Covid-19 rumors, stigma and conspiracy theory have spread in 25 languages from at least 87 countries: Study

For example, messages inaccurately claimed that consuming highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the virus was circulating in different parts of the world


                            Covid-19 rumors, stigma and conspiracy theory have spread in 25 languages from at least 87 countries: Study
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Covid-19 misinformation in the form of rumors, stigma and conspiracy theories has spread in 25 languages from at least 87 countries, including the US. These unfounded reports may have also led to injuries and even deaths, according to a new study. 

An international group of researchers from Australia, Japan, Bangladesh and Thailand analyzed misinformation posted on online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and also on newspapers between December 31, 2019, and April 5, 2020. They also studied the scars left behind by Covid-19-linked rumors, stigma and conspiracy theories on public health.

Rumors, stigma and conspiracy theories have the potential to erode trust in governments and public health experts. Worse, they can cost lives too. For example, messages inaccurately claimed that consuming highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the virus was circulating in different parts of the world. "Following this misinformation, approximately 800 people have died, whereas 5,876 have been hospitalized, and 60 have developed complete blindness after drinking methanol as a cure of coronavirus," the researchers wrote in their study.

Such instances have emerged during public health emergencies in the past. In 2019, misinformation on the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo was linked to violence, mistrust, social disturbances and targeted attacks on healthcare providers. The 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, which originated in China, led to social stigma against Asians. Stigmatization could keep people from getting medical help, thereby contributing to community transmission.

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In this study, the team defined rumors as unverified information that was either true, fabricated, or inaccurate after vetting. Some examples include eating garlic, keeping the throat moist, avoiding spicy food and taking vitamins C and D to help prevent the disease.

Stigma is discrimination against a particular community or health workers. A conspiracy theory, according to researchers, is "defined as explanatory beliefs about an individual or group of people working in secret to reaching malicious goals." One of the theories suggested that Covid-19 was a bioweapon created by international agencies. To understand the scale of misinformation circulating across the world, a team of social scientists, medical doctors and epidemiologists gathered and reviewed data from social media and news platforms. From their analysis, the researches identified 2,311 reports connected to the Covid-19 infodemic in 25 languages from 87 countries. Of them, 89% were rumors, 7.8% were conspiracy theories and 3.5% were stigma.

About 24% of reports were related to illness, transmission and mortality, 21% to control interventions, 19% to treatment and cure, 15% to the cause of disease, including the origin, 1% to violence and 20% to miscellaneous. Most of the rumors, stigma and conspiracy theories were traced back to India, US, China, Spain, Indonesia and Brazil, the researchers said. Commenting on the situation, the chief editor of Taiwan FactCheck Center said: "Throughout this whole epidemic, people have liked conspiracy theories... Why is it that during epidemics, people don’t choose to believe accurate scientific information?"

The study is published in The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

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