Fake News and COVID-19: What to Believe


Author: Jessica Irvine

Unfortunately, while the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, it also must deal with the “infodemic” of harmful, intentionally incorrect information circulating the internet. This information is incredibly relevant and destructive to the response to COVID-19, leaving many citizens confused, misled, afraid, and potentially in danger of inflicting harm. Fake news can take many forms from baseless home-remedies promising to cure the virus to fear-invoking “intel” on military movements. Fake news can often be difficult to differentiate from real, factually correct information. This article will highlight fake news in the media, provide reputable sources, and present factual information so that you can decipher through the abundant information and stay safe.

How Does Fake News Spread?

To start, it is important to outline how fake news relative to COVID-19 has been spreading. We previously mentioned an infodemic, and the meaning is reflected in the name: a pandemic of misinformation. Just as a virus can travel quickly all around the world, false information can do the same but even more easily and quickly due to technology like social media. Specifically, there has been an increase in mass message forwarding on apps like WhatsApp, leading to the increasingly fast and far-reaching dissemination of false information. Similarly, fake news spreads rapidly on Facebook, even though they recently pledged to eliminate intentional misinformation. Despite this, Facebook refuses to remove groups that defy social distancing orders because they are not explicitly outlawed, even though Facebook’s misinformation pledge suggests that they should. There has also been a large surge of fake news in media that is used predominantly by young people, such as Twitter and TikTok.

            The spread of misinformation can also be tied to politics. When President Trump currently speaks to the public about COVID-19, he often presents incorrect information as if it is factual and contradicts specialists like Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. When contrasting information is presented from multiple sources that the public assumes are credible, confusion over who to believe is logically the consequence.

Another political component is international relations. Countries known to have promoted fake news against the United States include China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Some of the misinformation spreading may be purposeful and carefully implemented to play off of rumors and conspiracies as part of a political ruse to affect public opinion.

            Misinformation may be spreading because of a general public feeling of distrust towards scientists. From a 2013 poll, only 36% of people said that they generally trust what scientists say as being reliable and accurate. 57% of people said that they trusted them very little or not at all. This feeling likely has not diminished all that much with the previously mentioned disagreement between President Trump and scientists.

Fake Cures, Preventative Care, and Testing

            Several different medications and home remedies have circulated the media claiming to prevent, cure, or worsen COVID-19. Some of these include Advil, Vitamin C, garlic water, boiling water, colloidal silver, Vitamin D, and essential oils. Every one of these remedies has been promoted without evidence of its efficacy. The most prominent fake news remedies will be broken down below:                        

            – Advil is a common anti-inflammatory that the average person takes for pain. Information circulated that taking Advil worsened symptoms or outcomes of COVID-19, however, the WHO has issued a statement that there is no evidence that Advil has any negative effect on COVID-19.

            – Vitamin C is thought of as an immune booster, meaning that it may help your immunity  through decreasing inflammation, promoting wound healing, and increasing specific types of cells involved in the immune response. The Shanghai Medical Association believes that very high doses of intravenous Vitamin C may improve lung function in patients that already have COVID, however, there is no evidence that Vitamin C will prevent or cure COVID-19. Zinc is an additional unvetted vitamin promised to cure COVID-19.

Garlic water, boiling water, drinking large amounts of water, and breathing in hot air are all baseless folk remedies that have arisen from mass messaging, voice messages, and circulating images that are in no authoritative or credible format. These often take the form of YouTube videos and screenshots of information that a “physician or important individual they know” told them.

            – Colloidal silver and other “cures” have been sold at the hands of trusted community leaders, like Pastor Jim Bakker. In every case, there is no evidence that these remedies have any effect on the virus. U.S. authorities have increased their response to these con artists.

            Health authorities like WHO disregard all of these claims and maintain that social distancing, masks, hand washing, and avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth are best practices for prevention. They also state that there is no cure for the virus, nor a vaccine at this time.

