Debunked in 2020: Conspiracies and fake news surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic

The FRANCE 24 Observers team has debunked countless false claims spread online since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team has debunked countless false claims spread online since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. © Observers

With Covid-19 dominating the news in 2020, numerous examples of fake and misleading images have emerged online. The FRANCE 24 Observers team has sorted through countless claims to separate the fact from the fiction. From rumours about the origin of the virus to the effects of wearing face masks, here are some of the most notable claims we debunked this year.


Videos of bat soup reveal the source of the coronavirus?

When Covid-19 began to garner worldwide attention, internet users started to suggest that eating bats was a possible source of the virus. Videos and photos of Asian people eating bat soup began to circulate widely on social networks, but the truth is that most of these videos were thousands of kilometres from China. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that these videos were linked to the outbreak of the virus.

Our team found that some of these videos, purporting to come from Wuhan, were actually filmed in Palau in Micronesia. In fact, bat soup is a traditional dish in the Pacific, but not at all common in Wuhan.

Read more on the Observers >> Is bat soup a delicacy in China? We debunk a rumour on the origin of the coronavirus


Conspiracy theory connects 5G to Covid-19

In April, we took a look at an emerging conspiracy theory alleging that 5G mobile networks had caused the Covid-19 pandemic. In the UK, the claim led to harassment of telecoms engineers and vandalisation of mobile phone infrastructure. 

Versions of this theory posit that 5G electromagnetic waves poison cells in the body, thus creating the virus, while others say the waves weaken the immune system, making people more susceptible to infection. Others say that viruses can be transmitted through radio waves or mobile networks, explaining the rapid worldwide spread of Covid-19. However, medical professionals, scientists, virologists and biologists have all dismissed these claims. 

Read more on the Observers >> The dangerous conspiracy theory linking 5G to Covid-19 


Recipes claiming to ward off the virus circulate in Africa

From the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, home remedies to prevent the virus were shared on social networks in Africa. Social media users shared concoctions of garlic, ginger and lemon that supposedly would cure the virus. We spoke to a specialist in infectious disease who told us that there is no evidence this mixture would cure Covid-19, although garlic, ginger and lemon are beneficial for the immune system.

Others shared remedies such as steam inhalation, where a person breathes in the steam from a hot liquid such as tea to fight the virus. Our expert told us that this remedy could actually be more dangerous. 

Coronavirus infects a person through their airways. It damages the lungs and can cause serious pneumonia. You should avoid anything that could negatively affect respiration. This kind of inhalation can cause a person to cough or sneeze, which, in turn, can spread the sickness.

Read more on the Observers >> An infectious disease expert debunks COVID-19 remedies circulating on African social media 


#FilmYourHospital movement minimises impact of Covid-19

In April, videos and posts tagged #FilmYourHospital shared images of empty hospital rooms and corridors, alleging that the Covid-19 pandemic was exaggerated or invented. However, these videos failed to show the overrun intensive care units in many hospitals, nor the people who were dying from the virus. 

Read more on the Observers >> How the #FilmYourHospital movement is spreading lies about Covid-19 


Face masks cause CO2 poisoning? 

Although wearing face masks has now become ubiquitous in many parts of the world, the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic saw fierce debates over the practice, both on- and offline. Some opponents of face coverings argued that masks could actually be fatal, by trapping carbon dioxide that we breathe out and causing suffocation. 

However, we spoke to experts who told us that although the levels of CO2 might increase when wearing a mask, they wouldn’t reach levels harmful for the body. Plus, several doctors demonstrated online that mask-wearing does not impact blood oxygen levels.

Read more on the Observers >> Online videos falsely claim that face masks can cause CO2 poisoning


‘Empty coffin’ rumours in Brazil claim Covid-19 exaggerated

In Brazil, the South American country most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, internet users alleged that the virus was being exaggerated by officials by sharing images of empty coffins. However, Brazilian verification and fact-checking outlets found that these images of so-called empty coffins were all misleading or taken out of context. 


Covid-19 fake news campaign spreads in DR Congo

From the beginning of the pandemic, around 30 fake quotes from international public figures were spread on Congolese Facebook pages. It turns out, these quotes and posts were all faked by a few individuals hoping to generate “a buzz” on social networks.

The false quotes targeted high-ranking officials such as WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, French president Emmanuel Macron and Madagascar president Andry Rajoelina. Our team was able to contact one of the administrators of these Facebook pages. A 20-year-old student, he told us that he and some of his friends “make up stories to get followers”.

Three examples of fake posts that went viral that were shared on the "V É R I T É" Facebook page. The posts were deleted May 9 but the page was still online as of that date.
Three examples of fake posts that went viral that were shared on the "V É R I T É" Facebook page. The posts were deleted May 9 but the page was still online as of that date. © Observers

Read more on the Observers >> Who is behind the fake news campaign around Covid-19 in DR Congo?


Fake needles used to vaccinate celebrities and politicians?

With the approval and distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine in several countries, fake news surrounding the vaccine’s potential side-effects have made the rounds on social media. Politicians in many countries – such as US President-elect Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – received the vaccine in front of cameras or on live television, in order to increase public trust in the vaccine. However, some rumours online claim that these vaccinations were fake. 

Several users online have shared videos of politicians seemingly receiving the vaccine with the cap still on the syringe, or claiming that prop needles (such as those used in movies and television) were actually used. 

Read more on the Observers >> Did celebrities and politicians just pretend to get the Covid-19 vaccination?