London, United Kingdom – The theories have spread almost as fast as the new coronavirus: Chloroquine is a proven cure, children are immune and 5G caused the pandemic.
From the seemingly plausible to the predictably untrue, fake news about COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is flooding the internet as we scramble to make sense of a crisis that has wrought havoc around the world.
Unchecked, this so-called “infodemic” threatens to hamper the world’s collective best efforts to curtail the coronavirus, which has killed more than 115,000 people in a little more than 100 days since news of its emergence in Wuhan, China, consumed the world’s media.
“Were we to view this [pandemic] as a conflict, then we could talk about two fronts,” Carl Miller, research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at United Kingdom-based think-tank Demos, told Al Jazeera.
‘So much misinformation’
While millions of us remain cooped up in our homes under strict lockdown laws, on WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere, a range of bogus stories and half-baked conspiracy theories concerning COVID-19 have gained considerable global momentum.
“The first is the public health reaction, and the second front are the waves of social and political chaos that have been caused by the virus and our response to it – this is a key battle on that front.”
In the UK alone, nearly half of all adults have been exposed to false claims or misleading information online about the virus, according to research published last week by the country’s media watchdog, Ofcom.
Some 35 percent have seen claims that drinking more water can help flush out the disease, for example, while around a quarter have seen advice suggesting the infection can be treated by gargling salt water – both of which have been rubbished by the World Health Organisation and contradict UK public health guidelines.
Among those to have personally witnessed the pernicious advance of misinformation is Ahmed Aweis, a business owner in London, itself the epicentre of Britain’s coronavirus caseload.
For weeks, he has seen fake news spread freely on WhatsApp and Facebook.
Towards the end of March, Aweis said, up to 25 videos a day spouting mistruths were being shared across a handful of his online groups of friends and relatives – all while COVID-19 tightened its grip on swathes of Western Europe.
Despite his best efforts to rebut the claims, “everybody was just sharing stuff left, right and centre”, he said, including content that purportedly proved coronavirus was man-made, or caused by the rollout of 5G mobile technology.
“It was frightening and infuriating because you know this information is false, but the people who are sharing it have the confidence this will help or save humanity – and other people pick up on that,” Aweis told Al Jazeera.
“I am very, very worried; there is so much misinformation being spouted around.”