How contact tracing exposed a Covid-19 hoax
The diet hoax -- that eating high-alkaline foods could beat Covid-19 -- should have died down by now. After all, science experts and fact checkers across the globe had been quick to bust it when it came out.
But the fact that the erroneous claim has lingered on social media for nine months attests to the staying power of the "disinfodemic" that accompanies the pandemic.
Southeast Asia, in no way immune to the wealth and waves of misinformation spurred by the outbreak of the Sars-CoV-2 in late 2019, has partly contributed to the longevity of the lie. For one, many Facebook groups touting an alkaline diet as prevention or cure for Covid-19 were, as of late December, still spreading this from Indonesia, with a couple from Myanmar. What transpires in closed private messaging applications is anybody's guess.
What seems clear is that the fabrication started as a chain message that rapidly went viral worldwide. But it has become difficult to pinpoint "patient zero" and the jump-off point, now that the false claim has mutated into more than a dozen versions, both long and short and in different languages. Was it Facebook, or was it WhatsApp, which is also owned by Facebook?
The core messages specific to the alkaline diet are unequivocal, though.
One, the 2019 novel coronavirus supposedly has a pH (a measure of how acidic or basic a liquid solution is) of 5.5 to 8.5.
Two, eating food above those pH levels will supposedly counteract the virus.
Three, high-alkaline foods supposedly include lemon, which reportedly has a 9.9 pH, lime 9.2, avocado 15.6, garlic, 13.2, mango 8.7, tangerine 8.5, pineapple 12.7, dandelion 22.7, and orange 9.2.
None of these are true. In some instances, there are dead giveaways in them.
One version that reached Southeast Asia cites the "Journal of Virology, April 1991, page 1916" as basis for the claim. But Sars-CoV-2 wasn't even around in 1991. As well, a scan of the research paper published in that issue of the biweekly peer-reviewed scientific journal shows that it pertains to MHV4 or the mouse hepatitis type 4.
A quick recall of chemistry lessons would have helped, too -- pH values range from 0 to 14. Anything above these -- like 15.6 for avocado and 22.7 for dandelion stated in the claim -- is impossible.
Further research would also have revealed that that all the pH values listed in the chain message are wrong. On the contrary, nearly all the food items -- lemon, lime, mango, pineapple, garlic, orange, tangerine -- are acidic, with avocado being slightly acidic.
Scientists would also tell you that eating alkaline food does not alter the body's pH level at all.
"Only a fool, who is unknown to basic science, can come up with such utter rubbish claims," a veteran scientist told the Indian fact-checking group Fact Crescendo. Yet Southeast Asia would be swept along with the rest of the world as the diet myth surged in early April 2020.
The chain message went viral in Indonesia and the Philippines, circulating mostly as text or status accompanied by photos on Facebook for both countries, as well as on WhatsApp for Indonesia and the messaging application Viber for the Philippines. It was occasionally spotted on Twitter and Instagram. Data from Crowdtangle, a social media monitoring tool, suggest that between April and June alone, the claim was posted in about 550 Facebook pages in Indonesia that have a combined following of nearly 40 million.
Although the claim made its way to only 30 Facebook pages in the Philippines for the same period, as Crowdtangle shows, the rate of interactions far exceeded Indonesia's, with an average 309 interactions per page to Indonesia's 32. Facebook pages in the Philippines were also sharing the claim 155 times on average in contrast to 14 among their Indonesian counterparts.
The hoax also spread in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar. It has been translated into Indonesian, Malay, Thai, Khmer and Burmese.
Outside the region, the spreaders of this false claim have included a state regulatory medical agency (Pakistan), mainstream newspaper (Turkey), local TV channel (Ecuador), a celebrity journalist and other influencers (Venezuela) and even a university (Ethiopia).
In Southeast Asia, a few local media outlets and those that describe themselves as media have been behind the distribution of this alkaline hoax, besides individuals or groups involved in health and lifestyle. In the Philippines, several local government units or officials -- provincial, municipal, village and youth councils -- have amplified the message through their Facebook pages or groups.
While many sharers mean well, hoping to help message recipients stay healthy and coronavirus-free, some do it for fun. A Facebook user, for example, appended a recipe of guacamole, a dip fashioned out of avocado and lemon (lime also works), to the message. Another used the opportunity to promote a three-step yogic breathing method.
But there are those where profit plainly serves as incentive. The merchandise? Alkaline cups, fruits and vegetables and other grocery items, coffee concoctions of a Phuket restaurant. The list goes on and on.
Whatever the motivation, the dangers of false cures in particular and Covid-19 disinformation in general are all too real. Beyond the incorrect information about alkaline diets, the chain message has, in many instances, been fused with other pieces of medical advice such as self-medicating with antibiotics.
"In a growing number of cases, the consequences of the disinfodemic have been fatal. Many citizens are being duped, leaving them unable to understand and implement scientifically grounded preventive measures. People are dying, resorting to false 'cures'," warns a policy brief on Covid-19 disinformation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).
If the alkaline diet myth continues to appeal, it is likely due to the canny ability of its producers and distributors to adjust the message to their audiences.
In Europe and South America, "experts", whether real or fictitious, are cited at the outset to lend credibility to the message: a private university in Mexico (real), another scientific journal (real), a virology centre in Moscow (fictitious), the head of an infectious disease clinic in the United States (fictitious).
In Southeast Asia, posts often hardly mention or name experts, save for the version citing the Journal of Virology. Instead, they simply refer to a "GP (general practice) nurse in the UK", "patients recovering from the hospital", or "a friend in the isolation hospital". But that does not stop the claim from gathering strength.
To be sure, the alkaline diet hoax has kept fact checkers around the world busy. One of the earliest fact checks came out of Ecuador in late February. At least 30 fact-checking organisations or initiatives, many of them verified signatories of the US-based International Fact-Checking Network, have since debunked the falsehood. They include fact checkers from Southeast Asia, among them Tempo and Liputan6 in Indonesia, Rappler and Vera Files in the Philippines, Sure and Share in Thailand, and Agence France-Presse in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.
But because the claim keeps coming back, several fact checkers have had to repost or update their fact checks or issue new ones altogether. Argentina's Chequeado has debunked the claim at least four times. The Taiwan Fact Check Centre has posted the same fact check thrice on its Facebook page, and linked to it twice.
LIES GO FASTER
Like other shreds of disinformation, the diet hoax also confirms that lies without doubt travel not only faster than the truth, but command a larger audience.
In Turkey, the false claim had already picked up 23,000 shares by the time the fact check was released; the latter gathered 23 shares. A fact check in the Philippines generated 141 shares versus a viral post's 2,200 shares. Another resulted in 58 shares against the 5,000 shares of the false claim.
Often, the fact-checking work around false claims is akin to having David face Goliath. But it is also a clarion call to step up interventions to clean up what has become a steady diet of disinformation for many.
Yvonne T Chua is a journalist and associate professor at the University of the Philippines, where she teaches fact-checking. This is a Reporting Asean series feature.