This article is also available in Spanish
This article was produced in collaboration with Univision 41
Since the City shut down in March, rumors about the coronavirus and the country’s response have spread through social media and mobile apps. These messages manipulate public opinion, create false narratives and promote dangerous practices, or all three. They’re spread by modern-day snake oil salesmen, religious fanatics and online hucksters using false advertisement and plagiarism to make money off of ad sales.
To learn about which messages are circulating in New York’s Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Documented partnered with Univision 41 to put out a call for our audiences through WhatsApp, television and social media, to send us all of the messages they wanted us to fact check. Below are 10 of the most common messages we received.
The cure for COVID-19 is to find a hair inside a bible, put it in a glass of water and drink it
There is no evidence that supports this claim. Read the Center for Disease Control recommendations on how to protect yourself against the new coronavirus.
Documented received an audio message via WhatsApp where a man says that in Mosquitia (a region on the Nicaragua-Honduras border), a newborn baby had devised a cure for the new coronavirus: people should look for a piece of hair inside all bibles, put it in a glass of water and then drink it.
Due to the fact the audio file was distributed on WhatsApp, it’s hard to track back its creation. However, we can track when people started to search for the terms ‘Pelo’ and ‘Biblia.’ It started in mid-March, reaching its peak after the first week of April.
A man from the Dominican Republic uploaded a video on April 7th claiming he had found the hair. It reached 84,000 views.
Meanwhile, Colombian media reported that a local influencer had come under fire for claiming she had found a hair inside her bible.
A German man claims that a product can cure or prevent COVID-19
The U.S. Food and Drug administration issued a warning letter to a church that was selling the “Miracle Mineral Solution.” The agency said it is “not aware of any scientific evidence supporting their safety or effectiveness and they pose significant risks to patient health,” and that it “is taking this action to protect Americans as part of its response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.”
We received a video made by Andreas Kalcker, an anti-vaccination advocate, which had over 120,000 views. In the video, he explains how “Miracle Mineral Solution,” a trade name for chlorine dioxide, a type of home made bleach was used by “a doctor that had contact with people that had been tested positive for Coronavirus. He took this medicine and then called me to say that he is ok.” While we can’t speak for that particular doctor, the FDA, CDC and other federal agencies have issued stern warnings against people taking chlorine dioxide, as it can cause kidney failure and developmental delays.
Chlorine dioxide is made by mixing sodium chlorite solution with an acid. The chemical is used as a bleach in paper mills and by municipalities to treat water to make it safe for drinking. It’s also used to decontaminate buildings, according to the CDC. If you were to eat or drink large amounts of chlorine dioxide, “you might experience irritation in the mouth, esophagus, or stomach.” Exposure to high levels of chlorine dioxide and chlorite in animals before birth and during early development after birth may cause delays in brain development, according to medical studies.
In May 2019, Amazon removed over a dozen books that unscientifically claimed that chlorine dioxide could cure conditions from malaria to childhood autism. One of the books, “Forbidden Health,” was written by Kalcker and promoted chlorine dioxide as an autism cure.
Walmart and Amazon are sending $250 gift cards giving money to people affected by the coronavirus pandemic
Representatives from both Amazon and Walmart said these links are fake.
“This is false and that website is not ours,” David Flores-Sanchez, Hispanic and Latin America Amazon Strategic Communications, told Documented and Univision 41.
“There’s no truth to that link,” said a Walmart spokesperson.
These two links claim to be coupons that provide $250 worth of credit to Amazon and Walmart. The companies are providing the credit due to the national crisis, according to the messages. Documented reached out to both of the companies, who denied that these are real promotions. Most likely, the people who created both links are using the posts as bait to collect email addresses, banking details or other information to commit identity fraud or steal money from strangers. These types of schemes are common, during moments of national crisis and otherwise.
Messages offer free money or aid if you click on the link.
Neither of the links provide access to money or food aid.
According to one of these messages, the president of the United States is offering all people in America, including undocumented residents, $877.30. The other message implores readers to follow the link to apply for food aid worth between $977.77 and $1,497.77.
These links lead to an article about nutrition and how to stock a kitchen in response to self-isolation from the coronavirus from a University in Valencia, Spain. Tarjetaplansocial.com’s IP address is linked to 21 websites that range from pornography to plagiarized fake news websites. Oficina Digital is not an organization that provides food aid. The website’s tagline is, “Everything Related To The World Of Forex And Cryptocurrencies” (todo lo relacionado con el mundo de forex y criptomonedas). It contains articles about a range of topics.
