There have been mob attacks in India and poisonings in Iran. Phone masts have been set alight in the UK, Netherlands, Canada and Russia because of theories about 5G causing the virus. WhatsApp rumours in India suggesting Muslims are spreading the virus have sparked racially charged assaults in India.
The Royal College of GPs and front-line doctors have exclusively warned the BBC about the danger misinformation poses to patients, having seen first-hand those coming to harm after following misleading advice from social media. The President of the Royal College of Physicians and the government have also spoken to BBC News about the real harm caused by misinformation and what can be done to tackle it for a report to come for the Six and Ten o’clock BBC news.
The investigation has been carried out by the BBC’s new disinformation unit – a team made up of journalists from the BBC World Service’s BBC Trending and BBC Monitoring, and BBC News’ Reality Check. Marianna Spring, BBC specialist disinformation is available for interview and two-ways about this investigation.
The purpose of the unit is to scale up what the BBC can do to debunk fake news, avoid amplification across the networks, and carry out investigations like this one.
The unit was originally planned to be set up for the US election but it was fast-tracked into existence when the coronavirus pandemic broke out.
The team has verified case studies from across the world where people have ended up in hospital, been subjected to attacks, or even died as a result of misinformation spreading about virus and its causes or cures. They have spoken exclusively with many people, from patients who have been harmed to the doctors treating them.
In April, three Muslim men were violently attacked in separate incidents in Delhi. They were beaten up after rumours circulated that Muslims were spreading the virus.
In Sisai, a small village in eastern India, rival gangs clashed. It came after an attack on a Muslim boy, again linked to false rumours suggesting Muslims were spreading disease. One young man lost his life and another was seriously injured.
And in Indore, a city in west-central India, doctors on a mission to track down someone who might have been exposed to the virus were attacked with stones. Misleading WhatsApp videos claimed that healthy Muslims were being taken away by health care workers and injected with the virus.
Two doctors were left with serious injuries after the incident in early April.
From the UK – Attacks on phone mast engineers:
Across the UK, more than 70 phone masts have been vandalised because of a conspiracy theory that 5G technology is to blame for the virus.
In April, Dylan Farrell, an engineer for Openreach, was driving his van in Thurmaston near Leicester. When he pulled up to a roundabout he started to hear shouting.
At first, he thought it was directed at someone else. But when he distinctly heard “5G!” being screamed at him through his passenger side window, he realised the abuse was meant for him.
“You’ve got no morals!” a middle-aged man was shouting. “5G is killing us all!”
“I have no doubt he would have tried to get inside and physically attack me had I not locked the doors straight away,” Mr Farrell says. “It was so frightening.”
He drove away quickly. There have been no arrests in connection with the incident.
Another engineer, George, was left equally frightened when in April a man approached him as he was working in Croydon, South London.
“He asked me whether I was installing 5G equipment,” he says. “I told him he wasn’t, but he kept getting angry.”
The man threatened to throw a brick at George’s head. Eventually he left – but returned half an hour later with a bottle in his hand. George fled and called the police, but the man ran away. Again, no arrests have been made.
From the USA – Dangerous disbelief and eating soap:
In a UK-exclusive interview with a Florida man, Brian Lee Hitchens (photo available) told the BBC the story of how after reading online conspiracy theories, he and his wife thought Covid-19 could be a hoax – or, at the very least, no worse than flu, and they continued life as normal – until they both ended up in hospital:
He told the BBC from hospital: “We thought the government was using it to distract us, or it was to do with 5G, so we didn’t follow the rules or seek help sooner.”
His wife is critically ill – sedated, on a ventilator in an adjacent ward.
Elsewhere, the poison control hotline at the University of Kansas had been busy with calls about children who had accidentally swallowed hand sanitizer.
But after President Trump’s remarks about ingesting disinfectant in a late April press briefing, they started fielding another type of question. One concerned Kansan explained to the BBC that a friend had swallowed disinfectant soap after listening to that briefing from the US President.
Dr Duncan Maru (photo available), a front-line doctor at Elmhurst Hospital in New York, says his colleagues have treated patients who have become acutely ill after ingesting disinfectant. Several became seriously ill.
“These ingestions also can have long-term consequences, like cancers and gastrointestinal bleeding,” he explained.