system, that PCR tests (to detect infection) do not work, that the vaccines they are attempting to research will make no sense… Anti-vaccine and anti-facemask activists have joined forces. This outbreak includes the spread of a video by the self-proclaimed “Doctors for Truth”. Why is it that here, as in other cases, those spreading lies add “for truth” after their name?
The political outbreak
The coronavirus crisis is not merely a medical issue, but also has an educational, economic, social, cultural and, of course, political dimension. The situation is being exploited to attack governments and parties, at the local, regional and national levels, and also in international relations. A Reuters Institute study into disinformation in the time of coronavirus indicates that political hoaxes about the measures taken by governments and the WHO are the most common. Further research into Covid-19 published in the journal El Profesional de la Información and conducted by academics at the Universidad de Navarra reaches the conclusion that in Spain political and governmental hoaxes are again among the most common.
We must stay alert, because these outbreaks will be followed by others. But the crucial question is: How do they spread? What makes them viral?
The chains of transmission
Various studies confirm WhatsApp to be the platform most commonly involved in the viral spread of hoaxes, and also where it is most difficult to reconstruct and break the chain of transmission. This has happened with coronavirus, and had happened in the past. More measures will be needed to stop the spread. Some platforms are now addressing the issue of fake news with warnings as to false content, while social media remains a battlefield, and many believe that more needs to be done.
Disinformation has a massive impact when the authorities are involved in its propagation. This is the conclusion of research by experts from the UOC published in the journal Misinformation Review, analyzing the viral spread of false information about the adverse effects of Ibuprofen in treating coronavirus. Prestigious epidemiologists refuted these claimed effects of coronavirus, but the fact that the French Ministry of Health began the chain, followed by other authorities and media outlets echoing the assertion, meant that many people believed it. Public authorities and the WHO itself have also been involved in this widespread confusion when aiming to provide information about matters that remained unknown, and which scientific research has subsequently refuted: for example, it was initially stated that facemasks were not a valid means of prevention; that young children were superspreaders and that the effects of coronavirus were similar to a case of flu.
Considered almost as 21st-century gods among young people, a kind of Delphic oracle reborn, when influencers predict, many of their faithful accept their discourse and advice. Over 12,000 retweets spread the impact of a video in which an influencer published by VICE claimed that drinking semen could prevent Covid-19. The assertion is a striking one, but completely false. A Reuters Institute study indicates that most of the misinformation during the early days of coronavirus came from common or garden Internet users, and had little impact. Only 20% came from politicians, celebrities and influencers, but their hoaxes accounted for 69% of engagement on social media. However, influencers can also help to spread certificated information and combat disinformation.
Fake medical staff
You will undoubtedly have received some YouTube video, a WhatsApp message or a Facebook post supposedly from a doctor or nurse. Be very suspicious of such messages. Another study has established that coronavirus hoaxes in Spain have above all been spread by impersonators (38%) claiming to be either scientific or institutional figures, or by anonymous sources (36%).
Cocktails of truths and lies
There are hundreds of ways, some sophisticated and others more straightforward, to deceive the population via the Internet, and above all social media. The most common approach is to blend truthful aspects with others which have been manipulated or made up. The Reuters study indicates that these half-truths and half-lies (referred to in the study as “reconfigured content”) spread much more effectively, and with much more engagement, than completely fabricated content.
Fear... and hatred
As we all know, fear is a powerful accelerator, propagator, and a poor companion. As are hatred and xenophobia. Many are taking advantage of the situation of vulnerability and fear among the population to use manipulation and lies so as to spread certain political ideas, hatred towards certain groups that they accuse of introducing and spreading coronavirus, as well as mistrust towards public authorities and certain political parties.
Our own prejudices, of course
Sometimes it is our own brain that is deceiving us. We believe what we want to believe, what fits in with our political or other ideas. This is known as “confirmation bias” and is a psychological phenomenon which makes us predisposed to believe certain hoaxes. There are psychological explanations as to what makes us vulnerable to disinformation, and how these weaknesses function, as compiled by First Draft in the series of articles The Psychology of Misinformation.
And once the outbreaks and chains of transmission of the disinformation virus are known, how can we protect ourselves? Turning to reliable sources and checking information are two key strategies to avoid infection. For access to quality information, these FAQs about coronavirus compiled by the WHO may be of use, along with the document What we know now about Covid-19, published by the same organization.
Local, regional, national and supranational authorities, such as the European Union, are also providing medical information which may be of use. Fact-checkers have likewise listed hoaxes about coronavirus to raise the alarm: these include such sources as Newtral, Verificat, Maldita, EFE Verifica and AFP Factual in Spanish. There is also this database including hoaxes detected by fact-checkers in 70 countries.
As with Covid-19, the disinformation virus will still be out there. And in this case, washing your hands is no use. Media education and digital verification, alongside individual and collective responsibility, represent the best means of prevention.