Feb. 5, 2020 -- In addition to causing human suffering, the current coronavirus outbreak has sparked rumors, false alarms, and conspiracy theories.
It’s human nature to fill a lack of information with some kind of story, research suggests, and there is a lot we still don’t know about the virus that sprung up in December in Wuhan, China.
One big open question is where the virus came from. So far, evidence points to the outbreak beginning in a so-called wet market, where meat and live animals are sold. But scientists and officials are still gathering information, so they can’t be sure yet.
“When there’s some uncertainty about some important event, rumors develop,” says Steven Taylor, PhD, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “There’s been a long history of psychological research on rumors, and rumors can be regarded as a kind of improvised news that’s circulated in an attempt to make sense of a situation.”
Here are a few making the rounds of the internet:
- Bill Gates is responsible. In reality, Gates spent millions to help China and African nations fight previous coronavirus outbreaks and helped fund vaccine and drug programs.
- A woman seen in a viral photo eating bat soup is the source of the outbreak. The photo in question wasn’t even taken in China, so … no.
- The Chinese created a weaponized version of coronavirus and lost control of it. Not only is there no proof of this, if someone wanted to weaponize a virus, they would probably pick one with a higher fatality rate, Taylor says.
- The best way to avoid the virus is to avoid Chinese people. This is one of the more outright racist rumors spreading in Australia, where someone made up a report from the country’s Bureau of Diseasology, which doesn’t exist.
- Drinking bleach keeps the virus away. Nope, nope, nope. This seriously dangerous advice was circulated by backers of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Doing this can cause severe vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, liver failure, and death.
- Coronavirus will cause the zombie apocalypse. This one is based on the realization that the logo of a biotech lab in China is strangely similar to one used by the bad guys of the popular video game “Resident Evil” that creates weird zombie-like raccoons.
- In Malaysia, where the spread of fake news has become something of an emergency, rumors abound of infected mandarin oranges and cellphones.
- You can catch the coronavirus off packages mailed from China. The CDC actually addressed this one. There is “very low risk” of this happening, the agency says, and no confirmed reports of it.
- You should get safety masks for your pets so they don’t catch the virus, too. While this myth has led to some pretty cute pictures, the World Health Organization says there is “no evidence” that your dog or cat can be infected with the new coronavirus.
A Bit of Truth, A Lot of Fiction
Although these kinds of conspiracy rumors can appeal to our instincts, stepping back and analyzing them logically usually reveals their flaws, says Taylor, who published the book The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease, late last year.
According to official accounts, so far, 427 people have died from this new coronavirus out of more than 20,704 confirmed cases -- or about a 2% mortality rate.
As with many rumors, there is a kernel of truth to each of these. Gates’s foundation does work to combat disease; bats are believed to be the natural reservoir for coronaviruses, though scientists believe it passed to another animal before infecting humans; and Canada and China had outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003, and have done research on the virus since. There is a research lab in Wuhan that studies extremely dangerous pathogens, but there is no evidence linking the lab with the current outbreak.
These bits of truth, common to most rumors, make them more believable and harder to fight, Taylor says. In fact, if you try to combat a rumor, you’re often accused of being part of the conspiracy yourself -- especially by the people most likely to believe in conspiracies, he notes. “It can be very difficult to persuade them otherwise.”
Repeating false information -- even in legitimate news stories like this one -- can help cement them in people’s minds, rather than debunk them, research shows. It’s called the “illusory truth effect,” and it shows that research participants are more likely to rate something as true if they’ve heard it before, regardless of its accuracy.
One way to identify false information, Taylor says, is to look for such germs of truth, with vague theories and mentions of authority or research, without any details. “The closer you look, the more shaky these theories become,” he says.
“The good news is conspiracy theorists are in the minority,” he says. As time goes on, and researchers learn more about the virus, “the people who aren’t conspiracy theorists, most of them will be persuaded that these theories are bunk.”
Look for the Truth
For those who want help finding out what’s true, library law consultant Mary Minow says public libraries are a great resource. Librarians -- reachable in person, via the internet, or by phone -- are trained to help people sift through information for reliable sources, says Minow, an affiliate of Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
Librarians remain “highly trusted in this era of nobody trusting anyone,” she says. “The trick is the more anxious you are, the less likely you are to pause and say, ‘Oh, could this be true?’ especially if it’s something you already believe.”
One source that’s definitely NOT reliable: your inbox. Hackers have been taking advantage of public anxiety by emailing people worldwide, trying to get them to spread malware, says cybersecurity expert Marty Puranik, co-founder of internet provider Atlantic.Net. The emails are designed to scare people by noting that the virus has arrived in their country, and that they should open an attached Microsoft Word document to learn more. Once opened, the document launches commands that allow hackers to steal sensitive information or deliver ransomware, which publishes personal data or prevents people from using their devices until they pay a ransom.
“The best rule of thumb is not to engage with people or emails from people you don't know, even if the content is written in a compelling way to get you to open it,” Puranik said via an emailed statement. “Always verify the actual email address is coming from the person you expect, and not a fake email address with someone’s name you know attached to it.”
Social media outlets including Facebook and Twitter, as well as Google, have reportedly been trying to combat misinformation on their outlets. Search for “coronavirus” on Google, and the top item is a news story from The New York Times, followed by tweets from the World Health Organization and the CDC’s coronavirus homepage.
Fear Helps Drive Fiction
Another all-too-human quality on display during disease outbreaks: fear of strangers. SARS, which also came from in China in 2002, triggered anti-Chinese racism. The same appears to be happening again in some places.
But of course, viruses affect everyone. “These viruses don’t respect borders or nationalities or any kind of personal identity, race, or ethnicity. Everyone is at a potential risk if they are in the right social setting,” says Jeanne Marrazzo, MD, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
And mostly, the virus appears to be transmitted through close personal contact -- by friends and family members -- rather than strangers. The two people who have the virus in the United States caught it from family members, according to the CDC.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, the World Health Organization’s director-general, advised at a recent news conference that: “We’re all in this together and we can only stop it together. This is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumors. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.”