Don't drink bleach: 4 myths about coronavirus and how to spot them

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A woman stands with her arms crossed.
Dr. Rose Marie Leslie, a University of Minnesota resident, has taken to TikTok to combat disinformation about coronavirus.
Evan Frost | MPR News

This is part of “Can You Believe It?” a series of stories and resources focused on giving you the tools to combat disinformation heading into Election 2020. You can find more resources here. What have you been seeing? Share here.

Disinformation about the coronavirus is spreading online just as quickly as it is spreading in real life.

Take a video posted to social media app TikTok showing a man claiming to have the blood of “patient zero.”

According to The Associated Press, the video was satire but nevertheless circulated widely, contributing to rumors, confusion and fear around the virus, also known as nCoV-2019. The virus has killed more than 500 people in China.

Dr. Rose Marie Leslie has also taken to TikTok — as a truth-teller. She’s a resident at the University of Minnesota with 473,000 followers on the platform.

“There’s been a frenzy about the coronavirus all over every social media platform,” Leslie said. “A lot of really good information but also a lot of misinformation, things that are potentially harmful like people spreading information about a cure for the virus.”

Disinformation about the virus has become so rampant on social media that Facebook has vowed to take false content down.

In a series of videos, Leslie laid out facts about the disease. One about coronavirus symptoms — has been viewed more than 3 million times.

It’s not the first time Leslie has used TikTok, popular with teens and young adults, to dispel medical myths. Last year, she used the platform to get the facts out about the dangers of vaping.

Meanwhile, professional journalists and fact-checkers from around the world have come together to debunk bad coronavirus information.

Medical emergencies are a breeding ground for disinformation because of fear and uncertainty, said Cristina Tardáguila, associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network.

“We don’t get too much data from China,” said Tardáguila, who is organizing journalists across more than 30 countries.

“When you don’t have good, reliable data, that’s the first reason why you don’t know who or what to trust,” she said.

And when that bad information comes from a friend or relative, Tardáguila said people tend to believe it.

Tardáguila said some hoaxes the coalition has debunked are ridiculous, like garlic soup being a cure-all. Others are dangerous, like telling people to drink bleach to protect against the virus.

“This is the perfect time for fact-checkers to jump in,” she said.

Here’s the truth behind four particularly virulent lies about coronavirus making their way around the web with resources to set the record straight.

1) There is no vaccine to protect against the current coronavirus outbreak.

Multiple media outlets have debunked variations on hoax that there’s a vaccine for coronavirus. There is not. According to PolitiFact, some social media posts refer to “a patent associated with the coronavirus that causes SARS, a different illness.”

2) The virus is not a biological weapon built by China.

At least two news sources — The Washington Times and the British paper The Daily Mail — have played a role in expanding on this conspiracy theory. But according to the Washington Post, experts agree there’s no evidence the virus was engineered in a lab. PolitiFact also rated this claim false.

3) Scientists have not predicted the virus will kill 65 million people.

According to Vox, this is a popular — but false — theme on Twitter. This disinformation appears to be linked to a 2019 pandemic preparedness and response exercise hosted by Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health that modeled after a fictional virus. In a statement, the school wrote that “we are not now predicting that the nCoV-2019 outbreak will kill 65 million people. Although our tabletop exercise included a mock novel coronavirus, the inputs we used for modeling the potential impact of that fictional virus are not similar to nCoV-2019.”

4) Drinking bleach will not cure the coronavirus.

Please don’t do this. According to the Food and Drug Administration, drinking bleach will make you very sick.

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