COVID-19, Fact Checking

The year of COVID-19 misinformation in Latin America

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Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of misinformation related to the novel coronavirus began to appear and the LatamChequea Coronavirus alliance began, a collaborative effort of 35 organizations from 18 countries dedicated to verifying public statements coordinated by Chequeado.

The alliance created a collaborative platform, which now has more than 3,400 verifications, fact checking and explanations about content related to the novel coronavirus. This article reviews the most popular topics about which misinformation circulated which we were able to debunk.

The Virus’ Origin

At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of the misinformation that circulated in different countries was about the origin of the virus and the situation in China. Posts claimed that it had originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, but several media in the alliance debunked this, such as Chequeado, Estadão Verifica and Newtral.es; Others pointed to its origin being in the United Kingdom or the United States, despite the evidence that it was the result of a natural process, not an artificial one.

A Nobel Prize Winner and Bill Gates

At the end of April, several posts claimed that Tasuku Honjo, who received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine, said that the virus had been created in a laboratory. This came from a fake Twitter account posing as Honjo.

Another well-known person cited very frequently in misinformation was the founder of Microsoft, American Bill Gates. Fact checking was done more than 50 times during these months on misinformation related to the businessman. One of the posts that went viral related to the virus’ origin, stating that Gates owned the patent for the new coronavirus strain that originated in China. He was also accused of having created COVID-19 to insert microchips in people by means of the vaccine in order to control population.

A manipulated image also circulated in many of the countries showing part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation building, whose façade supposedly had the following inscription engraved: “Center for Global Human Population Reduction.” This was debunked by several media in the alliance such as Ecuador Chequea, La Silla Vacía and Newtral.es.

Other falsehoods claimed that the businessman predicted the epidemic, said in an interview that the vaccine against COVID-19 was going to cause many deaths and until India had brought him to trial for having paralyzed thousands of children with a vaccine against polio.

Even Spanish singer Miguel Bose spread a series of tweets accusing Gates of being the creator of COVID-19. These posts were refuted by several fact checkers, including three media in Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela.

5G

More misinformation about Bill Gates was related to the 5G network. This conspiracy theory had a high level of production, with several videos, images and publications to claim that the novel coronavirus was created in a laboratory to control the world. Many of the organizations that spread these theories are related to anti-vaccine movements.

Some of the things published related to this topic claimed that the novel coronavirus isn’t a virus but rather an exosome (serve as carriers of genetic data and proteins to other cells in the body) that is activated by electromagnetic radiation. This type of post even circulated in countries where this type of technology doesn’t even exist, such as Argentina, Bolivia and Colombia.

A video from Hong Kong was also spread on several social networks showing a group of people tearing down a supposed 5G antenna. AFP Factual found out that the footage was really of a pole equipped with facial recognition cameras falling down during demonstrations that took place in Hong Kong in August 2019.

Something similar happened with an image that was spread of a cactus-shaped antenna described as a 5G antenna hidden so that “people don’t realize they are radioactive and emit electromagnetic frequency waves.” Colombia Check disproved this, explaining that the image was taken by photographer James S. Wood in Tucson, Arizona in 2009, before this type of technology existed.

Cures and Remedies

Since the pandemic began, a lot of the misinformation was about cures and remedies to cure or prevent the novel coronavirus. Some of these products were natural and harmless to health, such as the recommendation to drink hot mate or to gargle with water and salt.

Several of the “cures” were natural products common in the area where the misinformation was spread. For example, in Ecuador and Colombia, publications claimed that neem leaves (from a tree that grows throughout India and the surrounding areas) could cure the novel coronavirus, similar to claims spread in Bolivia about coca leaves. Although they aren’t harmful, the misinformation can generate a sense of false security and cause people to take greater risks.

Some of the most common false information was about alkaline diets, recommending consuming foods with a high PH level, like lime, mango, garlic and avocado, among others. This type of information showed up in almost all of the countries in the alliance (Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Venezuela and Spain). Other drinks that most often appeared as possible “cures” were coffee and different types of tea.

