January 25, 2021

Coronavirus: How bad information goes viral

There’s a huge amount of misleading information circulating online about coronavirus – from dodgy health tips to speculation about government plans. This is the story of how one post went viral.

It’s a list of tips and advice – some true, some benign, and some possibly harmful – which has been circulating on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and elsewhere.

Dubbed the “Uncle with master’s degree” post because of the alleged source of the information, it’s hopped from the Facebook profile of an 84-year-old British man to the Instagram account of a Ghanaian TV presenter, through Facebook groups for Indian Catholics to coronavirus-specific forums, WhatsApp groups, and Twitter accounts.

At first glance it seems legitimate because the information is attributed to a trusted source: a doctor, an institution, or that well-educated “uncle”.
The tips that follow are misleading or wrong. One says that you don’t have the virus “if you have a runny nose”.

According to fact checking organisations Full Fact and Snopes, citing health authorities including the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and The Lancet medical journal, a runny nose is uncommon – but it’s not unheard of among coronavirus patients.

The post also encourages people to “drink more hot water” and “Try not to drink ice”. There’s currently no medical evidence that either of those things will help prevent or cure coronavirus.

“That has no support,” says Alex Kasprak of Snopes. “It’s wild to see that in there, it’s a big red flag.”

We attempted to contact the person who posted the information; she did not respond.

Six coronavirus health myths fact-checked
The list picked up momentum several days later when it was shared by a man named Glen in India. He put it in several different Facebook groups, including ones for Catholics.

The new post built on the 7 February post with additional information. Although the new post stated “My classmate’s uncle and nephew, graduated with a master’s degree … just called me and told me to tell my friends…”, Glen didn’t actually receive a phone call from an uncle.

He says the post was just “a forward that I got and forwarded it on”.

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