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Misinformation on covid-19 and 5G spreads rapidly, just like the coronavirus

Researchers used Google Trends data and an epidemiological growth model, which studies disease transmission, to investigate how covid-19 misinformation and rumours spread

Hanging cubes display the 5G logo at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 26, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Sergio Perez/File Photo)

While 5G doesn’t cause covid-19, the rumours around it definitely spread as rapidly as the novel coronavirus, researchers have found out using the same epidemiological models that are employed to calculate the spread of infectious diseases.

A team led by researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health, scientists from Harvard Medical School and École Polytechnique Fédérale examined the spread of covid-19 misinformation topics across eight English-speaking countries, including the US and India, using Google Trends and an exponential growth model usually employed to study disease epidemics.

The researchers focused on myths that the World Health Organization (WHO) “busted” on its website. This included relationships between covid-19 and alcohol, ginger root, the sun, 5G, and the medicine hydroxychloroquine. The team constructed a list consisting of a combination of “Coronavirus,” “covid-19,” “covid19,” and “covid” with other misinformation terms such as 'wine', 'hot weather', 'antibiotics', 'chlorine', 'garlic', 'pepper', 'houseflies', 'mosquito', 'hand dryer', 'supplement', and 'saline'. Findings from the research were recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

The idea behind using the exponential growth model was to characterize and compare the start, peak, and doubling time of these misinformation topics in the eight countries: Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Australia, and Canada. Weekly search data from Google Trends was obtained for the time period between December 2019 and October 2020.

Trends in searches for
Trends in searches for "coronavirus and 5G" from December 2019 to October 2020. The black vertical line indicates when the topic was listed as a myth on the WHO website (Credit: Nsoesie et al., 2020).

The team found out that even though searches for “coronavirus AND 5G” started at different times in all eight countries, they peaked in the same week for six of them -- during the week of 5 April, 2020. The searches for 5G also had the shortest doubling time across all misinformation topics, with Nigeria and South Africa recording the shortest doubling time. Similar unique patterns were found in the searches for hydroxychloroquine.

According to an official news release, the team was surprised that there seemed to be a consistent, global misunderstanding of 5G technology. The myth of “covid-19 and 5G” spread faster than any of the other rumors they investigated. “I didn't expect 5G to stand out among the misinformation as much as it did,” Elaine Nsoesie, a Hariri Institute Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor in the BU School of Public Health, who led the research team said in the release.

The researchers also found that “debunking” myths online seemed effective in stopping their spread -- almost like how the continued use of face masks has shown to protect people from the novel coronavirus. As soon as WHO public health officials responded to covid-19 misinformation on their website, the number of Google searches for that particular misinformation topic dropped significantly, the release explains.

The research team also added that to stop the spread of similar myths in the future, experts should consistently and clearly correct common misconceptions. They also believe the rapid proliferation of misinformation that discourages adherence to public health interventions could be predictive of future increases in disease cases.

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