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Full Fact: We don’t know whether “misinformation” killed 800 people

Posted on: August 20, 2020 by Mariella Brown

Several reports on the dangers of misinformation are themselves slightly misleading, a leading fact-checker has said.

The UK-based charity Full Fact has questioned the claim that at least 800 people globally might have died as a result of fake news about the coronavirus.

The figure of 800 comes almost entirely from alcohol poisoning deaths in Iran, which may have happened for other reasons, Full Fact’s conclusion states.

Outlets which covered the claim include the BBC, the Independent and Sun which linked the figure to the myth that drinking methanol acts as a Covid-19 disinfectant (which is untrue).  

They describe the findings of a research paper published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (AJTMH). Based on this, they say that at least 800 people might have died around the world as a result of coronavirus misinformation. 

“This is a fair description of one section of the research paper, but the paper itself did not attempt to measure the total number of deaths around the world caused by misinformation about Covid-19,” Full Fact said.

“However, it takes its figures from research which suggests that some of the deaths from methanol poisoning could be the result of Iranians drinking what they believed was ordinary alcohol (ethanol) for pleasure.”

The original report stated, “From our data, it is unclear how many Iranians drank adulterated alcohol for recreational purposes or as gastrointestinal “disinfectant” to prevent—or treat—COVID-19 infection.”

But Full Fact concurred that false information can be “very dangerous”.

They added that if they could measure the motives for every choice behind the pandemic-related advice by governments and ordinary people, then the true number of misinformation deaths could be much higher than 800.