Coronavirus conspiracy theories and social media rumours linked to 800 deaths worldwide

The study found misinformation, rumours and conspiracy theories were being spread in 25 different languages across 87 different countries.

Coronavirus in Brazil: What You Need to Know

A coronavirus victim is buried in Brazil, one of the countries singled out in new research examining the spread of misinformation. Source: The New York Times

Coronavirus conspiracy theories spread on social media in dozens of different languages have been linked to hundreds of deaths across the globe, a new study has found.

The study, published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, found approximately 800 people had died and 5,800 had been hospitalised due to COVID-19 misinformation spread online.

It found misinformation, rumours and conspiracy theories were being spread in 25 different languages across 87 different countries.

"Infodemics, often including rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories, have been common during the COVID-19 pandemic," the authors wrote.

"Monitoring social media data has been identified as the best method for tracking rumours in real-time and as a possible way to dispel misinformation and reduce stigma."

The World Health Organization has recently sounded the alarm about the "infodemic" associated with the global coronavirus crisis.

"The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ - 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," the WHO wrote in February.

Workers arranging cardboard beds inside a coronavirus care centre in India, another country referenced in the new study.
Source: AFP

The new study analysed more than 2,000 reports of rumours and conspiracy theories spread on social media between 31 December 2019 and 5 April 2020.

Brazil, China, India, the United States and Indonesia were singled out as countries where conspiracy theories and harmful misinformation seemed to originate. 

Examples of misinformation identified by the study included chicken eggs being contaminated with COVID-19 and that drinking bleach could kill the virus.

"Rumours can mask themselves as credible infection prevention and control strategies and have potentially serious implications if prioritised over evidence-based guidelines," the study read. 

"For example, a popular myth that consumption of highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the virus was circulating in different parts of the world."

The authors said some 60 people have developed "complete blindness" after drinking methanol in response to contact with online misinformation.

Misinformation and rumours were most commonly related to the transmission of COVID-19, control measures used to contain the pandemic, treatments for the virus and the origin of the outbreak.

"Misinformation fuelled by rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories can have potentially serious implications on the individual and community if prioritised over evidence-based guidelines," the authors wrote.

"Health agencies must track misinformation associated with the COVID-19 in real-time, and engage local communities and government stakeholders to debunk misinformation."

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If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus


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Published 13 August 2020 at 4:24pm, updated 13 August 2020 at 4:33pm
By SBS News