Bat soup, dodgy cures and ‘diseasology’: the spread of coronavirus misinformation

From fake alerts over no-go suburbs to pro-Trump conspiracy theories, crackpot stories and dangerous advice have gone viral

Fake news and conspiracy theories about the origin of the coronavirus have swiftly followed the outbreak around the world.

The quick spread of the virus from its origins in China’s Hubei province, and the lack of early detail about where it comes from or how to treat it, has provided ample room for speculation. One week after the city of Wuhan was placed under effective lockdown, the tide of misinformation is so high that Twitter, Facebook, and Google are struggling to cope.

On Friday, after the WHO declared the outbreak a global health emergency, Facebook said it would “remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organisations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them”.

On Thursday, Twitter announced it would “adjust search prompt in key countries across the globe to feature authoritative health sources when you search for terms related to novel #coronavirus.”

Here are some of the examples of misinformation spreading around the world.

1. People eating bats in Wuhan
The biggest piece of misinformation about the cause of the virus is the widely circulated video of a woman eating a bat. It has been spread by the Daily Mail, RT and far-right YouTuber Paul Joseph Watson among others.

The Chinese celebrity Wang Mengyun said she has received death threats since the video went viral this month.

The origins of the coronavirus are believed to have been from illegally sold wildlife at a seafood market in Wuhan, and bats could potentially have been the source, but the video was not filmed in a Wuhan restaurant as some had claimed, but in Palau, Micronesia, for a travel video in 2016.

2. It’s a deliberate plot
Proponents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, such as Jordan Sather, have been spreading the idea that the outbreak of the coronavirus was timed to coincide with the start of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

Sather claimed in a thread posted to his 100,000 followers that the disease was planned and manufactured. He pointed to a coronavirus patent granted to a firm with ties to the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. The firm, Pirbright, had to issue a statement correcting misinformation. The firm said it researches infectious bronchitis virus, a coronavirus that infects poultry and pigs – not humans.

3. It’s a bioweapon
The Washington Times claimed in a story that the coronavirus outbreak could be linked to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, quoting a former Israeli military intelligence officer who claimed a bioweapon was one possible option.

Other conspiracy theories have suggested the virus was smuggled out of Canada into China.

The Washington Post, however, spoke to a number of experts who said based on the virus genome there is no indication it was engineered. The MIT professor Vipin Narang said in a tweet that there is no evidence it is a bioweapon, and if it were, it would be a bad one, because a good bioweapon should be more deadly but not as easily spread.

4. 5G caused the spread of coronavirus
These days 5G is blamed for everything, from cancer to bushfires, so it is not surprising that conspiracy theories that 5G caused, or helped spread coronavirus have been shared into the anti-5G groups on Facebook.

One post debunked on Facebook claimed Wuhan was where 5G was first rolled out, and 5G “wrecked immune systems and thereby boosted the virulency of the normal cold”.

Wuhan was one of a few places where 5G was rolled out in China in 2020, along with other parts of the world. There is no evidence that 5G weakens immune systems or is harmful to humans.

5. Just take oregano oil, vitamin C or salt water
Prominent anti-vaxxers and natural medicine groups have been sharing posts suggesting oregano oil, vitamin C, and salt water are either good ways to prevent coronavirus or cure it. They will not.

6. Just drink bleach
One of the more dangerous remedies again comes from prominent QAnon conspiracy followers, with Daily Beast reporting the pro-Trump conspiracy theorists have told people to buy their “miracle mineral solution” that is supposed to cure everything, including autism or HIV/AIDS.

The Food and Drug Administration has said the solution is “a dangerous bleach”.

7. Chinese Red Bull and fortune cookies are virus carriers
There have been various viral posts on social media all trying to appear to be an official health-related update about what people should do to try to prevent them from getting in contact with the coronavirus.

One of the most prominent spread in Australia, via childcare centres, is an apparent “urgent notice” from the “Department of Diseasology Parramatta”.

This non-existent department warned of food that could be contaminated including wuxhang rice, fortune cookies, migoreng noodles, Yakult, and Chinese Red Bull.

The New South Wales health department was forced to issue a statement stating there was no such entity as the Department of Diseasology Parramatta. “NSW Health would like to assure the community that the locations mentioned in this post pose no risk to visitors, and there have been no ‘positive readings’ at train stations.”

8. The no-go suburbs
Another warning spread on social media claims to come from Queensland Health and warns people to stay away from certain suburbs in Brisbane and any populated areas that have a certain proportion of Chinese residents.

The Brisbane MP Duncan Pegg tweeted that the warning was fake and designed to malign the community.

 

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