On March 8, the French health ministry tweeted from its official account that cocaine does "NOT" protect against COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. They were moved to do so in response to fake news articles that claimed that “cocaine kills coronavirus.”
The cocaine story is just one of many claims of bogus cures and treatments for COVID-19 that have circulated online since the pandemic began, which range from absurd to deadly. Some people have claimed that coronavirus remains in the throat for four days, and that drinking water frequently can eliminate it. Others, like QAnon YouTuber Jordan Sather, tweeted about a "miracle mineral solution," which “effectively involves drinking bleach,” CBS reported.
Immune-boosting products have arrived in droves, alongside claims that the new coronavirus is a bioweapon, intentionally made by Chinese scientists in a lab. There’s also a new one circulating about how the virus is being caused or exacerbated by 5G cell phone technology—leading to at least a dozen 5G phone towers to be set on fire in the U.K.
The list goes on and on: That standing in the sun or being in temperatures higher than 75 degrees prevents COVID-19, or that holding your breath for 10 seconds without coughing means you don’t have it. That alcohol prevents COVID-19, or hand dryers, taking a hot bath, spraying chlorine all over your body, or eating garlic.
The Washington Post reported that 2 million tweets between January 20 and February 10 contained conspiracy theories and misinformation. That’s 7 percent of all coronavirus tweets. "Covid-19 is a case study in the interplay between contagion, information, misinformation, and behavior," wrote the researchers Laurent Hébert-Dufresne and Vicky Chuqiao Yang in STAT.
Health concerns have always been haunted by pseudoscience, false claims, hype, conspiracy theories, and bogus products. But with COVID-19, experts are saying that the breadth and diversity of the junk is unprecedented. At a conference in February, the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”
To fight this infodemic, Tim Caulfield, a professor of health law & science policy at the University of Alberta in Canada, recently received a $380,000 grant to track all the misinformation and conspiracy theories around COVID-19.
Caulfield is no stranger to health misinformation. In the past ten years, he and his colleagues analyzed marketing claims and media articles on stem cell clinics in the media and marketing. He was also the host of A User's Guide to Cheating Death, a Netflix show that explored the legitimacy of health fads, and the author of the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?
VICE talked to Caulfield about how even his past work in this space didn't completely prepare him for the firehose of COVID-19 misinformation that's out there, why there's so much of it, and how he plans to monitor it. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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VICE: The diversity of misinformation is like nothing I've ever seen before. I'm curious about your thoughts about whether this pandemic truly stands apart in terms of how much misinformation it has around it, compared to other topics or diseases.
Tim Caulfield: I agree—it really does seem like a misinformation at a new level. I recently called it “misinformation on steroids.” I've been following it closely and have worked in this space for decades, so I anticipated a lot of misinformation. The degree and the amount and the diversity has even surprised me, it's really incredible.
If you talked to me three months ago, I would've said there's going to be a whole bunch of misinformation at the beginning, and then when the gravity of the situation settles in, we're going to start to see it abate. I don't think that's happened. I think that we're still seeing, if anything, almost an acceleration. It’s really problematic.
On the other hand, we shouldn't be that surprised because this pandemic happened during the era of misinformation, right? It happened during a time where there was, I think, an inappropriate toleration of pseudoscience. It happened in the context of wellness brands that are thriving, which use misinformation in order to profit. It's happening at the time of social media, and in our preliminary research— no surprise at all— this is where a lot of the misinformation is circulating. In fact, a quick side note, we found that the traditional news media—again, this is very preliminary work —other than a few outlets has been relatively good. This really is a social media and marketing story.
One thing that we are looking at is the idea of “immune boosting,” and there've actually been quite a few articles in the traditional news media debunking that idea. In the past maybe we wouldn't have seen that kind of thing. So that's a little ray of sunshine.
The other pillar is this is the era of distrust. You have polarized discourse. You have ideologically driven arguments being made in the context of this virus. Generally, I think all of those things have worked together to really make this a unique moment in the history of the spread of misinformation.
Let's talk about some specific examples. I was trying to come up with a short list and then it surpassed 10 and then 15, and I gave up. How do you make sense of them all?
You know, I put them all on a continuum—and let’s just talk about the cures for now. On one end of the continuum, you have the really absurd stuff: drinking bleach, using essential oils on your anus, cocaine, drinking alcohol, all of those things are absurd.
Then you have the stuff in the middle, which seems perhaps more intuitively plausible, like the idea of taking supplements, of getting IV vitamin therapy, of homeopathy, of chiropractors adjusting your back to boost your immune system— still equally science-free.
You move along that continuum to probably the most complex kind of misinformation. And that is, real pharmaceuticals that are being portrayed inaccurately, and of course you know what I'm talking about there [writer's note: Caulfield is referring to hydroxychloroquine, which Donald Trump has repeatedly promoted as a promising treatment, though it has yet to be proven effective in clinical trials].
