PROVIDENCE, R.I. – As the world races to find a vaccine and a treatment for COVID-19, there is seemingly no antidote in sight for the burgeoning outbreak of coronavirus conspiracy theories, hoaxes, anti-mask myths and sham cures.
The phenomenon, unfolding largely on social media, escalated this week when President Donald Trump retweeted a false video about an anti-malaria drug being a cure for the virus and it was revealed that Russian intelligence is spreading disinformation about the crisis through English-language websites.
Experts worry the torrent of bad information is dangerously undermining efforts to slow the virus, whose death toll in the U.S. hit 150,000 Wednesday, by far the highest in the world, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Over a half-million people have died in the rest of the world.
Hard-hit Florida reported 216 deaths, breaking the single-day record it set a day earlier. And South Carolina's death toll passed 1,500 this week, more than doubling over the past month. In Georgia, hospitalizations have more than doubled since July 1, with 3,188 people hospitalized Wednesday.
“It is a real challenge in terms of trying to get the message to the public about what they can really do to protect themselves and what the facts are behind the problem,” said Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
He said the fear is that “people are putting themselves in harm's way because they don't believe the virus is something they have to deal with.”
Rather than fade away in the face of new evidence, the claims have flourished, fed by mixed messages from officials, transmitted by social media, amplified by leaders like Trump and mutating when confronted with facts.
“You don't need masks. There is a cure,” Dr. Stella Immanuel promised in a video that promoted hydroxychloroquine. “You don't need people to be locked down.”
The truth: Federal regulators last month revoked their authorization of the drug as an emergency treatment amid growing evidence it doesn't work and can have deadly side effects. Even if it were effective, it wouldn't negate the need for masks and other measures to contain the outbreak.
None of that stopped Trump, who has repeatedly praised the drug, from retweeting the video. Twitter and Facebook began removing the video Monday for violating policies on COVID-19 misinformation, but it had already been seen more than 20 million times.
Many of the claims in Immanuel's video are widely disputed by medical experts. She has made even more bizarre pronouncements in the past, saying cysts, fibroids and some other conditions can be caused by having sex with demons, that McDonald's and Pokemon promote witchcraft, that alien DNA is used in medical treatments, and that half-human “reptilians” work in the government.
Other baseless theories and hoaxes have alleged the virus isn't real or that it's a bioweapon created by the U.S. or its adversaries. One hoax from the outbreak's early months claimed 5G towers were spreading the virus through microwaves. Another popular story held that Microsoft founder Bill Gates plans to use vaccines to implant microchips in all 7 billion people on the planet.
Then there are the political theories – that doctors, journalists and federal officials are conspiring to lie about the threat of the virus to hurt Trump politically.
Social media has amplified the claims and helped believers find each other. The flood of misinformation has posed a challenge for Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, which have found themselves accused of censorship for taking down virus misinformation.
A professionally made 26-minute video that alleges the government's top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, manufactured the virus and shipped it to China was watched more than 8 million times before the platforms took action. The video, titled “Plandemic,” also warned that masks could make you sick – the false claim Facebook cited when it removed the video from its site.