Some of the advice in the post is real, but the intentions behind it are misleading. Websites like these are built to generate as many clicks as possible to make money through page views. They are capitalizing on the public interest in coronavirus and people seeking financial help because of the economic destruction the virus has wrought.
The government is giving out a coupon worth 160,000 in response to the coronavirus crisis.
The link in this message is fake. The website has been removed by Blogspot and you cannot access any government coupons by following that link.
The coupon appears to be a reference to a program by the Colombian government labeled the Solidarity Income program. It provides 160,000 pesos to Colombians who are not eligible for relief under other government programs. The program will cover 3 million families, according to Colombian President Ivan Duque. If you live in Colombia and would like to know if you are eligible for the program, the Colombian government created this web portal where citizens can enter their ID to find out if they will be receiving support from the program: https://ingresosolidario.dnp.gov.co/. If you are not a Colombian national, this program does not apply to you.
The coronavirus does not affect alcoholics, according to Univision
This is a false image. This headline never appeared on Univision.
There’s an image of two Univision anchors — Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas — includes text below them that says “El corona virus no afecta a personas alcoholicas.”
The text appears to be a real chyron, the equivalent of a headline on TV news. To some, this is clearly a hoax — or a joke. But it’s worth exploring anyway. A quick Google search of the actual text, in quotes, quickly reveals that this image has been shared on social media, usually as a joke. That’s a clear warning sign. Tellingly, there has never been a video shared. That’s a warning sign too. It’s easier to fake a picture than a video. What’s really helpful is a Google image search of the picture itself. The results show that people have created different versions of the same fake headline, including one that says using skateboards also prevents coronavirus infections.
But there’s actually a much simpler way to tell that it’s not true. The world only started learning about the new coronavirus in December 2019 — but Maria Elena Salinas hasn’t worked at Univision since 2017. And she joined CBS in 2019 — before we learned about the virus.
A doctor in Ecuador claims Neem tea is the cure for coronavirus
Neem is not a cure for the coronavirus. There is no vaccine available for coronavirus. While there is research on the benefits of neem in fighting coronavirus, there is still more work to be done.
In this video, a supposed doctor in Guayaquil, Ecuador claims to have the cure for the coronavirus — a simple tea brewed from the leaves of the neem tree. This deserves a close look, because neem is a promising homeopathic remedy in many parts of the world, particularly in India. The tree’s leaves have been used for thousands of years to help with different ailments. We found two studies that show it potentially has some ability to fight certain types of cancer. And there’s even a scientific study that examines neem’s ability to fight coronavirus — a study that claims neem is more effective than choloroquinine at reducing the virus’s ability to replicate. However, the study isn’t peer reviewed yet and neem doesn’t appear to work just from brewing it in a tea. There’s a particular extract that could be helpful — and in reality, neem extract has dangers of its own.
Even a small overdose can cause the body to produce too much acid, in which it acts like a poison and can cause seizures or loss of vision. According to one study, a woman lost her vision and showed reduced brain activity after she drank half a cup of neem oil.
Doctor claims that a good diet can help you recover from COVID-19 in six days
This is false. While most people recover from COVID-19 with mild symptoms, there is no research that suggests a good diet will lead to a recovery in six days.
Dr. Alonso Vega claims that a good diet can boost your immune system and prevent you from getting too sick or dying of coronavirus. Early on in the video, he even claims that your body can get over the COVID-19 sickness in just six days.
This six-day claim is absolutely wrong. Yes, an estimated 81% will recover with mild symptoms. But that means 19% experience extreme pain and fall into severe or critical condition — and falling into respiratory distress takes 8-12 days, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. If patients could simply avoid falling into a severe condition by eating a fruity breakfast, doctors around the world would have said this already. Vega’s coronavirus cure video has 3,418,528 views on YouTube. For starters, yes. He’s a real doctor. He is registered as a homeopathy practitioner in Costa Rica, and his name matches the contact information for his company, Bethesda. But, it’s not until 5 minutes into the video that Dr. Vega reveals that his own company is selling this product.
