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Coronavirus

Uncertainty fuels coronavirus scams, misinformation around Colorado

From stimulus check robocalls to phony cures to politically driven campaigns, information voids are helping bad information spread online

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Robocalls offering help getting stimulus checks. Posts on Facebook that suggest vitamins and essential oils to combat COVID-19. Debates on Twitter over the number of people diagnosed with coronavirus. Misleading information about rules on when to wear a face mask.

There’s plenty of misinformation and disinformation circulating as Coloradans and the rest of the world cope with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. 

Some of it is easily disproved. The claim that coronavirus is no more dangerous than the flu is misleading. Nearly 330 Coloradans died of COVID-19 in a month’s span, from March 13 through Monday, compared with 567 deaths from flu and pneumonia in all of 2018, according to the most recent data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

Other claims, like one that masks are mandatory when leaving the house in Routt County, are incorrect according to the local government’s website

Then there are information voids and uncertainties, such as data about the spread of the virus. In those instances, officials say, it’s important to rely on experts rather than social media posts.

The overload of COVID-19 information and disinformation can be overwhelming as people seek to learn more about the global pandemic. And it’s complicated by initial government advisories that have been rescinded as new research emerged. 

A review of claims about COVID-19 in Colorado found numerous instances of incomplete or unverified information. Some are being furthered by scammers, while ideological differences and politics fuel other claims.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

But it’s important to separate fact from fiction, consulting government, news and medical resources, and checking in on seniors or others who might be vulnerable to scams.  

The global pandemic is an unprecedented opportunity for scammers and purveyors of disinformation, because it’s so new and unknown, said Claire Wardle, the co-founder and U.S. director of First Draft, a nonprofit that focuses on combating disinformation and works with media outlets, including The Colorado Sun.

Disinformation is typically intended to cause harm or further a political view, while misinformation may be shared by people who don’t understand that it’s untrue.

“I can’t think of another situation where everything feels so vulnerable,” Wardle said. “We live in this incredible world driven by technology and science, and so we’ve never really had a situation where we didn’t know everything. We have these information vacuums, which are now being filled with disinformation.”

Scammers see opportunity, especially among the vulnerable

One of the more public examples of disinformation revolves around the enforcement of the state’s stay-at-home order.

Law enforcement agencies are being forced to convince residents that they aren’t conducting traffic stops to enforce the orders after some impersonators have stopped people. And, it turns out, some of the reports of police impersonators are fake.

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

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>> FULL COVERAGE

Other examples involve phone calls regarding stimulus checks.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser told an AARP-sponsored town hall last week that his office is getting lots of complaints about robocallers trying to help consumers get stimulus checks promised by the federal government. The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office also issued a warning on Facebook last week about an email circulating purporting to be from its office, which was likely an attempt to get at the promised federal cash payouts. 

 “Really what they’re trying to do is get access to your money,” Weiser said. 

Weiser said difficult financial times may lead to more debt collection schemes. The attorney general’s office allows people to file complaints through its Stop Fraud Colorado program.

He cautioned against giving out personal information such as credit cards or bank accounts, or allowing people into your home. “There’s a theme here,” Weiser said of information related to the pandemic, “Stick with reputable organizations, family members, friends you already have.”

The debate about the death toll and potential treatments plagued by gaps

In addition to scams trying to capitalize on coronavirus fears, people skeptical of the government’s response to the pandemic are questioning the number of infected and dead. 

Periodically, folks on Twitter, Facebook and NextDoor ask if anyone knows someone who has had COVID-19, implying that the disease isn’t that widespread. In most instances, they hear quite a few examples of the illness in the comments.

The questions about the actual number of cases and deaths in Colorado and elsewhere are complicated by the limited testing and the ability for nonsymptomatic people to spread the virus, state health officials say.

Many Coloradans report that they’ve been denied COVID-19 testing despite showing symptoms simply because they aren’t sick enough and don’t fall into high-risk categories. 

