As coronavirus spreads across the globe — with Chinese authorities confirming nearly 6,000 cases and 132 people dead as of Wednesday — the reaction on social media in particular has largely been marked by fear and panic. For some conspiracy theorists, however, it has also served as a prime opportunity to spread misinformation and baseless rumors about the disease — some of which are potentially extremely dangerous.
One terrifying example? QAnon supporters are encouraging people to drink MMS — or Miracle Mineral Solution, a bleaching agent that has been touted as a “miracle cure” by anti-vaxxers and other fringe groups — to ward off coronavirus. And despite restrictions on such content on platforms like YouTube, it is nonetheless fairly easy to find.
According to the Daily Beast, proponents of QAnon — the elaborate conspiracy theory purporting that President Donald Trump is waging a secret war against a ring of Democratic child sexual abusers — have been promoting MMS as a “cure” for coronavirus on Twitter, particularly the MMS-branded “20-20-20 spray,” with one account alleging it “kills viruses instantly.” Another prominent conspiracy theorist tweeted, “#coronavirus is a depopulation program,” recommending colloidal silver (a supplement that, if taken in large amounts, can result in discoloration of the skin and nails, or kidney damage) and MMS to ward off the disease.
These plugs for MMS usually go hand-in-hand with general theories alleging that coronavirus was manufactured in a lab, usually by conspiracy-theorist favorite Bill Gates, for the benefit of the pharmaceutical industry. As Rolling Stone reported last week, prominent QAnon supporter and YouTuber Jordan Sather bears much responsibility for perpetuating such claims.
Since the spread of the disease was initially reported, he has devoted his Twitter account to fomenting misinformation about the disease, (inaccurately) claiming that the virus was the product of a 2015 patent for avian coronavirus and implying that it was created in a Chinese lab.
He has (incorrectly) claimed there is “evidence” that MMS can cure coronavirus and recorded a video in which he advocated for “MMS[ing] the whole state, MMS the shit out of everything.” In response to criticism that he was spreading dangerous medical misinformation, he doubled down on such claims, tweeting, “ChLoRiNe DiOxiDe is so DeAdLy that…. … you can buy tablets of it for $10 on Amazon to make water potable. And by their logic, we better get rid of the Sun too because it can ‘bleach.’ CD can be helpful if used right. Mainstream media can’t science.”
MMS is primarily sold by the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, a Mexican church led by a man known as Archbishop Jim Humble, a former aerospace research engineer, health food store manager, and gold prospector who claims to have discovered MMS while mining for gold in South Africa.
The primary ingredient is sodium chlorite, which, when mixed with an “activator” citric acid such as lemon juice, creates chlorine dioxide, a form of bleach. If ingested in large amounts, the product can result in “severe vomiting, severe diarrhea, life-threatening low blood pressure caused by dehydration, and acute liver failure,” according to a statement from the Food and Drug Administration last year.
In recent years, MMS has been touted on social media as a miracle cure for everything from malaria to HIV/AIDS; last year, the FDA issued an official warning urging people to avoid MMS when it was reported that mothers were using the product to “cure” their children of autism spectrum disorder.
Most recently, however, Humble has pivoted to marketing MMS as an effective palliative for coronavirus, writing in a January 27th newsletter, “I have reason to believe, MMS (chlorine dioxide), can be very effective in both preventing and eradicating the coronavirus.… I would say, let MMS be your first line of defense.”
In the wake of intense criticism surrounding social platforms turning a blind eye to such misinformation, some have taken a cursory stab at removing MMS content. Last November, for instance, YouTube said it had updated its policy to explicitly ban videos touting the effects of MMS.
Despite the ban, it is still fairly easy to find such videos on the platform. One 18-minute video plugging the Genesis II Church consists of a series of testimonials to the efficacy of 20-20-20 spray; in another, a YouTuber reads Humble’s newsletter about coronavirus and MMS and urges viewers to buy an MMS guidebook. “Depending on the illness you have or the sickness you have, there’s various protocols for each illness,” he said. Another YouTuber says in a caption: “I can’t state for a fact that MMS can treat Corona but big pharma has no answers and MMS has been proven safe and effective.” (As stated above, it has not.)
For its part, YouTube says it is attempting to curb the spread of misinformation related to coronavirus by, among other things, prioritizing authoritative sources such as news organizations in search results for the term. “YouTube’s Community Guidelines prohibit content that encourages dangerous activities that have an inherent risk of physical harm or death, such as promoting harmful cures,” a YouTube spokesperson told Rolling Stone. According to YouTube, its policy regarding “harmful or dangerous content” specifically prohibits endorsements of MMS, and the platform removes videos such as the ones described above by Rolling Stone when flagged.
Nonetheless, when it comes to breaking news events it can be difficult for platforms to keep up with the spread of misinformation, and YouTube is certainly not exceptional in this regard. On Twitter, for instance, which is notoriously lax about curbing the rapid spread of misinformation, Sather’s tweet about the “evidence” supporting the efficacy of MMS has more than 640 retweets. And as coronavirus spreads, so too will the misinformation surrounding it.
Update Wed., Jan. 29, 2:51 p.m.: This story has been updated with comment from YouTube.