But onto his claim about foods that can help you fight off the coronavirus. Like most disinformation, there’s a grain of truth. It’s true that most of the people who die from the COVID-19 disease have other diseases, like diabetes or high blood pressure, that put them at risk. But this video is full of claims that are not scientifically proven. He claims that eating red sweet peppers and carrots will better prepare your body. Those vegetables are rich in Vitamin-A, which does help the body produce antibodies that fight off viruses. As of Tuesday, there are 15 clinical trials looking into any connection between vitamin consumption and COVID-19 — and none of them are actually underway. In fact, they’re still looking for volunteers.
And there’s another reason to be wary. In several videos, he likes to quote 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard that “The microbe is nothing. The terrain is everything.” It’s a rejection of germ theory, the belief that germs actually cause disease. And it’s a common view held by flu vaccine skeptics and nutritionists who are trying to sell powders, natural remedies, and teas.
And guess what? That’s exactly what Dr. Vega does. His product El Cimol claims to treat gastrointestinal problems — especially if you take it with his other product, Hierba Santa Betesda.
A sign that claims children who test positive for COVID-19 will be taken away from their parents
While patients who test positive for COVID-19 are isolated, hospitals do allow parents to visit their children and they will not be taken away from the parent.
There’s a sign posted on a door that serves as a warning that would be shocking to any parent. And some of it originates from the many horror stories of hospitals taking away children from their parents. (In 2017, a Minnesota couple had to rescue their daughter from the world-famous Mayo Clinic. A teenage girl was kidnapped by Boston Children’s Hospital and locked in a psych ward for 9 months.)
First, let’s discuss the sign’s origin. It seems that someone found this text online, printed it, then taped it to a window. According to Google, the text first appeared on a Facebook page called “Un Dia Mas.” That Facebook account serves as a “content farm” – a person or group of people who share entertaining images to draw an audience. On March 20 at 3:38 pm, the account made the post with the hashtag, #QuedateEnCasa.
Two hours later, the same text appeared on the page of La negrita sarcástica, a Facebook influencer with 2.9 million followers. After that, the text and image were shared all over the internet.
Now, let’s go through the points made by this post:
1. They isolate them.
That’s technically true. In fact, CDC guidelines tell doctors to “Isolate symptomatic patients as soon as possible”
2. There’s no visiting schedule, don’t think you’ll care for them.
This is not true. Several hospitals have imposed severe restrictions on visitors. But the New York State Department of Health has actually ordered hospitals to keep options open for children. At New York Presbyterian and Northwell Health, children are allowed only one visitor per day — but it can only be a parent or guardian. But not if that adult is sick. And if your child is 18 or over, no visitors are allowed. It’s the same at Robert Wood Johnson in New Jersey.
3. If they don’t recover, you’ll never see them again.
This is not true, because all of these hospitals are encouraging family and friends to stay in touch with patients via phone and video chat.
4. They will determine how to get rid of the body, and they’ll cremate them.
It’s unclear if the rules have changed for patients infected with COVID-19, but New York City rules say that a hospital must deliver the body to any funeral director or undertaker who presents a certificate that they have been authorized by the person’s surviving family.
Man claims that the Chinese government manufactured the coronavirus
This is speculation. The U.S. government is investigating whether the coronavirus was started in a lab but there is no proof of that yet.
Yuan Lee is a Chinese man who claims to be a journalist living in Spain. He has a YouTube channel, which only includes public videos dating back to two months ago. In a series of videos, Lee says that the Chinese government has tried to hide the origins of the coronavirus — and he lists what he considers proof that the virus came from a highly secure lab in Wuhan.
This example shows just how hard it is to be conservative about facts in the modern age. Lee’s interview doesn’t count as disinformation, because much of what he says is true. It’s not a conspiracy theory, because U.S. intelligence agencies are actively investigating whether the coronavirus originated from a Chinese lab. This is speculation.
Yuan Lee strings together several facts that hint at a cohesive story. And he’s actually asking serious questions with each accusation. It’s true that China is suppressing information about the origins of the virus, and it has detained doctors who spoke out about the virus early on. For example, the doctor who discovered the gene sequence of the virus within weeks faced backlash from the government — and the lab that posted it lost its official status. A report that came out on Tuesday in the Washington Post that explains how American scientists warned the Trump administration two years ago about their concerns about safety at a virus research lab in Wuhan, China.
But until we hear definitive accusations from scientists at the lab, or from spies who uncover some proof, this all just amounts to circumstantial evidence. Yuan Lee is merely repeating what so many others are saying.