Fake, especially non-FDA approved imported COVID-19 personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing kits have also been circulating on the internet. Phony PPE has become a widespread issue during the pandemic, with the Governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy acknowledging its severity during one of the states’ daily coronavirus press meetings in March. The CDC has recommended using specific N95 FDA/NIOSH approved face masks for the best protection against the virus. Unfortunately, with the shortage of masks from reputable sources and the high demand for these masks, many retailers have begun selling masks that have been made to resemble the approved masks. These masks look, but do not function, the same as the approved masks and are often sold at high prices. These fakes have the same general shape and include false FDA approval numbers, making them difficult for the common person to identify. However, the CDC has put together a list of approved masks and signs (with photos) to identify counterfeit masks accessible here. Similarly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has identified several fake in-home test kits being marketed that may pose potential health risks to citizens. The FDA maintains that there are currently no authorized home-tests available for purchase and identifies these fake tests as potential barriers to seek medical attention for those who may be infected.

Who Gets COVID-19 and How Bad Is It

            In the beginning of the outbreak, many young people appeared unfazed by the virus, continuing to go outside, and maintaining that the virus only infects older individuals. Another popular notion is that only immunocompromised individuals can become ill. These thoughts lead some to question why social distancing is being enforced as at-risk individuals could just stay home instead of enforcing everyone to do so. Importantly, these assumptions are contradicted by actual data on cases and deaths from COVID-19. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been 1,412,121 total cases as of May 15 and 85,990 deaths attributable to COVID-19. Looking at the age breakdown of these cases, approximately 420,000 cases have been observed in the 18-44 and 390,000 in the 45-64 age groups. Less than 50,000 cases have been observed in the 0-17 age group, 118,000 in the 65- 74 group, and 139,000 in the 75+ age group. This data directly contradicts the widespread idea that COVID-19 is an older person’s disease. As for individuals that are immunocompromised and have comorbidities, they do have an increased risk of infection from COVID-19 due to their weaker immune system. The CDC identifies high risk groups for severe illness from COVID-19 to be those 65+, those that are immunocompromised (due to HIV, cancer, organ transplantation, etc.), and individuals with chronic lung disease, serious heart conditions, severe obesity, diabetes, liver disease, and chronic kidney disease. Data on the prevalence of immunocompromised individuals is not readily available in the U.S.

            Another concept to question surrounding COVID-19 is that this virus is similar in severity to the flu. Over the course of the outbreak, President Trump has repeatedly compared COVID-19 to the common flu, asserting that more Americans die from the flu than COVID-19. He uses this comparison to critique the shutdown, noting that the country doesn’t shut down for the common flu. Scientific American looked into President Trump’s statement to examine the truth in this comparison. Their main findings were that the way that flu cases and deaths are reported is inherently flawed, explaining that the number of deaths attributed to the flu are not actually a count, but an estimate. The CDC multiplies the actual number of deaths by coefficients generated from a complex algorithm that is based on assumptions for how many cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are thought to be unreported. The researchers at Scientific American could not find sufficient evidence to justify the highly inflated estimation of unreported cases. Within the category of deaths attributable to the flu, deaths attributable to pneumonia are also included, however, pneumonia is not the same as the flu. The flu is a highly contagious viral infection, while pneumonia is an infection or inflammation of the lungs, commonly caused by the flu. A more accurate comparison would be to compare the actual number of attributable deaths from each disease in a set period of time. Thus, current comparisons of COVID-19 to the flu should be examined with caution.

Origin of the Coronavirus

            There has been a significant amount of confusion surrounding the origin of the current novel coronavirus, from ideas of a spill over event from a zoonotic disease to theories implying that the virus was synthesized in a Chinese lab and introduced either by accident or with malicious intent. Many times, these theories are presented very factually even when they have not yet been thoroughly vetted or proven. COVID-19 is thought to be the result of a spillover event from some kind of animal originally from a bat, because other coronaviruses have been demonstrated to do so and the genetics matches. Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning that they transfer from animals to humans, and probably visa versa. SARS and MERS were thought to originate in bats. In Wuhan, the ‘wet market,’ which is an open air food market that sells wild animals, was connected to the first few pneumonia-like cases reported in China. The notion that COVID-19 originated in this market stems from the very similar outbreak of SARS a few years prior and the knowledge that the conditions in which these animals are interacting at the market can act as a breeding ground for viruses to develop and spread. In opposition to this theory, Chinese experts published an article in the Lancet showing that the first known COVID-19 patient and one third of the first cluster of patients had no connection to the market.

