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20 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:06pm

Inside the infodemic: Coronavirus in the age of wellness

As the disease spreads, so do quack “cures” such as garlic, bleach and silver solution, peddled on social media.

By Sabrina Weiss

Online misinformation about the novel coronavirus disease, now called Covid-19, appears to be spreading faster than the virus itself. Certain claims made about the origins and transmission of the virus may be true, but many aren’t, and these falsehoods are fuelling conspiracy theories that serve only to spread fear on a global scale. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has labelled the overabundance of information an “infodemic”, arguing it “makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.

Scientists need time to study the new disease and test potential vaccines and treatments, which permits quacks to fill the vacuum. People who feel scared, helpless and desperate easily fall into the trap of the alternative remedies that have been cropping up across the web. One example is a bogus message that has been doing the rounds on WhatsApp, suggesting an “old Chinese doctor’s” recipe for boiled garlic water can cure the disease. An extra dose of vitamin C is said to ward off the infection in the first place, just as it would a common cold. These home remedies promise inexpensive and effective protection.

Neither of these claims is true and there is currently no vaccine or cure available for the virus that has, at the time of writing, killed nearly 2,118 people and infected 74,576 since December. But that doesn’t hold opportunists back from cashing in on fears over the virus by spreading false information and selling dubious health and wellness products online.

There may be no harm in drinking a bowl of freshly boiled garlic or adding vitamin C supplements to your daily routine, but there is a risk that, for some, these remedies provide a false sense of security and undermine the efforts of health officials to curb the spread of the disease.

Other claims could do more harm than good: “Miracle Mineral Solutions”, referred to as MMS, have been sold online as a cure-all for cancer, HIV, autism and now coronavirus. A common MMS liquid solution consists of 28 per cent sodium chlorite in distilled water, essentially a potent bleaching agent that can cause severe vomiting, diarrhoea and acute liver failure

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Jordan Sather, an influencer active on YouTube and Twitter who propagates the QAnon pro-Donald Trump far-right conspiracy theory, has repeatedly plugged MMS as a potential cure, while Kerri Rivera – the writer of Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism described as a “quack” and a “charlatan”, who advocates for the use of MMS in treating autism – wrote an article about its effectiveness against coronavirus on her website.

Everyone from self-proclaimed experts to anti-vaccination proponents to faith healers has something to say about the possible cures for coronavirus. Some may mean well and want to share any news in the face of an outbreak where the disease is novel and there are still many unknowns, while others are seeking the attention that will drive traffic to their own channels. 

Most individuals are motivated to spread false information in order to monetise in one way or another, as Danny Rogers, co-founder of the London-based nonprofit Global Disinformation Index, points out. They are aggregating user attention to game the ad-tech system or profiting from selling advertising space and merchandise on their websites – in much the same way as Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness and lifestyle company Goop does. Ultimately, the old advertising adage “money follows eyeballs” still applies in the age of online misinformation.

Sather doesn’t sell MMS directly but does peddle dietary supplements starting from $32 (£24), and Rivera has written a number of “cure” and cookbooks. Others actually have quack cures on offer: in an online episode of his show on 12 February, the conservative televangelist Jim Bakker suggests his $125 (£96) “silver solution” can eliminate coronaviruses within 12 hours and boost the immune system.

Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says she understands why some people might be more receptive to inexpensive home remedies like garlic or vitamin C, as there is less tendency to trust in experts, authority, mainstream media and medicine when there aren’t many answers available. 

The internet can also be an ally in the fight against infectious diseases. Since the Covid-19 epidemic unfolded, the WHO and scientists have been using social media to counter misinformation and to share messages about protective measures.

“The real value of scientists talking about the disease on Twitter is that the scientific discoveries related to this outbreak are spread much more quickly and there’s a lot more access for both other scientists and the public,” says Sell.

In a concerted effort with the WHO, social media firms are taking steps to remove false claims and promote accurate information. Twitter users in the UK who search for “coronavirus cure” are prompted to visit the Department of Health and Social Care website and a Facebook search surfaces primarily posts from government, health organisations and traditional media; the company is also working with independent fact-checkers to label inaccurate posts and delete dubious health advice.

Google – which in December was still running sponsored ads for MMS alongside its search results – rolled out an SOS alert service on 31 January, which sends users to a curated search results page with information and reports from the WHO and major news organisations.

“It shows interventions are possible and can work when the platforms are motivated to act,” says Danny Rogers. Dealing with misinformation around public health emergencies may be easier than political campaigns because Covid-19 is not a voting or paying constituency. “Everyone can agree on a common enemy here,” he says. 

As for the proliferating quack cures for coronavirus, an analysis undertaken by monitoring firm Social360 for this article showed some UK media have been sharing (and in some cases debunking) stories about the touted bleach, garlic and silver cures on Twitter – with limited traction – which may be due to the fact that the virus hasn’t spread as widely in the UK yet. However, such social media searches exclude private groups on Facebook and messaging apps where many online discussions take place and communities form.

Twitter, Facebook and Google’s filters and algorithms may be a good starting point in tackling misinformation about coronavirus and allow people to easily find relevant and authoritative updates. However, penetrating the social media echo chambers fuelled by distrust in experts and news outlets will be the real challenge.

Sabrina Weiss is a London-based science journalist and author. She tweets @SabrinaMWeiss

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