The Current

As misinformation spreads, 'snake oil salesmen' are profiting off anxiety over coronavirus, says reporter

Fears about the COVID-19 pandemic are feeding misinformation and conspiracies on social media, and giving rise to face cures that have no scientific backing.

Fears about the pandemic are feeding misinformation and conspiracies on social media

Buzzfeed disinformation reporter Jane Lytvynenko says that people are selling fake cures online to capitalize on the fear of coronavirus. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

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As concerns about the coronavirus pandemic grow, "snake oil salesmen" are using misinformation and conspiracy theories to profit on fears, experts say.

According to Buzzfeed News disinformation reporter Jane Lytvynenko, people have been selling products like silver water, vitamins and hemp oil online as cures for COVID-19.

"Some [are] going so far as advising to drink bleach as a preventative measure against coronavirus," she said.

There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19, however, researchers are testing the efficacy of certain anti-viral medicines against the disease.

In the early days of the outbreak, Lytvynenko says she tracked misinformation about the number of reported COVID-19 cases, including that certain celebrities had contracted the virus when they had not, and false information about the outbreak itself. 

But as the pandemic brews uncertainty and panic, fake cures without any scientific backing are being promoted and sold online to fearful customers.

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The products are often targeted to people distrustful of medicine, vaccines and "official narratives," Lytvynenko told The Current's Matt Galloway, and hawked by conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones.

On Thursday, New York Attorney General Letitia James ordered the controversial InfoWars creator to immediately stop selling toothpaste his company falsely claimed could cure COVID-19.

Humans react to 'scary stuff'

Tim Caulfield, a health law and science policy professor critical of so-called alternative medicine therapies and anti-vaccine advocates, says the novel coronavirus has created a "perfect storm" for the spread of misinformation.

He says fear and a desire for certainty makes questionable information, like conspiracies about potential cures, appealing to some.

"We act more strongly to scary stuff, to negative stuff. And that makes sense from an evolutionary perspective," he said.

"That really facilitates the spread of this misinformation."

Health law and science policy professor Timothy Caulfield says that scientific groups need to 'step up' and fight against misinformation on social media. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Lytvynenko, who admits that even she has been fooled by misinformation online, says people need to be vigilant about what they're reading on social media as the pandemic continues.

"There's a lot going on, and it's really, really difficult to sift through what we see online — whether it's real or not — because there's just so much being thrown at us right now."

Social networks respond

Google, Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks are now flagging official information while demoting conspiracy theories.

Facebook Canada spokesperson Kevin Chan told The Current that the social network has taken steps to limit what users see by removing misinformation that could "lead to real-world harm."

"What we are doing is working directly with the Public Health Agency of Canada, making sure that if Canadians search for COVID-19 or coronavirus on Facebook, that they get redirected to the Public Health Agency of Canada's website," Chan said Thursday.

That's a good first step, but the misinformation is still spreading, Lytvynenko says.

Scientific groups should 'step up'

Accessing accurate information about the COVID-19 pandemic is particularly challenging given the way media consumption has changed since the introduction of social media, according to Carl Bergstrom.

Bergstrom, who studies how global information flows, says many people are reading information filtered through their social networks rather than trusted sources.

"What we end up viewing is determined by what our friends choose to pass on, rather than by what's been vetted by professional editors through traditional media."

This, he says, is far different from how we've communicated during historic disease outbreaks. 

Carl Bergstrom says with people using social media, their news sources have changed. (Kris Tsujikawa)

Both Caulfield and Bergstrom agree that social media is here to stay, and health officials have actually leveraged the platforms to correct misinformation.

France's health department took to Twitter to fight widely-circulated social media posts falsely claiming that cocaine could cure coronavirus.

"We need entities like the World Health Organization and scientific organizations to step up when they see misinformation about a cure to immediately give a clear response on social media," said Caulfield.

He points to efforts by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), which took to social media to dispel suggestions that a stem cell therapy exists to treat COVID-19.

"Let's have more of that."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Ines Colabrese, Peter Mitton and Caro Rolando.