The fake-news brigade

Our bootcamp Whatsapp group, which has over 100 members but only a handful of people who ever actually post anything, had burst into life, with people who hadn’t been to a session in years emerging from the shadows to contribute their two cents to the crowdsourced corpus of coronavirus gospel.

“Inhaling hot air from a hairdryer kills the virus!”

“Drinking water regularly washes the virus down into your stomach to be killed by your stomach acid!”

“Havana University researchers say that eucalyptus kills the virus! Have eucalyptus trees in your home and burn eucalyptus oil!” 

There is one guy in the group who can be a bit sanctimonious at times. When I posted a message saying bootcamp was still on, that we would follow the official guidelines (which at that point were still just “Wash your hands”, “Stay 2m apart” and “Don’t cough all over people”) and take precautions without succumbing to the hysteria, he replied with a high-horse message about how “Now is not the time for Western arrogance. It should not be dismissed as hysteria. Westerners are no more resistant than anyone else!” quite as if I had said that being “western” made us immune to the virus.

Anyhow, he replied to the message about eucalyptus oil by posting a link to a TED talk he had given about fake news. The woman who had posted the eucalyptus message, who had just hurriedly repatriated herself to Peru, replied: “I know you don’t believe what we believe in Peru, but we use herbs to treat a lot of things. My parents both had cancer and were cured by Peruvian herbs. Of course, they had chemotherapy too, but still.” 

I was tempted to tell everyone not to post unverified articles about miracle cures or even sensationalist newspaper headlines (“A HUGE mobile mortuary has been set up in London to cope with all the CORONAVIRUS VICTIMS coming down the pipeline!” – The Sun). In fact, I would have discouraged posting such articles even if they were verified, because they would have served only to feed the frenzy. Also, as this BBC article points out, if people buy into these snake-oil remedies, they feel they’re protected, so they behave in riskier ways. But I’m not the boss of the Whatsapp group and it’s not my job to police free speech, so I didn’t say anything.

One of the other guys who runs the sessions with me wasn’t so restrained, though. Someone posted a video from a doctor (well, she called herself a doctor and spoke in very professional tones, but she also cited homeopathy as her specialisation) declaring that you can cure yourself of covid-19 by gargling with oil (“You can also add turmeric and a little salt”), someone else replied calling BS, to which the original poster said indignantly “I’m just sharing the information, and you can choose to follow it or not. Think of it as an extra layer of protection.” The guy who helps run sessions replied saying, quite bluntly, “It’s not an extra layer of protection if it’s misinformation — then it’s just dangerous. Please refrain from sharing ‘miraculous coronavirus cures’ and the like on this group.”

The sanctimonious guy (he of the TED talk on fake news) posted a link inviting everyone to download a new app where you can report your symptoms — or lack of symptoms — in order to help researchers track the spread of covid-19.
“This is legit,” he said, and followed it with a link to a Guardian article about it.

This was followed by two messages by another guy, which were deleted before I could see what they were.

The sanctimonious guy immediately responded “No, this is not ‘bullshit’, as you put it”.

“Sorry,” came the reply. “I was asking a journalist friend to make sure that it’s not a scam. Didn’t mean to offend. 😊”

The apology was accepted graciously.
“No problem — it is indeed useful to question everything, given how much misinformation there is (e.g. so-called ‘miracle cures’).”

2 thoughts on “The fake-news brigade

  1. I love the stuff about homemade cures! Im going to keep that tumeric one in my back pocket! Good luck with the boot camp! And be careful if you try that hairdryer cure! ☺ hope you are doing well there Lara!


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