However, false cures and remedies that can be harmful to health were also spread. This was the case with chlorine dioxide presented as a supposed solution in several countries. For example, a video of a German scientist circulated in several countries and was debunked by 10 media outlets in the alliance, such as GK Ecuador and Colombia Check. In Argentina, TV announcer Viviana Canosa recommended it and took it on open-access television. Scientific evidence shows that drinking this does not cure the novel coronavirus and can be very harmful to health, even leading to the death of those who consume it.

This also occurred with some medications such as hydroxychloroquine, remdevisir and azithromycin, although the latter two to a lesser extent. The use of hydroxychloroquine was not only spread on social networks by users, but also by public figures like the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who also recommended its use, even when tests were being conducted to check its effectiveness in treating COVID-19 (multiple scientific studies concluded that taking hydroxychloroquine doesn’t cure the novel coronavirus).

During the pandemic this year, misinformation circulated to cast doubt on the effectiveness of PCR testing. In the photo, medical personnel from Nicoya hold the implements that they use to test for COVID-19. Photo: César Arroyo Castro

Masks, PCR Tests and Infrared Thermometers

In early May, misinformation claimed that masks or face coverings cause hypoxia (oxygen deficiency in an organism) and hypercapnia (excess carbon dioxide (CO2) in arterial blood). One of the disseminators of this misinformation was the Plandemic video, made by Dr. Judy Mikovits, an American anti-vaccination activist and former medical researcher. The video also stated that the novel coronavirus isn’t natural, that coronaviruses don’t stay alive on surfaces for more than an hour and that vaccines have killed millions of people.

Similarly, a lot of misinformation casts doubt on the effectiveness of PCR tests and claims that they can cause harm. One of the biggest disseminators of this type of misinformation was a group of doctors calling themselves “Doctors for Truth” who held a press conference in Madrid, Spain in which they asserted that the scientist who invented these tests affirmed that they don’t work and give many false positives. They also indicated that the use of masks is not recommended for the entire population and can cause respiratory diseases. The group also has a presence in several Latin American countries.

Along these lines, several publications indicated that the swab for diagnosing COVID-19 could damage the “blood-brain barrier (which prevents harmful substances from entering the brain) and create a direct entrance to the brain.” Infrared thermometers (used to measure temperature quickly) were also said to damage the retina and neurons.

Much of this style of misinformation is aimed at planting the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic is a lie and is a strategy to keep the population under control. For example, Brazil is one of the countries where images and videos of alleged empty hospitals and coffins circulated the most. Aos Fatos, Estadão Verifica and Agência Lupa, the three Brazilian media participating in the alliance, all fact checked more than 20 of this type of content.

On the other hand, in Argentina and Mexico, publications and messages affirmed that death certificates were being falsified to make them pass as deaths from the novel coronavirus.

Vaccinations

Throughout these months, more than 250 vaccine-related fact checks were done. What were the most common? One of the images that circulated the most was that of a vaccine against the novel coronavirus with a 2001 production date that was debunked by different media, such as La Silla Vacía, Chequeado and Maldita.es.

Also, a publication indicated that one of the vaccines against COVID-19 being developed would be made from cells from aborted fetuses. Another post stated that the vaccine was a pretext to implant a microchip in everyone and thus control population. The vaccines were also said to genetically modify human DNA.

With the immunization campaign starting in several countries this month, a lot of misinformation began to emerge related to alleged adverse effects or false deaths due to administering these vaccines. Several of these publications also reintroduced the idea that vaccines were a mass sterilization plan to reduce population.

Part of the publications that went viral were about the laboratories that produced the different vaccines. For example, one post claimed that AstraZeneca’s vaccine contains MRC-5 cells developed from an aborted fetus. Another video affirmed that the Sputnik vaccine alters genetic material while this WhatsApp chain claimed that there is a relationship between the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China and the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and GSK.

As with other topics, misinformation about vaccines can have very damaging effects and have caused people to have increased doubts about whether to get vaccinated, which could have consequences on herd immunity, which is essential to eventually be able to stop taking social distancing and prevention measures put in place with the pandemic.

If you want to be better informed about the pandemic, visit the Special Coronavirus Fact-Checking Platform (in Spanish).

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