News

Fact/Fiction: Have 800 people died as a result of the 'infodemic'?

Old news. Truthfully retold. What's been the real impact of misinformation during the pandemic?

HOW IT WAS TOLD

Misinformation has been rife throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. This column has tackled plenty of the dubious claims, baseless stories and outright lies.

The infodemic, as it has become known, has been a source of contention on social media as well as on mainstream media outlets.

But stories last week took on the gargantuan task of reporting on the impact of misinformation during the global crisis.

And they seemingly uncovered the shocking figure that misinformation was behind 800 deaths, according to a study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

The story was widely covered in the UK and abroad. Some stuck to the 800 figure, others kept the tally vaguer in their headlines.

The Sun was in the former category discussing some of the misinformation that has been doing the rounds, opting for: “KILLER TROLLS: Coronavirus fake news such as cow dung ‘cures’ killed over 800 people, study claims as Facebook axes seven million posts”.

The BBC ran the headline: “‘Hundreds dead’ because of Covid-19 misinformation” while The Independent took a similar approach: “Coronavirus tracked: Hundreds of deaths caused by conspiracy theories and other misinformation, study finds”.

Elsewhere, the new AI editors of MSN kept it succinct with their version of the Business Insider story, stating: “False coronavirus information isn’t just a nuisance, it could be deadly. At least 800 people have died as a result of misinformation about the virus that spread online during the first three months of the year, study finds”.

But is the 800 figure accurate?

FACTS.CHECKED

While there can be no doubt that misinformation does have a damaging impact, there is little evidence to show that 800 deaths can be attributed to it.

Some of the stories, most notably that of the BBC, do acknowledge this. In fact, the number could be a lot higher.

First to the study. Researchers identified 2,311 reports of rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories in 25 languages from 87 countries from online fact-checking agency websites, Facebook, Twitter, and online newspapers between December 31 last year and April 5.

The claims they investigated were related to illness, transmission and mortality (24 per cent), control measures (21 per cent), treatment and cure (19 per cent), cause of disease including the origin (15 per cent), violence (one per cent), and miscellaneous (20 per cent). Of the 2,276 reports for which text ratings were available, 1,856 claims were false (82 per cent), according to the research.

The figures discussed in the news stories are accurately reported from the study, which does refer to 800 people who are believed to have died from alcohol poisoning in Iran. The report reads: “A popular myth that consumption of 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 hospitalised and 60 have developed complete blindness after drinking methanol as a cure for coronavirus”.

But therein lies the problem – this report never set out to produce a definitive figure for how many people have died as a result of misinformation across the globe. That’s why the headlines from this story that quoted the 800-people figure can be considered, rather ironically, to be misleading.

In fact, the figures for the Iranian deaths aren’t exactly trustworthy, as the BBC notes and Big Issue Changemakers Full Fact also report. Doubt has been cast on the Iranian health ministry’s coronavirus death figures in recent news reports, making it a weak base for these stories.

It would take a much more extensive study to uncover the number of deaths caused directly by misinformation. With the World Health Organization warning that the false information spreads almost as quickly as the virus, it would be difficult to keep up.

So even though these reports don’t quite uncover the full impact on public health, it is an impact that must not be played down.

There is a reason, after all, that the WHO has run a mythbusters column on its website throughout the pandemic. Check sources with authority for up-to-date information on the virus – health bodies know better than @dave3ro58u38t on Twitter.

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