Busting terrible information

As a librarian, information is my “thing”. The teaching that I do is as much about evaluating sources of information as it is about finding them. And so, I find bad information, fake news and misleading social media posts to be really irritating.

I see a lot of bad information and fake news on Facebook, but I don’t always challenge it. That would be a full-time job. But this morning, I did challenge something, because it was particularly ridiculous.

A laptop computer displaying a web page with the word "Fake News" as the banner.
Fake News Media. Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay 

I am not going to share the post that wound me up, because I don’t want to propagate it further, hence the “fake news” image. It consisted of a bar graph showing “Disease deaths per day worldwide”. COVID-19 is a way down the image with a figure of 56. An arrow points to it with text reading “THIS is what collapsed the world economy”. Alarm bells rang instantly, and a couple of other people had commented on the post already asking when it was from. The person who had shared it did not know, so I thought I’d do some digging.

First, I took a look at the reported deaths from COVID-19. Statista gave a figure of 757, 471 deaths to 14th August. The WHO has a slightly lower figure of 757,154. If you divide this by the number of days in the year so far, you get either 3,194 or 3,196 deaths per day. Incidentally, this is higher than any of the other figures on the viral post (the highest is tuberculosis, with 3,014). Even if you assume no more deaths will occur for the rest of the year, it would still work out as over 2,000 per day, around the same as the figure for malaria.

This did not answer the question of when the figure of 56 deaths per day worldwide would be from. So I took a look back, using the WHO’s daily situation reports. There are, of course, issues with these reports, as different countries report in slightly different ways with different lengths of delay, but they are the best data I had to work with. According to the WHO, at the end of February, there had been a total of 86 deaths reported worldwide, but by end of March it was over 36,000 and worked out at 400 per day. The last day that I went to work on campus was 18th March, a week before the UK’s national lockdown. I did the calculation for that date – 100 per day. By my reckoning, the last possible date when the figure could have been true would have been 15th March.

I then grew curious about the other figures given in the viral post. Were they accurate. The first alarm bell is that most of these sorts of figures are only available retrospectively – there are very few diseases for which anyone keeps a daily global tally. Generally, such statistics are collated and released after year end. So it seemed unlikely that they were up-to-date stats from 2020. But were they accurate at all?

Surprisingly, yes. I did a few spot checks on the higher totals by finding reported yearly deaths from various diseases and dividing those totals by the number of days in that year. They checked out, roughly. I wasn’t able to identify the exact year in most cases, but they were in the right ball park.

But then I looked further down the list at the diseases with lower figures than COVID-19 and found SARS was listed there. I was fairly confident that there has not been a SARS outbreak recently, but wanted to be sure, so I checked the WHO, the CDC and a number of other sources. Indeed, no outbreak since 2004. The low figure given did match up to the 2002-2003 outbreak, but at this point it was clear that the data was a complete hodge-podge from different years and not worth anyone’s time.

My Facebook friend who shared the post had done it with the best of intentions – to spark a debate about whether it was accurate. But it still concerns me when such obviously bad information is shared, hence not sharing or linking to it here.

I would agree that there are numerous issues with COVID-19 data, particularly how it is counted and categorised, and there are absolutely arguments to be had about the economic impact of measures against COVID-19, not to mention education, societal and mental health impacts. But these figures were not the way to do it.

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