Aug. 10 (UPI) -- Nearly 82% of COVID-19 information posted on news sites, global health organizations and social media platforms between late December and early April were rumors or conspiracy theories, a study published Monday by the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found.
Misinformation and efforts to stigmatize victims of the new coronavirus, which the researchers described as an "infodemic," have collectively been linked with hundreds of deaths globally, the analysis said.
"The public should rely [on] information that has been provided by the ministry of health of their countries and international health agencies," study co-author M. Saiful Islam told UPI.
In addition, "social media users should not share an information without verifying the source," said Islam, a sociologist with the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Bangladesh.
The World Health Organization coined the term "infodemics" to refer to what it calls "an overabundance of information -- some accurate and some not -- that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources."
For the study, researchers reviewed COVID-19 information published or posted on fact-checking websites; social media, including Facebook and Twitter; and websites for television networks and newspapers. They also reviewed the sites for the WHO and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers then categorized information as rumors, stigma or conspiracy theories. They defined rumors "as unverified information" that could be deemed "true, fabricated or entirely false after verification."
They described conspiracy theories as "explanatory beliefs about an individual or group of people working in secret to achieve malicious goals."
Stigma is a "socially constructed process through which a person ... can experience discrimination and devaluation," they said.
From late December 2019 through early April, the researchers identified 2,311 reports related to COVID-19, published in 25 languages, from 87 countries.
Of 2,276 reports for which the researchers obtained text ratings, 82 percent -- or 1,856 -- "were false."
Of these, 2,049, or 89%, of the reports were classified as rumors -- that might have been confirmed later to be true -- while 182, or 7.8%, were conspiracy theories, and 82, or 3.5%, were efforts to stigmatize victims of the virus, researchers said.
One such rumor -- that consuming methanol, or highly concentrated alcohol, could disinfect the body and kill the new coronavirus -- spread quickly via social media. It since has been linked with more than 800 deaths and nearly 6,000 hospitalizations across several countries, researchers said.
Similarly, in March, reports in India suggested that people there were afraid to be tested for COVID-19 over concerns that they will be ostracized by their local communities, the researchers said.
This reluctance likely stems at least in part from efforts to stigmatize -- or, in some cases, blame -- victims of the virus for its spread, they said.
Efforts to stigmatize healthcare workers treating patients with COVID-19 and people of "Asian ethnicity" as threats to community health have been linked with dozens of violent attacks worldwide, according to the researchers.
Generally, COVID-19 misinformation follows a similar pattern to that seen in other outbreaks, including HIV and Ebola, suggesting that "during public health crises, people often concentrate more on rumor and hoaxes than on science," the researchers observed.
They called on world governments and international agencies to monitor and debunk false claims and "engage with social media companies to spread correct information."
"Governments should run media surveillance to identify misinformation in real-time and correct that information with scientific evidence," Islam said.
"Since social media is the platform through which misinformation spreads so quickly, policymakers should also use this platform to spread correct information."