Why False Claims About COVID-19 Refuse to Die

coronavirus sars-cov-2

Early in the morning on April 5, 2020, an article appeared on the website Medium with the title “Covid-19 had us all fooled, but now we might have finally found its secret.” The article claimed that the pathology of COVID-19 was completely different from what public health authorities, such as the World Health Organization, had previously described.

POOR STANDARD: The antiviral drug hydroxychloroquine has been hyped as an effective treatment for COVID-19, notably by President Trump. The March journal article that kicked off the enthusiasm was later followed by a lesser-read news release from the board of its publisher, the International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, which states the “Board believes the article does not meet the Society’s expected standard.” Marc Bruxelle / Shutterstock

Cailin O’Connor, James Owen Weatherall | NAUTILUS

According to the author, COVID-19 strips the body’s hemoglobin of iron, preventing red blood cells from delivering oxygen and damaging the lungs in the process. It also claimed to explain why hydroxychloroquine, an experimental treatment often hyped by President Trump, should be effective.

The article was published under a pseudonym—libertymavenstock—but the associated account was linked to a Chicagoland man working in finance, with no medical expertise. (His father is a retired M.D., and in a follow-up note posted on a blog called “Small Dead Animals,” the author claimed that the original article was a collaboration between the two of them.) Although it was not cited, the claims were apparently based on a single scientific article that has not yet undergone peer-review or been accepted for publication, along with “anecdotal evidence” scraped from social media.1

While Medium allows anyone to post on their site and does not attempt to fact-check content, this article remained up for less than 24 hours before it was removed for violating Medium’s COVID-19 content policy. Removing the article, though, has not stopped it from making a splash. The original text continues to circulate widely on social media, with users tweeting or sharing versions archived by the Wayback Machine and re-published by a right-wing blog. As of April 12, the article had been tweeted thousands of times.

There is a pandemic of misinformation about COVID-19 spreading on social media sites. Some of this misinformation takes well-understood forms: baseless rumors, intentional disinformation, and conspiracy theories. But much of it seems to have a different character. In recent months, claims with some scientific legitimacy have spread so far, so fast, that even if it later becomes clear they are false or unfounded, they cannot be laid to rest. Instead, they become information zombies, continuing to shamble on long after they should be dead.

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