Delays in reporting to the state also skew the numbers. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had to issue a clarification Thursday when cases and deaths appeared to spike.

“We can count the most visible tip of the iceberg in the case counts and presumably the deaths are pretty accurate,” said Jonathan Samet, dean and professor of the Colorado School of Public Health. “We know that those case counts are an undercount, and they clearly are going to miss most of the asymptomatic people.”

And estimates of potential cases and deaths used by public health officials are just that: estimates. The projections are based on models that may be updated as more information becomes available. 

The forecasts, experts said, are aimed at changing behavior to reduce the spread of the virus. If that happens, skeptics will maintain the models were wrong to begin with. “Those who don’t want to trust in this only have to say the forecasts are bunk and they stand a really good chance of being correct,” said Leysia Palen, a professor of computer science and information science at University of Colorado Boulder who studies crisis communications.

Other claims of disinformation involve treatment options. The Facebook page of the Colorado Health Choice Alliance, an organization that opposes mandatory vaccinations, is now promoting vitamins and other potential treatments for COVID-19. In one post, the group shared an article advocating an end to stay-at-home orders because going outdoors “stops every respiratory disease.” 

That’s despite the fact there are no known successful treatments for the virus.

An image from a video conference that Steve House, upper right, held with Dr. Kelly Victory. House is the Republican 6th District congressional candidate. (Screenshot)

Steve House, the 6th Congressional District Republican candidate and former GOP chairman, hosted a Facebook webinar with Steamboat Springs Dr. Kelly Victory. Both touted the promise of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug also used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. 

It’s a drug frequently promoted as a coronavirus treatment by President Donald Trump at his daily briefings, while federal health officials at the same briefings typically caution against its off-label use. Some physicians are treating COVID-19 patients with the drug, even though it isn’t designed for that use.

Weiser, the attorney general, mentioned it in his recent remarks. He cautioned against believing medical claims on social media. “Follow your doctor, don’t follow a social media post,” he said. “There is no cure, there is no vaccine.”

Partisanship amplifies information divide with COVID-19

Other differences of opinion about treatments, face masks and shutting down businesses fall along sharp political divides.

For instance, the El Paso County Republican Party chairwoman recently suggested on Facebook that coronavirus may be a hoax. The state party ordered the post removed, and chairwoman Vickie Tonkins’ subsequent post said she was “sorry a few of you were offended.” But that didn’t stop calls for her resignation.

Victory, the Steamboat Springs doctor, tweeted last week that wearing a face mask is a requirement if you leave your house in Routt County. She also said all gatherings, expect those with people in the same household, were prohibited.

That wasn’t true at the time, according to Robin Schepper, Routt County Joint Information Center manager. The county commissioners did enact an order Friday for face masks to be worn in essential government operations or businesses.

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“There is a lot of disinformation and push back,” Schepper wrote in an email, responding to questions about the county order. “The main intent is to stop the spread of the virus, especially in high-density public places. Wearing it outside and when recreating is recommended, but not required.”

The Glenwood Springs City Council also enacted a requirement that retail workers and shoppers wear masks in stores or when safe distancing isn’t possible. Mesa County also is requiring masks.

First Draft’s Wardle said a lack of early agreement on battling the virus contributed to the divisions. All seven governors who have yet to issue stay-at-home orders are Republicans. And Republican lawmakers in Colorado have criticized the governor for his statewide order.

“The time it took the president, and by extension Fox News and some conservative outlets and conservative governors, to take this seriously meant that it was politicized from the very beginning because you had these differences,” she said. 

A recent Pew Research survey indicated a vast majority of people from both parties agreed with steps being taken to curtail the spread of the virus, from canceling schools and sports to closing most businesses.

Sandra Fish is a Sun correspondent and a paid fellow through the First Draft News program. See misinformation in your social media feeds or have questions? Email her: fish@coloradomediaproject.com.

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