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Infectious Diseases

Updated 17 August 2020

Study shows coronavirus conspiracy theories and fake news can have severe consequences

New research has proven that misinformation can be dangerous, especially during a pandemic.

  • As Covid-19 spreads, so do misinformation and rumours
  • Not only can these types of news cause mental health and anxiety, but also bodily harm
  • In some cases, false medical information has had fatal consequences

During the coronavirus pandemic, an underlying danger continues to be the spread of fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories.

A new paper, published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, investigates the phenomenon that experts now refer to as an “infodemic” – where an overload of misinformation, fake news, rumours and conspiracy theories is causing significant harm and affecting more than mental health. Misinformation on so-called “treatments” and preventative measures can cause physical harm and even death. 

Danger fuelled by harmful reports

In this new research, a team of infectious disease experts examined social media platforms and news websites to monitor misinformation on Covid-19.

They found over 2 300 reports containing potentially harmful Covid-19 related statements, rumours, conspiracy theories and misinformation.

In the paper, the study authors cited a popular myth that consuming concentrated alcohol will “kill off” the virus.

Earlier in the pandemic, Health24 reported on several snippets of misinformation, often in the form of voice notes, that circulated around South Africa. In other parts of the world, similar pieces of misinformation ended up causing actual injury and death.

"Following this misinformation, approximately 800 people have died, while 5 876 have been hospitalised and 60 developed complete blindness after drinking methanol as a 'cure' for coronavirus,” the researchers reported. This occurred in Iran, but similar incidents took place in Turkey and India.

Not all misinformation is as deadly, but it's still worrying, as it’s freely available on several platforms – which is the key problem, the researchers stated.

Why do people feel a need to spread conspiracy theories?

Many studies have been done examining the psyches of those who believe in conspiracy theories. A previous Health24 article addressed the psychology behind these theories. 

Research has found that the need to believe in conspiracy theories and alternative viewpoints all stem from a need to take control in an uncertain environment; distrust in governments and authority; and even narcissism.

And even though conspiracy theories don’t always cause physical harm, they can have a detrimental effect on mental health.

What can be done about fake news?

According to the researchers, the study had certain limitations – for example, they didn’t follow up on the misinformation or establish the exact number of people who believed in a specific conspiracy theory or fake report.

However, they state that there is concrete evidence that misinformation can have severe consequences and should be tracked in real-time by health authorities and governing bodies to be debunked as soon as possible.

READ | Coronavirus conspiracies abound, and they could cause real harm 

READ | FAKE NEWS on WhatsApp: Coronavirus, doctors from Vienna and "killer" Ibuprofen

READ | Increasing your Covid-19 knowledge may lessen pandemic-related stress

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