Brad J. Bushman Ph.D.

Get Psyched!

Misinformation About a Virus Can Be Deadly

"We know that bad information can ruin lives."

Posted May 27, 2020

In the midst of a global pandemic, it is critical to obtain accurate and reliable information. Sadly, there is a lot of misinformation about the coronavirus floating around. Sometimes this misinformation is harmless, but at other times it can be harmful and even deadly. 

A BBC team tracking coronavirus misinformation around the world has found links to assaults, arsons, and even deaths.[1] For example, mass poisonings from alcohol have killed nearly 800 people in Iran. In one case, a 5-year-old boy went blind after his parents gave him illegal booze in an attempt to fight the disease. In the United States, an Arizona couple ingested fish tank cleaner that contained what they thought was a preventative medicine for the coronavirus (chloroquine), which killed the husband and put the wife in the hospital. In Vietnam, a man nearly died after taking a large dose of chloroquine. In Nigeria, hospital admissions from hydroxychloroquine poisoning prompted state health officials to warn people against taking the drug. 

In late April, U.S. President Donald Trump said, "And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?" He later said his comments were sarcastic, but poison control hotlines around the U.S saw a spike in calls related to disinfectant poisoning, including by disinfectant soap. For example, in New Mexico three people died and one became permanently blind after ingesting hand sanitizer.[2] Duncan Maru, a doctor from a hospital in New York that treated patients who became acutely ill after ingesting disinfectant, said: "These ingestions also can have long-term consequences, like cancers and gastrointestinal bleeding."[1]

Misinformation about China intentionally spreading the coronavirus has led to racist acts against people from Asia and China. After rumors circulated that Muslims were spreading the coronavirus, three Muslim men were violently attacked in separate incidents in Delhi. One of the men died. A Muslim boy was also attacked in Sisai, a small village in eastern India.

Many others are lowering their chances of survival by not thinking coronavirus is real or serious and by not taking precautions (e.g., wearing masks, maintaining social distance, disobeying stay-at-home and lockdown orders). Some have even called the global pandemic a “hoax.”

Misinformation has also led to vandalism and destruction of property. In the UK, for example, more than 70 phone masts (towers) have been vandalized because of false rumors that 5G mobile phone technology is somehow to blame for the coronavirus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that misinformation on the coronavirus is causing an “infodemic.”[3] Why do people cling to misinformation? One reason is that misinformation is “sticky”—people can’t seem to let go of it.[4] Rejecting a message requires cognitive effort. It is much easier to simply accept a message as true and the source as credible than it is to critically evaluate the message and its source. When it comes to exerting cognitive effort, people are “cognitive misers.”[5] Just like a miser tries to avoid spending money, a cognitive miser tries to avoid thinking too hard or too much. It isn’t just because people are lazy: Thinking takes effort, and thinking capacity is limited. Thus, people often conserve their thinking.

Research shows that when people’s capacity for thinking is already preoccupied, they are reluctant to expend cognitive effort.[6] Of course, during a pandemic people are preoccupied and anxious about their health and safety. When people are stressed they might have more difficulties exercising higher-order cognitive functions that allow them to think critically about messages.[4] People often seek quick fixes to ease their anxiety.

"We know that bad information can ruin lives. There's such great potential for harm," said Clare Milne, deputy editor of UK fact-checking organization Full Fact. The most accurate and reliable sources of information about the coronavirus come from the WHO [7], the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [8], and state and local public health departments. People can also fact check what politicians and others say about the virus (e.g., FactCheck.org, Snopes). Twitter recently added warnings for tweets that contain misinformation.[9] Before using any treatments or preventions for COVID-19, people should consult their physician. People should also take necessary precautions against contracting the coronavirus. It is not a hoax. As of May 27, it has killed more than 350,000 people worldwide, including over 100,000 people in the U.S.[10]

I would like to thank Becca Bushman for her feedback on this blog.

References

[1] Spring, M. (May 27, 2020). Coronavirus: The human cost of virus misinformation. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-52731624

[2] Karimi, F. (June 27, 2020). Three people died and one is permanently blind after drinking hand sanitizer in New Mexico. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/27/us/new-mexico-hand-sanitizer-deaths-trnd/index.html

[3] Thomas, Z. (February 13, 2020). WHO says fake coronavirus claims causing 'infodemic.' BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-51497800

[4] Lewandowsky, S.,  Ecker, U. K. H., Seifert, C., Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its correction: Continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13,106-131. doi:10.1177/1529100612451018

[5] Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1984). Social cognition. New York: Random House.

[6] Gilbert, D. T., Pelham, B. W., & Krull, D. S. (1988). On cognitive business: When person perceivers meet persons perceived. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 733–740.

[7] World Health Organization (2020). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

[8] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

[9] Roth, Y., & Pickles, R. (May 11, 2020). Updating our approach to misleading information. Retrieved from https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/product/2020/updating-our-approach-to-misleading-information.html

[10] Johns Hopkins University (2020). COVID-19 Dashboard. Retrieved from https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6