COVID-19- The Spread of Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation

With the world in the midst of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which is spreading across the globe at an alarming rate, the conspiracy theories and misinformation relating to this health crisis are also spreading at pace.

One of the main conspiracy theories to date is that the virus was a laboratory construct, manufactured by the Chinese. The strategic purpose it is claimed, was to wreak financial havoc on the economies of the United States and Europe, enabling China to later buy western stock and companies at low value for fiscal domination over rival markets.

Many who are holding such views are questioning why Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai remained virtually unscathed during the crisis and assume that a high level of preparatory work was carried out in anticipation of the outbreak. For instance the Chinese have proven their unrivalled capabilities in being able to build makeshift hospitals over a two to three day period in cities such as Wuhan, where the virus was first detected.

Although an intriguing theory, in recent days scientist have debunked such claims that this virus was a human creation with studies showing that it developed naturally and more likely derived as a recombination of a virus found in bats and another virus, possibly originating from pangolins (scaly anteaters).

Furthermore, the World Health Organization (W.H.O) have praised China’s extreme and somewhat draconian responses early on in trying to contain the virus, whereby several major cities were on lockdown and extensive testing was carried out.  It could be argued that the logistical actions taken by China were more to do with its financial resources coupled with its experiences in dealing with previous outbreaks such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). This disease also originated in China, killing approximately 800 people worldwide in 2002-2003. At the time of SARS, the Chinese government was heavily criticised for responding too slow to that outbreak and concealing the seriousness of the illness.

The same criticism could be levelled at China with its initial reaction to COVID-19, in downplaying the outbreak in December. Whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang, who died from the disease in February 2020, was one of the first to raise alarm bells about the virus in Wuhan on social media. He was posthumously exonerated by the Chinese government, becoming a national hero and catalyst in forcing the Chinese officials to then take necessary and stringent action.

Moreover, infections were reported early on not just in Wuhan but also outside the Hubei province including the capital Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. In recent days China has reported new cases in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai, deriving from citizens traveling back into China. In response, they have already curtailed flights and travel.

It is worth noting that the Chinese propaganda machine and media are also communicating their own conspiracy theories and misinformation. Chinese media outlets are currently spreading the differing stories that the virus originated in Italy or from a military laboratory in the United States.

Misinformation on suitable treatments is also doing the rounds on social media and there has been much debate on whether anti-inflammatory medication such as Ibuprofen is dangerous and should be avoided if suffering from the disease. These apparent warnings were first reported in a published letter on 11th March 2020, by researchers in Switzerland and Greece to The Lancet medical journal. The speculative letter theorised that over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs could be an aggravating factor in Covid-19 infections. Three days after it was published, the Minister for Health in France circulated a warning against such medication and this story was then reported round the world as fact.

It has subsequently been claimed that there was no evidence to back up these initial warnings and both the European Medicines Agency (European Union’s equivalent of the FDA) and the W.H.O have both weighed in on the debate saying there is no reason to stop using such medication to treat fever from Covid-19 at home.

The writers of the original letter to The Lancet have distanced themselves from the furore and in an updated statement said “It does not constitute a recommendation to use certain drugs or not.” They have insisted on the need for patients to consult with their own doctors and for further research to be carried out on the use of anti-inflammatory drugs in treating COVID-19.

Conspiracy theories and misinformation will continue to spread in times of crisis, as is the case with COVID-19. One can recall the numerous conspiracy theories following the 9/11 attacks in the United States. These terrorist attacks which shocked the world, killed almost 3000 people on 11th September 2001. The most prominent conspiracy suggested these atrocities were an inside job orchestrated by officials in the U.S. government and that collapse of the Twin Towers was the result of controlled internal demolition.

Misinformation refers to false information being distributed unknowingly, while disinformation refers to the intentional spread of false information.

Both misinformation and disinformation about migrant numbers were spread by pro-Brexit groups before the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016, which led to a substantial rise in nationalist and right-wing sentiment and increase in racism and xenophobic attacks. Since the COVID–19 outbreak, many Chinese nationals are experiencing a high degree of racial abuse. Misinformation refers to false information dissemination s unknowingly, while disinformation refers to the spread of intentionally false information.

President Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese Virus” is furthering a dialogue of blame and hatred towards the Chinese. The term is not a mistruth per se, given the virus originated in China, however, such a malicious rephrasing of the illness is being strategically motivated to distract attraction from his own mishandling of the crisis in the United States. 

Conspiracy theories and misinformation materialise at times of crisis for many reasons. For some it may provide reasoning for unexplained, random events to alleviate fears by trying to maintain a level of control or understanding. While for others it can become a means to exploit the vulnerable through bogus claims, profiteering through sales of fraudulent panacea or undermining societal hierarchies and governance.

Taoiseach Leo Vardakar and his cabinet colleagues have continually urged people to stop spreading misinformation and disinformation on social media about COVID-19 as this was “scaring and confusing people”.  Instead, he advised that people should obtain information from “official and trusted sources”– invaluable advice in such challenging and unprecedented times.

Jason O’ Sullivan, is a Solicitor and Public Affairs Consultant at J.O.S Solicitors