All across this continuum, misinformation has done harm. People have died, people are wasting money, and they're probably wasting their energy. People may end up believing they're more immune or less susceptible because of this and therefore not doing the things they need to do, like social distancing. And of course it just adds to this chaotic information environment, and that last thing might be the most harmful part of the story. It just creates so much noise.
I almost see two continuums—one is a continuum of believability, like you're saying. The bleach versus the supplements. But then there’s also the continuum of what will harm a person the most physically, and what is nonsense but somewhat benign. For example, I was reading how people have said that drinking warm water every 15 minutes will clear the virus from your throat.
Or the hairdryer up your nose, have you seen that one?
Yeah, exactly. Since drinking water and drying up your nostrils may not cause as much bodily harm as drinking bleach, do you still feel adamant that we should fight as strongly against those types of misinformation?
I do. Because one of the things you want to do is not just ignore misinformation, but you want people to use critical thinking skills.
One of the things going adjacent to this has been the toleration of pseudoscience: Sure, these wellness brands don't have any science behind them, but what harm are they doing? And they're allowing people to take charge of their life and they feel empowered. All of that kind of toleration ends up facilitating the embrace of this other nonsense.
I also think that we want people to be able to focus on the simple steps they can take—washing your hands, social distancing, taking responsible steps when you have symptoms. All this noise, I think, complicates that. It makes it difficult to listen to the trusted voices.
A lot of the misinformation seems to be re-hashed from previous campaigns. For example, the suggestion that 5G exacerbates the virus. What do you think about that? Why are there these specific things that keep coming back?
It's so true, right? I think if there is a popular conspiracy theory, or a popular health trend, the universe is going to find a way to connect it to the coronavirus right now. I've seen the 5G connection, Big Pharma conspiracy connection. You have people talking about CBD and the coronavirus. You have people talking about the keto diet and the coronavirus. There's a lot going on here. Part of it is those are concepts people are aware of, and so it's easy to leverage the fear or concern, the existing conspiracy theory to push forward another narrative.
Others, like CBD and keto, are just using this moment to sell their products and their ideology. People have an ideology, something they're really invested in and they're using this moment in order to market that concept, that product, their ideology.
So you’re going to try and keep track of all of this. Tell me a little bit about the grant you received and how exactly you're going to do that.
On one hand it's a scholarly project, it'll go over a couple of years, but we also want to have an immediate near-future impact. We're going to look at traditional sources of news. We're going to look at social media and search engines, and a variety of search engines, because we know how important that is—it creates people's reality, right? What are people getting when they search not only the coronavirus and COVID, but when they search “immune boosting,” what are they getting? We want to look at all those domains and we're going to do that in a variety of different ways. We have a great research team.
In the near future, we're also working with an NGO, MediaSmarts in Canada, that is a media literacy entity to do a campaign that we hope it's going to come out really soon. It will have a real simple message around the kinds of things I was just talking about: creating a culture of accuracy, about thinking before you share. We want this to be practical. We want this to be shareable. We want this to have an immediate impact and most importantly, to be evidence-based.
How much of this do you think is being fueled by fear and anxiety and wanting there to be a simple solution to this thing?
I think it's all the above. Fear and anxiety drives people to action; they want to do something that's going to give them comfort. Perhaps it's a ritual that allows them to believe they're doing something right, even if it's ineffective and misinformation gives them that ability to do that.
My friend Alan Levinovitz has really interesting comments about how people like rituals. They might know that supplements don't work, but at least they feel like they're doing something and when you're afraid and you feel powerless, these actions might give a degree of comfort. I get that.
But of course there's the other side of the equation. A lot of these entities are actually trying to create more fear or they're leveraging fear in order to sell misinformation in products.
I think one of the problems is how new the virus is and that there's so much uncertainty, even from official guidelines. Masks are a good example. In the U.S. the messaging was that we should not wear masks, and now we’re being told, actually, perhaps we should. Even if you're following reputable sources, there's all this confusion. How do you think that is fueling the misinformation that's going around?
I hear that all the time about those trusted voices: How can we trust them? They changed their minds. One of the things that we hope to get across in our project—and I hope it's actually one of the legacies of this crisis—is a recognition of what science is. Science isn't a list of facts. Science is a process.
In a situation like this where there is so much uncertainty and when the science is evolving so quickly, that's more reason to turn to those trusted voices, those voices that are aggregating the science as best they can and being nimble and responsive to the science.
You want them to change their minds. You want them to update their recommendations as the data, not just the scientific data, but the behavioral data, the social science data, the information from the community. As that changes, you want them to be able to respond. And so that should be a signal of trust, not of distrust.
But you're right, that is having a real impact. I think one of the reasons this is so unique is because that uncertainty and that fear is being filled with conspiracy theories and narratives that will give people comfort. Those gaps and information are often filled with misinformation.
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