As Coronavirus Myths Spread, A Skeptic’s Look at Health News

medical misinformation falsely purports coronavirus self-check at home

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A debunked rumor says holding your breath for 10 seconds proves you don’t have COVID-19, USA Today reported. Experts say many young people with the disease could still do so, while many older people with clean bills of health couldn’t. Stories like this often outpace fact-checking.

image of upset woman looking at health myths on cell phone
Misinformation on the internet and social media spreads faster than fact-checking stories ourselves for truth and accuracy. Photo by: Stokkete / Shutterstock

According to the USA Today article, medical professionals and academics are racing to stop a new false claim making its way around the internet. “Amid the sea of misinformation circulating social media, a self-check for COVID-19 is popping up on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp,” the article said. “Social media users claim people can test themselves for COVID-19 every day by attempting to hold their breath for 10 seconds.”

Officials at University of Maryland, New York Presbyterian Hospital, Stanford University, and Baylor College of Medicine have debunked the bogus test on Twitter, Reuters, and CNN. However, sometimes health misinformation makes it to the news.

Couple Claims to Live on Almost No Food

In June 2017, a married couple claimed that they had survived for nine years virtually without eating. Their story was originally published by British tabloid The Sun. For some reason, major news outlets like The New York Post picked up on the story and republished it.

“Husband and wife Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello believe that food and water aren’t necessary and humans can be sustained solely by the energy of the universe,” the Post article reads. “Castello and Ricardo […] have survived on little else besides a piece of fruit or vegetable broth just three times per week since 2008.”

Not surprising, the story didn’t hold up under much scrutiny.

“Let me say here for the record that it is not possible for anyone to survive without nourishment, and as living animals we are required to get our nourishment from food,” said Dr. Roy Benaroch, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. “But the Post article presented the story of this so-called ‘Breatharian’ couple as fact. There wasn’t a word of skepticism, or an iota of fact-checking, or even a hint that the story wasn’t literally true.”

Dr. Benaroch said that the day after the Post ran the article, popular mythbusting website fact-checked and debunked the claims, pointing out that many who have tried such an extreme and long-term fasting diet have died.

“[Snopes] provided links to stories about deaths in Scotland, Australia, and Switzerland,” Dr. Benaroch said. “But the most effective part of the Snopes article was their exposé of the founder of the Breatharian movement, an Australian woman named Ellen Greve who calls herself Jasmuheen. Though she espouses not eating, she has freely admitted that she drinks juice regularly, and often enjoys biscuits, tea, honey, and soy milk—a reporter invited into her home found a refrigerator full of food.”

This led the Post to publish two follow-up articles, drastically revising their original claims.

A Long, Hard Look in the Mirror

The Breatharian story seems obviously untrue—embarrassingly so. The Post failed to fact-check and research the story, opting instead to run it as truth. However, the buck doesn’t stop there. It stops a lot closer to home.

“It’s easy, and almost fun, in a way, to poke fun at news sites that so obviously distribute false information,” Dr. Benaroch said. “But don’t forget: Many people believe these stories. A 2014 survey found that six out of 10 Americans admitted that over the last week, they only skimmed headlines—most people never bothered to read the stories themselves.”

Dr. Benaroch said that researchers have found that 60 percent of links shared on social media had never been clicked on and opened. For the most part, we read headlines and share the stories without going any further.

“We are scanners and we are sharers,” Dr. Benaroch said. “Many of us don’t even try to digest or understand the news. That doesn’t bode well for our critical thinking skills or our ability to tell the truth from lies.”

He also said that we often fall victim to the echo chamber effect. We tend to make online acquaintances with people who share similar views as us, and vice-versa. So we and our friends often trust one another to have verified the information shared already, and we pass it on without a second thought.

For example, in September, a Facebook page called I Love America, that often posted patriotic and conservative political views and pro-Donald Trump sentiment, was removed after it was discovered to be run by Ukrainians. The page had over a million followers and tens of millions of interactions with users, but it often shared posts from Russian “troll farms” spreading misinformation and propaganda.

The fight against misinformation will continue well past our lifetimes. In the meantime, Dr. Benaroch said the best advice is to take a moment before reacting to a story, either in agreement or disbelief, and do a bit of research ourselves to verify or debunk it.

Dr. Roy Benaroch contributed to this article. Dr. Benaroch is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine

Dr. Roy Benaroch contributed to this article. Dr. Benaroch is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. He earned his B.S. in Engineering at Tulane University, followed by his M.D. at Emory University.