Factually: Here are some harmful COVID-19 hoaxes

Desperate for protection against COVID-19, some people are acting on dangerous misinformation they’ve found online. Fact-checkers need help sharing the articles that debunk the most life-threatening hoaxes. And all authorities should get involved too.

In Tunisia and other Arabic-speaking countries, and in North Macedonia and Greece, the dangerous idea of gargling with Betadine — a topical antiseptic — to avoid COVID-19 has gone viral. Fact-checkers have repeatedly debunked this information and warned that it can harm the mouth, tongue, lips and throat.

On March 14, worried about the spread of the new virus in India, a group of 200 Hindus gathered in Delhi for a cow urine drinking party. Yes — you read that right.

For religious reasons (and following viral posts), the group met to share Gomutra (cow urine). They believed it could prevent or cure the new coronavirus, ignoring fact-checks published in India and messages from health authorities. There is no evidence that cow urine has anti-viral properties and, even though it is primarily water, it can contain harmful substances if the animal was exposed to chemical residues.

Arbidol, a Soviet-era drug, is the third in this list of popular and dangerous hoaxes because its users have a false sense of security. Politicians and digital influencers in Italy helped spread  this Russian anti-flu drug found in pharmacies as a prevention or miracle cure for COVID-19. Arbidol, however, has not been approved for use in Europe or in the United States. In 2007, the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences found this substance to be “obsolete with unproven effectiveness.”

How about pure alcohol? Yes. People are drinking that too, believing it could prevent COVID-19. According to the Iranian Tasnim News Agency, at least 2,197 people have been poisoned by alcohol across Iran since February, when the first cases of coronavirus was reported there. A total of 244 people had already died from this.

And what has been the goal for fact-checkers in a situation where hoaxes can be immediately dangerous or falsely reassure people? The fact-checking community should (and is) prioritizing the questions that seem most dangerous and sharing their conclusions about them as quickly as possible.

Some fact-checking organizations, however, receive more than 2,000 queries per day from readers hungry for accurate information. Counting only on fact-checkers is risky. Authorities, celebrities and media can and should use their influence to share fact-checks about life-threatening hoaxes.

– Cristina Tardáguila, IFCN

. . . technology

  • Three far-right, pro-gun activists are behind some of the largest Facebook groups calling for anti-quarantine protests around the country, The Washington Post reported.
    • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told ABC News in an interview this week that the platform is classifying as “harmful misinformation” some posts from people organizing protests aimed at defying social distancing rules. “It’s important that people can debate policy, so there’s a line on this,” he told George Stephanopoulos.
    • Zuckerberg’s comments prompted a tweet from Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee and a critic of tech companies, who said “we are closely watching.”

. . . politics

  • The U.S. State Department is worried about a barrage of new coronavirus disinformation aimed at America from the Russian, Chinese and Iranian governments. Politico reported Tuesday that the U.S sees the three governments pushing “a host of matching messages, including that the novel coronavirus is an American bioweapon.” The New York Times did a similar piece on Wednesday.
  • Russian nationals in Italy are offering Italians money to film themselves thanking Russia and President Vladimir Putin for recent coronavirus aid, Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper reported Sunday. The Russian embassy said it was unaware of the effort.

. . . science and health

  • After members of the ruling party in India blamed Muslims for spreading the new coronavirus, The Telegraph reported on Monday that two newborn babies died in the country after hospitals refused to admit their Muslim mothers. It’s another indication of rising Islamophobia in India.

  • LNP’s Mike Wereschagin has a good piece out of Pittsburgh exploring how COVID-19 is feeding conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns. “The pandemic exacerbates the problem, but its tendrils reach into nearly every major public policy issue of the day,” he wrote.

AFP found a video shared thousands of times on several social media platforms purporting to show hundreds of Nigerians scrambling for food as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Among those who shared it was a Nigerian senator who called on the government to do something because “Nigerians are hungry.”

It’s true that the coronavirus-related lockdown in Nigeria has cut people off from their only source of income, AFP said, and local authorities are providing relief packages to help.

But the widely shared video was old. It was recorded more than a year ago in Lagos as a political party distributed rice to woo voters ahead of the 2019 gubernatorial election, AFP said. To figure that out, the fact-checkers used reverse image searches that led them to the earlier footage.

What we liked: Context is everything. AFP’s fact-check included its own video of a coronavirus food distribution event in Nigeria It showed that people were not social-distancing, and were eager to get the food, but in a more orderly fashion than the people in the video from a year earlier.

  1. The International Fact-Checking Network carried out a six-month review and has just updated its Code of Principles. After two months, the IFCN is again accepting applications.

  2. The New York Times reported on what it called “an explosion of conspiracy theories” surrounding coronavirus and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

  3. How is the pandemic enabling surveillance around the world? Roskomsvoboda, the Russian internet freedom advocacy organization, has created a portal to follow up.

  4. Media Matters reported that an April 16 YouTube video suggesting the novel coronavirus is a “false flag” to force “mandatory vaccines” has racked up millions of views.

  5. Bellingcat’s Aric Toler had some qualms with that recent New York Times article on Russian disinformation. Foreign Policy weighed in, too.

  6. More than 300 people have been arrested in 40 countries for “spreading COVID-19 falsehoods,” reported IFCN’s Harrison Mantas.

  7. The Washington Post announced that Scribner will publish a book that compiles work from the Post’s Fact Checker team cataloguing President Donald Trump’s false and misleading claims.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org. And if this newsletter was forwarded to you, or if you’re reading it on the web, you can subscribe here. Thanks for reading.

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