This article first appeared in the Trust Index Newsletter. Sign up for it here.
🦠 Coronavirus conspiracies 🦠
We’re starting with the novel coronavirus -- or -- COVID-19. It’s been around for nearly a year, and yet, a whole slew of conspiracy theories continue to spread around the internet. In fact, a Pew Research Center survey in July found that at least a quarter of Americans believe these theories have “some truth." We’re going to tackle a few of the big ones.
Claim: COVID-19 was engineered in a Chinese lab
When the virus first started to spread in Wuhan, China, theories immediately started to filter onto social media and the internet. In April, President Donald Trump claimed to have seen evidence that supports the theory.
“It’s a terrible thing that happened,” the president said in April. “Whether they made a mistake or whether it started off as a mistake and then they made another one, or did somebody do something on purpose.”
Right after Trump made this statement, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement saying, “The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.”
Continued: “The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
Scientists suggest the likeliest origin of the pandemic remains natural, that it spread from an infected animal to a human. In July, the World Health Organization was invited to Wuhan to further investigate the origin of the virus.
Verdict: The claim is false. There is no evidence to support it.
Claim: COVID-19 is no worse than the seasonal flu
Here’s one that doesn’t seem to go away. Since the start, the argument stating COVID-19 is no worse than the seasonal flu is probably the most common falsehood that pops into conversation.
In early March, when only about 22 deaths were reported in the U.S., President Trump tweeted, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Those numbers are not real deaths -- they are estimates from the CDC’s influenza burden algorithm. The estimates are based on assumptions of how many cases, hospitalizations, and deaths they believe went unreported.
According to Scientific American, counting flu deaths the way we count COVID-19 deaths, over the last six years, flu deaths have ranged from about 3,500 to 15,000. As of this writing, more than 200,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 in just about seven months, along with more than 960,000 worldwide.
In Michigan, the CDC reported pneumonia and flu-related deaths from Feb. 1, 2020 to April 25, 2020, reporting 220 flu deaths in Michigan in the timeframe -- 2,559 died of pneumonia, 834 of which had both pneumonia and COVID-19. More than 6,600 have died of COVID-19 this year.
As of Sept. 21, the fatality rate in the U.S. was 2.9 percent, and 5.7 percent in Michigan. The seasonal flu has a 0.1 percent fatality rate, according to the CDC.
Verdict: The claim is false. COVID-19 is much deadlier than the flu.
Claim: COVID-19 is caused by 5G
This is one of the more out-there theories about COVID-19, but it’s still very popular. The theory is based on the idea that 5G networks, which are increasing the speed of data on our devices, somehow have contributed to the spread of the virus, either by suppressing our immune systems, or somehow transmitting the virus through the technology.
This has even led to some setting fire to 5G towers in the UK. Whoa.
Let’s make this one quick -- there is absolutely no evidence that 5G has any impact on our health. You can find info on this from the World Health Organization, NYU, and more. It’s also worth nothing that COVID-19 is spreading in many countries that do not have 5G mobile networks.
So how did this one even start? A Journal of Medical Internet Research study found that fake news websites were the most popular web source shared by users; although, YouTube videos were also shared. The study also identified an account whose sole aim was to spread the conspiracy theory on Twitter. An MIT study in 2018 found that fake news traveled about six times faster than real news on Twitter.
📱 Be your own fact-checker
Most people don’t want to share inaccurate information, but sometimes it happens. How can you play defense? Here are some tips:
- Check your sources: Where are you reading it? Who is reporting it? Are they credible? Watch out for “pink slime” local news sites.
- Social media origins: If you see something floating around social media, like a meme or a story, try to find the original source and check it yourself.
- Go beyond the headline: Some headlines are purposely misleading and don’t tell a complete story.
- Share the right information: Be a sharer of the correct news and information! Send accurate information to your friends and family, post it on your social feeds, forward this newsletter. It’s nice to be right.
✅ What would you like us to fact-check?
The Trust Index team fact checks questionable information circulating on social media and in our communities. Use the form here to share claims you’d like checked out. You can also email me here, if you have any questions or comments. - Ken Haddad