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The dangerous global flood of misinformation surrounding COVID-19

Misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 have spread rapidly online, creating what some experts are now calling an “infodemic.” Health officials across the globe are scrambling to refute a flood of bogus claims, some of which could have harmful consequences. John Yang reports on the dangerous course of falsehoods during this global health crisis -- and techniques to identify them.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It turns out that misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are rapidly spreading online, creating what public health officials around the world are now calling an infodemic.

    John Yang charts the dangerous course of falsehoods during this global health crisis.

  • Man:

    This can help prevention infection of the coronavirus.

  • John Yang:

    Around the world, journalists find themselves debunking wild claims, miracle cures and prevention methods…

  • Narrator:

    You need to microwave your mail to kill the COVID-19 virus.

  • John Yang:

    Stories on the origins of the virus.

  • Woman:

    Is the Wuhan coronavirus a biological weapon? Was it built in a lab by scientists and unleashed on the masses?

  • John Yang:

    Theories about vaccines and billionaire Bill Gates.

  • Woman:

    Claiming that he actually created the virus to trick people into getting microchipped.

  • John Yang:

    One particularly persistent falsehood? 5G mobile networks transmit COVID-19.

  • Woman:

    You know, when they turn this on, it's going to kill everyone.

  • John Yang:

    A woman in Britain called workers killers for laying 5G fiberoptic cables.

  • Woman:

    When you turn that on, bye, bye, momma.

  • John Yang:

    Across the United Kingdom, arsonists have burned cell towers, and the claim has been shared online with millions around the world.

  • Stephen Powis:

    The 5G story is complete and utter rubbish. It's nonsense. It's the worst kind of fake news. The reality is that the mobile phone networks are absolutely critical.

  • Doreen Marchionni:

    It's a nonstop hurricane of misinformation and disinformation to debunk.

  • John Yang:

    Doreen Marchionni is managing editor of Snopes.com. It's a fact-checking Web site. And it's been inundated with tens of thousands of requests for the truth about coronavirus claims.

  • Doreen Marchionni:

    One of the dumbest that I encountered was, if you stick your face in a hot blow — hair dryer, hold a hair dryer to your face, you might blow COVID out of your system.

    Tonic water, if you drink a lot of it, it'll cure you. No, it won't. But it's good in gin and tonics.

  • John Yang:

    Many experts call the steady stream of false information and conspiracy theories an infodemic.

    Epidemiologists at the World Health Organization are battling not just the virus, but also bogus claims.

  • Andrew Pattison:

    A lot of the time they say to me, oh, my goodness, I can't believe these people are actually believing this. I can't believe I have to spend time debunking this myth.

    And we have to look at it from a scientific point of view and we have to spend time and resources doing that. At the same time, these are valuable resources, could be spent giving and tailoring messages to vulnerable populations.

  • John Yang:

    Even President Trump has touted false and, in some cases, dangerous treatment ideas, most recently, internal use of ultraviolet light and disinfectant.

  • President Donald Trump:

    And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or — or almost a cleaning?

  • John Yang:

    Last week, the president walked back some of those comments, saying he was being sarcastic and was taken out of context.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Hydroxychloroquine, try it, if you would like.

  • John Yang:

    And since talking about the possible effectiveness of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, Mr. Trump's own Food and Drug Administration has cautioned against using the drug for COVID-19 outside a hospital, due to potential heart problems.

    Last month, a man in Arizona died after ingesting an aquarium-cleaning chemical he thought was the drug.

  • David Robert Grimes:

    As humans, we are far more likely to remember something frightening.

  • John Yang:

    David Robert Grimes is a cancer researcher and author of "The Irrational Ape," which looks at how people can be duped.

  • David Robert Grimes:

    We are very poor at critical thinking. We are very poor at evaluating sources. And that makes us very vulnerable to the sheer amount of disinformation that is spreading online.

  • John Yang:

    Cristina Tardaguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network, which is leading an alliance of 89 organizations monitoring coronavirus content in more than 70 countries.

    Like an epidemiologist who watches a virus spread, you watch these hoaxes spread.

  • Cristina Tardaguila:

    Right.

    And they're spreading fast, John. We're getting misinformation from my uncle, from my cousin, and also from the president or from the prime minister or even from bots. So, it is the first time that we're hearing so much misinformation all around the planet.

  • John Yang:

    That's led to deadly consequences in countries like Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly urged citizens to ignore public health warnings.

    He has compared the virus to a mild flu, even though the nation leads Latin America in confirmed cases and deaths by large margins. And the chaos of the pandemic has opened the door to misinformation techniques similar to Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

  • Doreen Marchionni:

    We're already seeing evidence of that, fake Facebook pages run by fake accounts and/or fake people that are attempting to, in some way, manipulate either potentially voters or consumers, or simply trying to monetize and make money off this crisis.

  • John Yang:

    U.S. intelligence agencies now also believe that false text messages sent last month to many Americans about a nationwide lockdown were pushed by Chinese operatives aiming to sow discord.

    And there are the recent nationwide protests of stay-at-home orders that President Trump has at times encouraged. The seemingly organic movement was, in fact, organized and driven by far right Facebook groups that have become a hotbed for conspiracy theories.

    Social media giants, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have all faced growing criticism about their role in the spread of misinformation.

    Facebook, which is a funder of the "NewsHour," now alerts users when they interact with false coronavirus content. On another popular platform, Reddit, users have long policed each other, to varying degrees of success.

  • Emerson Ailidh Boggs:

    Especially as a scientist, the way that I have to verify things has changed entirely.

  • John Yang:

    Emerson Ailidh Boggs, a virologist by training, moderates Reddit's coronavirus page, which has more than two million subscribers.

  • Emerson Ailidh Boggs:

    There's a lot of bad science that comes out during outbreaks, and there's a lot of good science that gets misinterpreted and editorialized, even when it's reported faithfully in the first place.

    If I can't prove it, I don't really want to be associated with it. And I don't want to be responsible for now two million people seeing it and taking it as fact.

  • John Yang:

    Despite the flood of misinformation during this crisis, scientist David Robert Grimes believes it can be brought under control.

  • David Robert Grimes:

    We have to remember that social media and the Internet, they are new technologies.

    And we have always had this problem of being bad at identifying sources of information. The Internet has massively exacerbated it. But I'm also optimistic that we can all collectively learn how much of a problem this is when we don't check our sources.

  • John Yang:

    But, for now, misinformation is spreading faster than the virus itself, and could be with us long after the pandemic is over.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such an important report. Thank you, John.

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