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Published March 31st 2020

Fake News Week 2020: Questionable Covid-19 Cures and Causes Are Being Shared Tens of Thousands of Times Online

As part of our Fake News Week 2020 content series, here’s a look at misinformation relating to Covid-19 and how it’s spreading across the internet.

While it’s only been a short time, it already seems cliché to say we’re living in very uncertain times.

What’s making those uncertain times even more worrisome is the sheer amount of misleading information online, at a time when trustworthy news and helpful advice are needed more than ever.

Using BuzzSumo and Brandwatch Consumer Research, we found and analyzed various examples of fake news that are hitting people’s news feeds, from the seemingly harmless through to the dangerous.

Conspiracy spotting

Using Consumer Research, we found the conspiracies with legs, by looking behind volume spikes which our AI assistant Iris pointed out.

This helped us find a number of key theories and stories.

Let’s start with a well-meaning but ultimately questionable example.

Swans in venetian canals

Our AI assistant Iris highlighted that between March 17 and March 23 there had been a large volume of mentions around Venetian canals teeming with wildlife as an apparent side effect of Covid-19 lockdown.

One tweeter wrote how swans had “returned” to Venice.

But the swans in the viral posts regularly appear in the canals of Burano, a small island in the greater Venice metropolitan area, where the photos were taken. Doing a simple Google Images reverse search reveals more pictures of the swans in Burano. They’ve not ‘returned’ at all.

Speaking to National Geographic, Kaveri Ganapathy Ahuja, who tweeted the images, said: “The tweet was just about sharing something that brought me joy in these gloomy times.”

She told NatGeo she never expected it to go viral, or to cause any harm. “I wish there was an edit option on Twitter just for moments like this.”

Meanwhile, this tweeter claimed dolphins were turning up in Venice, too.

But National Geographic pointed out that the “Venetian” dolphins were actually filmed at a port in Sardinia, in the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of miles away.

Tweets like these have got plenty of engagement, and they’re certainly uplifting. But they’re also not quite based on the truth. These aren’t exactly harmful examples of fake news, but they go to show that even the most innocent of stories need a closer look in times like these.

A more serious look at Covid-19 theories

We wouldn’t regard the above as a conspiracy theory, but perhaps it’s a fair descriptor for the following snippets that are circulating online.


One of the most common conspiracy theories we found around Covid-19 was that it’s a myth created to hide the effects of 5G on human health, with 60.3K mentions as of 16 March 2020.

Some people are convinced that this technology is harmful and specifically out to harm them and their families, and the conversation is highly pessimistic (81% of sentiment-categorized mentions are negative).

Bat soup

The second strongest myth, which keeps reoccurring in countries with new outbreaks, is the virus can be traced back to eating bats or bat soup, with 40.8K mentions.

What makes this theory extra strong is that some media outlets ran with it.

People and news outlets including the Daily Mail were sharing a video of a woman eating a bat and some bat soup. Some claimed that the video was filmed at a Wuhan restaurant. The result was a jumbled theory that revolved around Covid-19 originating in people eating bats, and it was shared a lot on social media.

But the video was not filmed in Wuhan, nor was it filmed in 2020 (it was actually from 2016). And while bats have been identified as a potential carrier of the virus, the link here seems pretty tangental. According to BuzzSumo, the media gained 849K engagements (interactions) from content that mentioned bat soup and Covid-19.

And the rest

Other theories included that the virus was manufactured in a lab (with 16K mentions) and that garlic is a cure for coronavirus (with 12.5K mentions). There are no cures for Covid-19 according to WHO.

In times of great uncertainty, misinformation can spread fast. On the subject of misinformation and Spanish flu, Hannah Mawdsley writes in Wellcome Collection: “the pathogen responsible for Spanish flu remained a mystery and, with little helpful guidance available from the medical community, the world was ripe for the proliferation of ‘fake news’.”

Misinformation can be stopped

You can help curve the spread of misinformation, and disinformation, by reporting content on social platforms.

For brands, it’s vital to keep on top of misleading or false claims, especially when they could impact your reputation. Join our webinar, ‘Misinformation: How brands can understand it and plan for it’ on Thursday to learn more.

If you’d like to ask a question about the data, get in touch at @BW_React or drop us a line at [email protected].

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Robert Matney

Managing Director of Government Affairs

Gemma Joyce

Head of Content

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