As the pandemic moves into a third year, whacky fake ‘cures’ for COVID circulate at our peril

WHO is churning out cards like these to debunk fake cure claims circulating online

We don’t yet have a cure for COVID, but I have hope. Last week, the World Health Organization approved two new treatments. And vaccine supply is increasing for the excluded parts of the world. At the same time, we need to keep debunking all the whacky ’cures’ circulating online, from drinking urine, to eating chillies, taking footbaths, or lying out in the sun. And we must call out the platforms to do more to block the pseudo-science peddlers of public harm.

Other fake ‘cures’ are more dangerous. WHO has urgently warned against the trend of self-medicating potentially unsafe drugs, including hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, colloidal silver, antibiotics, and aspirin. Ingesting bleach, ethanol, or methanol, also being promoted online, could prove fatal.

These fake treatments aren’t new. Bogus ‘cures’ and preventative therapies have circulated since the start of the pandemic, often found together with conspiracies undermining vaccines and the public health response. So long as these lies find a global audience, they will continue to cost lives.

So, how can we stop this dangerous disinformation spreading in the first place? Part of the solution lies in focusing our efforts on the big messengers. As with any communication, conspiracy theories typically find a mass audience when voiced by a well-known figure. A media personality, say.

Take Joe Rogan, host of the world’s most popular podcast, who has come under fire for spreading COVID disinformation. Last year, he told his 11 million listeners he was taking ivermectin, an animal deworming drug, to treat a COVID infection, and implied young people didn’t need vaccines.

Earlier this month, Rogan invited conspiracist Dr. Robert Malone, a medical doctor who says he helped develop mRNA vaccines, onto his show to spread anti-vaccine lies. Days earlier, Malone had been banned from Twitter for breaching the platform’s rules on COVID disinformation.

Malone told Rogan’s millions of mostly young listeners that they were being ‘hypnotised’ into getting vaccinated. The episode outraged medics and prompted a flurry of demands for Spotify to crack down on disinformation and to rein in Rogan, who has been called a ‘menace to public health.’

‘Dr. Malone’s interview has reached many tens of millions of listeners vulnerable to predatory medical misinformation,’ a group of 270 doctors wrote in an open letter to Spotify. ‘Mass-misinformation events of this scale have extraordinarily dangerous ramifications.’

The platform remains in hot water over Rogan. In a surprise move this week, veteran singer-songwriter Neil Young threatened to pull his entire back-catalog from Spotify over the controversial podcast, saying the platform was helping to spread disinformation about COVID vaccines. Spotify chose to stick with its lucrative podcaster over the iconic musician, sending a disappointing message about it priorities. The controversy has, at least, brought new scrutiny to Spotify’s weak dis- and mis-information policies and a public demand for change. Many, like me, are considering moving their music listening to another platform.

Sadly though, Rogan isn’t a one-off. Worse, neither is Dr. Malone. Rightfully, doctors have enjoyed huge public trust during the pandemic. In a recent study, 85% of Americans were confident their doctor was providing trustworthy information about COVID. Yet a handful of doctors are betraying that trust.

UN partner First Draft News found Latin American doctors hawking fake COVID ‘cures,’ from baking soda shakes to bleaching agents. Meanwhile, advocacy group No License for Disinformation recently reported on a number of ‘disinformation doctors’ in the US, calling for them to be held accountable.

There is an effective way to counter and provide alternatives to these bad actors — outnumber them online. By recruiting an army of voices that are more credible, we can communicate the science via trusted media personalities, doctors and scientists trained in communications, as well as local influencers with local community followings.

We also must step up online media literacy so people can learn to spot disinformation online, and refrain from sharing. Together with social impact agency Purpose, we designed a campaign to ask people to pause before sharing things online.

If we are to save lives, we must make sure everyone is equipped with accurate information based on science. We can’t abandon them to the snake oil salesmen.

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Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.

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Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.

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