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From Myanmar, New York, Mexico, Switzerland to Ireland: The global spread of Covid misinformation

There have been countless claims made about Covid-19. We examined the origins of a select few.

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THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has had a massive effect on the world over the past six months, uprooting our ‘normal’ lives in many cases.

Everyone has felt the impacts – losing loved ones, jobs, stability – and fear among the general public during the crisis has been palpable.

This fear has resulted in a rise of online misinformation and disinformation about a virus health experts don’t yet fully understand. 

Misinformation refers to ‘fake news’ being shared without the sender knowing the information is false, while disinformation is the deliberate spread of false information for malicious reasons. 

Often these posts prey on fear and uncertainty, and they have become more conspiratorial in Ireland and in other countries over the past few months.

The phenomenon was happening right across the globe, with some pieces of misinformation continent hopping. 

False claims – like gargling salt water or holding your breath for at least ten seconds can protect from or test for Covid-19 – have crossed borders and, in some cases, been adapted for the new environment.

Jules Darmanin, project coordinator for the Coronavirus Facts Alliance at the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), said that most people in the early stage of the pandemic meant no harm in sharing claims about cures or preventions. 

“With misinformation in general, it circulates a lot among family because you want to protect your family and you have this new thing that is scary,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“So if you read something like ‘gargling salted water is going to help you to protect yourself against the coronavirus’, the reasoning is ‘what harm can it do to share this’?

It’s not a harmful thing to do, so you might as well share that with your family.

Misinformation phase one and phase two

Darmanin said there have been two phases of misinformation so far during this pandemic in Ireland and other countries with similar virus levels.

The second phase began in April and is more focused on conspiracy theories rather than lockdown notices or dodgy health claims. 

Darmanin said: “It was interesting to see how false information about the pandemic crossed themes that were already there, whether it is 5G or vaccines or Bill Gates.

You tend to see stuff going from one country to another, but to see the same piece of rumour – sometimes down to the word – being shared in dozens of countries, that was pretty impressive to see.

In Europe, as lockdowns lift and cases continue to reduce in most countries, “there is less false information around Covid-19 because there is less information” about the coronavirus in the news, he said.

Although certain conspiracy theories have been present since the pandemic began, they have heightened since April as other pieces of misinformation fall to the background. 

5G, Bill Gates and anti-vaccine posts, the bulk of this second wave of misinformation, are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. 

“It’s harder for conspiracy theories to die down because they are constricting themselves around a world view which is not disappearing with the pandemic calming down in some countries,” Darmanin said. 

For the most part, Covid plugged itself into themes that were already present, so it’s just one more brick in a conspiratorial worldview.

Ireland and the rest of the world

Some pieces of misinformation during the pandemic have been Ireland-specific, such as the ‘status red’ lockdown, but there were a whole host of false claims spread in other countries that didn’t make it to our shores.

In France, the government intervened in a false rumour to clarify that cocaine does not cure the coronavirus.

Meanwhile in Iran, one of the more bizarre ones, a cleric suggested that people rub oil from a flower on their anus at night to cure the coronavirus. This is not true, and it was a rumour that didn’t take hold in Ireland.

Misinformation in Ireland, in line with most other countries, followed this empirical first wave of misinformation between January and April.

Jules Darmanin said there were “a lot of rumours shared by a lot of people in good faith” during this time who wanted to warn family and friends about the virus. These rumours were usually cure-based or contained false preventative measures like putting onions around your home or doing certain breathing techniques to prevent Covid-19. 

Claims like these were “mostly stemming from a lack of information when you have this information gap”, Darmanin said, while conspiratorial claims are “stemming from a lack of trust. And we see more of that now.”

Ireland and other European countries whose virus outbreaks have slowed are now in a  second phase of mis/disinformation, which is based more on conspiracy theories like 5G, Bill Gates and anti-vaccine content. 

Much like claims in the first phase, common themes emerge and the same posts are shared countless times on social media across the world.

As Ireland and other countries continue into this second phase of misinformation, TheJournal.ie examined the origins, spread and development of four different false claims from the earlier days of the pandemic to find out more about their spread. 

breathing False claim about holding your breath to test for Covid-19.

1. The claim: You can test for Covid-19 by holding your breath for more than 10 seconds.   

Where did this originate? 

This was one of the more widespread claims shared in Ireland and plenty of other countries around the world in the first few weeks of March. 

Holding your breath for at least 10 seconds is a seemingly quick reassurance that you don’t have the coronavirus. However, it was debunked by TheJournal.ie on 18 March – this is not a way to test for Covid-19. 

The first public posts on Facebook featuring this claim were published on 13 February, in groups based in Yangon, Myanmar.

Posts with this claim were shared among other groups and public pages in Myanmar, before spreading to countries like India and Pakistan in the following days.

13 feb hold your breath Post published on 13 February on a page based in Myanmar.

This rumour reached its peak on Facebook between 22 and 28 March with over 90,000 interactions on posts featuring these key words, according to CrowdTangle.

The first post with this claim on Twitter was published on 25 February. 

Jules Darmanin said this particular claim was spread “pretty much everywhere” and has been debunked by factcheckers from around the world. 

The first factcheck on this claim was by the Taiwan FactCheck Centre on 12 February, so it was likely circulating in private groups before making it to public pages on Facebook and Twitter. 

