The spread of false information during the coronavirus outbreak has been rapid with well-meaning friends and family sharing messages on messaging platforms including WhatsApp warning of everything from the army closing London to beating the virus by drinking hot drinks.
This is not just annoying spam; it can be dangerous. Here, we debunk some of the most circulated Covid-19 messages that have spread at speed. We will update this article when there are new false stories being circulated.
- 'If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, then you don't have the virus'
The claim: This long message began circulating early on in the crisis and the claims have been shared more than 30,000 times on Facebook in over a dozen countries, including India, Nigeria and the USA. The message contained several pieces of false information including fake advice on how to detect whether you have the virus, telling people to "breathe in deeply and hold your breath for 10 seconds."
It goes onto say: "If this can be done without coughing, without difficulty this shows that there is no fibrosis in the lungs, indicating the absence of infection. It is recommended to do this control every morning to help detect infection."
The message was usually forwarded from a friend citing a seemingly reliable source ie "Jenny who works with Royal College of Surgeons who received it from the member of Stanford hospital board".
The truth: Dr Sarah Jarvis, GP and clinical director of patientaccess.com debunks this: "Fibrosis is not a feature of coronavirus and you cannot tell... if you've got COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) you won't be able to hold your breath for 10 seconds anyway.
"And some people who have coronavirus the only symptom they've got is a fever and not a cough."
The claim: The message, which is voiced to make it look like it's been leaked by someone working with the ambulance service, states that on Thursday (9 April) the UK will hit its peak and face 900 deaths per day from coronavirus. The hoax message states that one third of the 900 deaths will be babies, children and teenagers with no underlying health issues. It also says that when this happens the NHS will become overwhelmed and unable to respond.
The truth: Public Health England have now told us that this recording is fake news and they are urging people to ignore it.
The body says: “We are aware of a voice message circulating about the ambulance response to coronavirus, as well as restrictions on movement and predicted case numbers, which claims to have come from PHE.
"This is fake news, and we would urge people to ignore the message and not share it further.
- The virus spreads through petrol pumps
The claim: This hoax social media message appeared over the weekend of 21/22 March and was shared on WhatsApp. The message claimed the virus was "spreading quickly via petrol pumps". It went on to say people should "wear gloves when filling up or use paper towel and bin straight away."
The truth: "A petrol pump is a hard surface," Dr Jarvis says.
"The handle of petrol pump is a hard surface. The best evidence we have, and we don't know, is that on average we think the virus can survive on a hard surface for up to three days, on metal or glass, possibly on plastic. Perhaps one day on cardboard.
"What that means if you touch a petrol pump that a lot of other people have touched before, in exactly the same way that if you've touched a ATM or if you touch a lift button or if you touch supermarket trolley. Yes, it can spread. But because it is a hard surface, you're not going to get it through the fumes."
Public Health England reiterated that on Monday with a statement that read: "Petrol pumps are no worse than other surfaces, although we do recommend people use gloves and wash their hands after using them."
- 5G causes the coronavirus
The claim: Even celebrities have been promoting this conspiracy theory linking 5G technology with coronavirus.
Videos purportedly showing masts on fire were posted on social media after theories about the link between the mobile technology and Covid-19 circulated online.
Cheers actor Woody Harrelson and former Dancing on Ice judge Jason Gardiner are among stars who have shared theories.
The truth: Scientists have completely rejected the claims.Condemning the theories as "the worst kind of fake news".
At a Downing Street press conference, national medical director of NHS England Professor Steve Powis said: "I'm absolutely outraged, absolutely disgusted, that people would be taking action against the very infrastructure that we need to respond to this health emergency.
"It is absolute and utter rubbish."
Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove added: "That's just nonsense, dangerous nonsense as well."
Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said: "Conspiracy theorists are a public health danger who once read a Facebook page.
"Here, we also see similar groups of people keen to show their ignorance on a topic where they have no helpful expertise, nor any inclination to post useful public health messages.
