It’s the year 2020 and viral email chains are alive and well.
With the global coronavirus pandemic igniting a cacophony of misinformation and conspiracy theories across the internet, social networks like Facebook and YouTube are obviously bearing the brunt of the problem. Email chains, by comparison, may feel like a relic of the 1990s, but they never really went away. Many internet users—particularly older ones—still exchange information through extended email threads, essentially sidestepping the Facebooks and WhatsApps of the world.
And just like on social networks, email chains are a breeding ground for misinformation. That’s an especially dangerous combination when it comes to COVID-19, because older people most vulnerable to the disease are often the ones who communicate this way. Case in point: Two of my colleagues were forwarded email threads yesterday purporting to have a DIY method by way of Stanford University that allows you to test for the coronavirus at home.
The claim? That if you can hold your breath for more than 10 seconds, you must be virus-free:
“Take a deep breath and hold your breath for more than 10 seconds. If you complete it successfully without coughing, without discomfort, stiffness or tightness, etc., it proves there is no Fibrosis in the lungs, basically indicates no infection.”
One of the email threads went on to say people should “self-check” every morning and take a few sips of water every 15 minutes to wash any possible traces of virus into your stomach. “Once there, your stomach acid will kill all the virus,” the email says.
These claims, it probably won’t surprise you to learn, did not come from Stanford. In a tweet yesterday, the university reminded people that the only official information it put out about COVID-19 is on its website.
Misinformation about COVID-19 symptoms and treatment falsely attributed to Stanford is circulating on social media and in email forwards. It is not from Stanford. Official information from Stanford is available at https://t.co/LlNXeyuejP.
— Stanford University (@Stanford) March 13, 2020
What’s interesting about the two email chains I saw was how they contained slightly different claims about where the information came from. One claimed to have a friend whose brother is “on the Stanford hospital board.” The other one claimed to be from an “internal message” from Stanford.
Both instances underscore one of the key reasons why online misinformation is so difficult to quell: It’s the promise of getting inside information that people find so appealing. What better way to validate our belief that there must be something more to this story, something that makes sense, something they’re not telling us?