When did it start to spread in Ireland?

The first message sent to TheJournal.ie WhatsApp number about this claim was on 13 March, the day this dedicated number for receiving false Covid-19 claims was established

It was first shared in a public Irish Facebook group on 25 February. 

tea claim WhatsApp message falsely claiming tea is a cure for Covid-19.

2. The claim: Drinking tea is a cure for Covid-19

Where did this originate?

This particular claim dates back to at least the SARS epidemic in 2003.

Tea has long been hailed as having medicinal and health benefits, and Covid-19 fell privy to this claim.

In 2003, the New York Times wrote about “fear, herb shops and rumours” in a New York Chinatown amid the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).  

The piece quotes a sign outside one NY shop: ‘Hot herbal tea available that prevents SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and cleans your system!’ 

Sound familiar?

No type of tea is a cure for Covid-19, nor was it a cure for SARS.

Tweets claiming that ginger tea is a cure for the coronavirus began to circulate online in late January. They picked up pace in February with related claims about elderberry tea. 

elderberry and onion tea A claim on Twitter that a certain type of tea can cure Covid-19.

In Peru, exports of ginger almost tripled during the pandemic due to its perception of strengthening the immune system, the country’s ministry of commerce said recently. 

On Facebook, posts with this claim were published from 12 February and started to grow significantly from 6 March. They reached their peak between 26 April and 2 May. 

Jules Darmanin said this claim circulated in countries like Taiwan, Indonesia, Turkey and India. It also spread in countries like Portugal and Mexico with one difference – the rumour was focused on coffee instead of tea as the cure for Covid-19. 

In Brazil, factcheckers debunked claims in late January saying fennel tea could cure Covid-19. 

When did it start to spread in Ireland? 

TheJournal.ie first received a message with this claim on 13 March. 

The first post featuring this exact claim on a public Facebook page based in Ireland was published on 11 March.  

15 minute claim False claim that drinking water every 15 minutes can protect you against getting Covid-19.

3. The claim: Drinking water every 15 minutes can cure Covid-19 

Where did this originate?

There were a lot of claims circulating in the early days of the pandemic relating to water and Covid-19.

This particular claim said that drinking water every 15 minutes “at least” could prevent the virus entering your windpipe and lungs. This is not true.

A variation of this was posted in a public Facebook group on 22 January.

Other posts dating from this time stressed the importance of drinking water to boost the immune symptom and prevent infection.

The first public post with the exact 15-minute claim was shared on a Coronavirus Mexico page on 27 February.

advice every 15 minutes A post shared to a coronavirus Facebook group in Mexico on 27 February.

The wording in this post is similar to the WhatsApp message that circulated around Ireland shortly after. The claim was first debunked by AFP on 28 February. The rumour peaked on Facebook in the last week of March, with nearly 80,000 reactions to posts containing the claim.

On Twitter, the first post with this claim was on 25 February – in a thread with a few other false rumours.

During the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009, similar claims were spread about water. 

One website, Wise Bread, said gargling with salt water and drinking warm liquids might help to prevent Swine Flu infection. Both of these false claims have also been made about Covid-19.

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When did it spread to Ireland?

The first example of this claim appearing on an Irish public Facebook page is 11 March. 

At this point, it had already been debunked by a number of publications and the comments underneath the post point out that it is untrue.

The claim was first sent to TheJournal.ie on 13 March.

hand sanitiser False claim about making homemade hand sanitiser from mouthwash.

4. The claim: You can make your own hand sanitiser out of watered-down mouthwash 

Where did this originate? 

The earliest post with this claim on Facebook was published on 3 March by a Swiss dental care company whose mouthwash product is alcohol-free. 

Hand sanitiser must contain at least 60% alcohol in order to be effective against this coronavirus. The original formula Listerine mouthwash contains 26.9% alcohol and the company has addressed the rumour on its website.

Posts with the key words in this claim starting increasing in popularity on Facebook from the last week in February and peaked between 8 and 14 March. The claim was debunked by numerous factcheckers abroad. 

When did it start to spread in Ireland?

The first message with this claim shared with TheJournal.ie was on 4 April. 

It was not shared too widely on Irish Facebook pages and groups, with a few posts issued around this same time.   

This claim was just one of many homemade hand sanitiser rumours spread online. One suggests using vodka as the source of alcohol, which would not have a high enough alcohol content to be effective. 

‘Recipes’ for natural hand sanitisers using essential oils and aloe vera were also shared on social media. These similarly don’t work to kill the virus.   

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Through 2016, deep fakes, Brexit and Trump, Ireland did not see misinformation in the same way or at the same level as other jurisdictions.

But since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed, TheJournal.ie FactCheck has debunked or examined 75 claims about the coronavirus.

Through that work, we have been able to track the pandemic’s impact on Ireland’s susceptibility to and relationship with fake news.  

In this series, we will investigate some of the more notorious stories – who started them, and what effect they had on the population? We interrogate the atmosphere and tools that allowed the messages to spread – their R number as scary as Covid-19’s.

This new coronavirus may not be with us forever, but misinformation could be one of its deadly after-effects. 

So now we ask: Is Ireland changed forever? See the full series here.

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