            The theory of the synthesized virus stems from the presence of a lab in Wuhan, China. This lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is the only lab of its kind in China that is BSL-4, meaning that it is authorized to handle substances requiring the highest degree of containment, including novel coronaviruses. This lab is 300 feet away from the market that the virus was hypothesized to be transmitted from. Additionally, this laboratory was previously identified by the U.S. to be in violation of safety regulations while working on coronaviruses from bats two years prior. This leads individuals to believe that COVID-19 is a result of a mistake in this lab via a breach in security of some sort or improper disposal of test animals to the market. President Trump has been a large advocate for this blame theory.

            Finally, after several months of the outbreak, scientists seem to have gathered evidence from genetic sequencing that identifies the most probable origin. In an article published by Scientific American, Shi Zhengli, a virologist that focuses on viruses in bats, details how she and her team used genomic sequencing, antibody testing of blood samples, and other techniques to determine that a bat was COVID-19’s reservoir. The article poses that humans did not get the virus from the bat, but possibly through an intermediary animal such as a pangolin. In a study published in Nature Medicine, the genomic evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2, the agent, was not purposefully manipulated, and assert that no laboratory-based scenario is plausible, even though they acknowledge that this is not yet provable. In contrast, Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley, points out that while the virus does not appear to be manipulated, this does not mean that it could not have accidently come from the lab given the subject of its previous research.

The U.S Government’s Role

            Throughout the outbreak, various parts of the U.S. government have been the subject of fake news. The first topic of misinformation revolves around the current state of the WHO. Several media outlets report that the WHO is in shambles and President Trump discredits the WHO by pledging to reduce funding. Part of the misinformation surrounding the WHO relies on the lack of knowledge on how the WHO operates, leading to misunderstandings in the WHO’s abilities and responsibilities. The WHO is not capable of issuing regulations or laws to abide by. It only functions to provide opinions or suggestions on what responses to make for the current crisis. The fact is that the WHO issued a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and disaster declaration late (in retrospect). These statements are helpful to direct global attention to an outbreak. However, it is up to individual countries to interpret and act on these declarations. Several scientists have deemed the delay sensible as more information was needed to take further action. In contrast, many others criticize this inaction and other actions by the WHO as critical mistakes. Critiques of the WHO have remarked on the apparent favoritism shown to China over the United States, with praises of China’s response to the outbreak early on in stark contrast to the WHO’s strong disagreement with Trump’s self-promoting travel ban. This may explain why President Trump is trying to stop funding the WHO.

            Another prevalent rumor regarding the United States government was that President Trump was going to invoke the Stafford Act and Marshall law in mid-March. The Stafford Act is short for the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, passed in 1988. It allows the federal government to provide technical, financial, and logistical support to states and localities that have determined they cannot respond to an emergency event at the state or local level. It gives the President capability to accelerate federal assistance to areas with the highest need by accessing the billions of dollars in the Disaster Relief Fund. These funds can only be used for funding activities in response to the disaster as outlined in the act. Now that it is May, President Trump clearly did not evoke such an act. Experts in the area of cyber security and terrorism found that messages providing this information converged with known Russian terrorism tactics. There have been similar rumors regarding Marshall law, which allows for temporary military authority instead of civil rule in a time of emergency. While many Guard personnel across the United States were called into action in mid-March, Marshall Law was never declared. The California Governor Gavin Newsom even explicitly stated in a press release that martial law was not necessary to combat COVID-19. Amid rumors storming social media claiming to have top-secret intel on Marshall Law enactment, Florida Senator Marco Rubio took to Twitter to plead with users to stop retweeting and spreading false information regarding Marshall Law.

            In this unprecedented time, it is easy to feel panicked, fearful, and confused even without the presence of fake news. Unfortunately, the media perpetuates the rapid dissemination of information and misinformation becomes treated and accepted as fact due to high rates of retweets and mass message forwarding. Being aware of the presence of fake news pertaining to COVID-19, being cautious of new information you encounter, and relying on reputable sources will be the most beneficial tools to protecting yourself and staying safe during this pandemic.


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