"The celebrities fanning the flames of these conspiracy theorists should be ashamed."
- Beat the virus with hot water
The claim: Another part of the message that encouraged us all to hold our breath for 10 seconds also claimed the virus "hates heat and dies if it is exposed of temperatures greater than 27C." It told us to "abundantly" consume hot drinks "such as infusions, broths or simply hot water" during the day.
"These hot liquids kill the virus and are easy to ingest," the viral message stated.
The truth: "Technically, the virus is destroyed by 60C but the virus, don't forget, lives in an awful lot of places where hot drinks don't get to, like the back of your nose," Dr Jarvis explains. "You also run the risk of scolding yourself."
How you can check whether a message you receive is true and how to not spread fake news about coronavirus
- Are there spelling errors and strange punctuation? Lots of capital letters are also a giveaway as is a strange URL. Information from reputable sources will be written in clear, grammatically correct English.
- Read beyond the headline. Does it sound unbelievable, it probably is.
- Where did the article come from? If it popped up in your social media feed proceed with caution. If the information was shared by a friend do not assume it is accurate. Vet the information and double check it against official advice before forwarding it to one of your contacts.
- Is the information on credible news sites, or the government or NHS websites? If not, it is unlikely to be true.
- Check the image. Many false news stories will contain a retouched picture or edited video clip.
- Play detective and look at fact-checking websites. Poynter.org has a Coronavirus facts database that has collated many of the most misleading messages.
- The Government's SHARE checklist is a handy tool to take a look at if you're unsure about the validity of any claims you have been sent or have seen on social media.
What are WhatsApp doing to stop the spread of fake news and misinformation about coronavirus?
WhatsApp are attempting to tackle the issue and have launched a website to help combat misinformation surrounding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The Facebook-owned company have partnered with the World Health Organisation and UNICEF for WhatsApp Coronavirus Information Hub which provide reliable information to users and provides links to reliable sources.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the company said they were "supporting the work of fact checkers around the world to help debunk myths."
They have introduced a number of measures, including reducing the amount of times a message can be forwarded.
"We are currently working with health ministries all over the world, and NGOs including the World Health Organization, to launch official Coronavirus Information Helplines to allow people to ask questions about the virus, and to receive official, trusted health advice," the statement said.
"We are supporting the work of fact checkers around the world to help debunk myths about Coronavirus across all social platforms.
"And we have introduced a series of product changes to address the spread of such messages on our platform, such as reducing the number of people you can forward a message to just five chats at once and introducing the 'forwarded' and 'highly forwarded' labels to highlight when you should stop and think about whether you should share something that has been shared multiple times."
- What is the Government doing to tackle coronavirus-related misinformation?
The Government is starting to make efforts to crack down on dangerously misleading information relating to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, the Government announced that a specialist Rapid Response Unit was "working at pace to combat false and misleading narratives about coronavirus".
The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said the unit was tackling up to 70 incidents a week, many "containing multiple misleading claims".
The ‘Don’t Feed the Beast’ public information campaign, that first ran in 2019, is being relaunched next week in a bid to encourage people to scrutinise what they read online, the Department announced.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said it was "vital" misinformation did not undermine "expert medical advice".
"We’re working with social media companies, and I’ll be pressing them this week for further action to stem the spread of falsehoods and rumours which could cost lives," Mr Dowden said,
Over the weekend, the Government endorsed an online service that helps users identify trustworthy websites and flags any that are hosting harmful misinformation.
The app's makers NewsGuard say they have identified more than 140 websites publishing fake news on the Covid-19 pandemic, many of them getting more engagement over a 24-hour period than some NHS websites receive in a month.
Last week, former chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media And Sport (DCMS) Select Committee Damian Collins even called for it to be an offence to knowingly share fake news.
The Tory MP has partnered with Infotagion, a free-to-access website, which allows people to post screenshots of coronavirus-related information they have received online.