Study finds online ‘infodemic’ caused hundreds of Covid-19 deaths

At least 800 people have died around the world as a result of coronavirus-related misinformation in the first three months of this year, a newly-published scientific study has found.  The paper published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, says that over 5,800 more were hospitalised as a result of false information they had seen on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and chat apps like WhatsApp.  The study’s authors echoed statements from the World Health Organization (WHO) that the “infodemic” surrounding Covid-19 spread just as quickly as the virus itself, with conspiracy theories, rumours and cultural stigma all contributing to deaths and injuries.

False information costs lives

Many of the deaths were the result of drinking methanol and alcohol-based cleaning products, wrongly believing them to be a cure for coronavirus. But following advice that resembles credible medical information – such as eating large quantities of garlic, drinking cow urine, or ingesting large quantities of vitamins – as a way of preventing infection has “potentially serious implications”, the authors say.

The paper concludes that it’s the responsibility of international agencies, governments and social media platforms to fight back against this “infodemic”, but tech companies have been criticised for their slow and patchy response. In the UK, law to regulate online harm might be several years away. The BBC’s own investigations found links to assaults, arsons and deaths as a result of misinformation about the virus, and spoke to doctors, experts and victims of their experiences.

Conspiracy threat to Covid-19 vaccine

And as vaccines emerge, there is the further threat that anti-vaccine campaigners will use the platform provided by social media to persuade people not to protect themselves. Despite social media companies removing or labelling misleading information about vaccines, recent polling in the United States showed that 28% of Americans believe that Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to implant microchips in people. The achievement of an effective coronavirus vaccine could be completely undermined by misinformation, doctors told the BBC’s anti-disinformation team.

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