Crocodiles, Ken Jeong and exploding hand sanitizer: Top 5 fact-checks from the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance

May 18, 2020
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

A poll out last week from Gallup and the Knight Foundation showed that 78% of Americans see COVID-19 misinformation as a major problem. They also found that half felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information available about the disease.

Since January, fact-checkers throughout the world have been trying to help their audiences make sense of the avalanche of good and bad information. The CoronaVirusFacts Alliance combined the effort of over 70 fact-checking networks from more than 40 countries to build a database of fact-checks to protect people from the COVID-19 infodemic. More than 400,000 people globally have made use of this resource since its inception, and 50,000 people used it this past week.

The database changes with readers’ questions and fact-checkers’ enterprising work. The most popular searches over the life of the database have included claims about Pope Francis and COVID-19 victims’ bodies washing ashore. These five show what our audience has been searching for over the past week:

1) Crocodiles were spotted swimming in the canals of Venice without the bustle of tourists.

While there have been some real examples of animals retaking empty human habitats, this example brought to us by the Taiwan FactCheck Center is, in fact, a hoax.

The false image shows a crocodile floating through an abandoned canal in Venice. However,  the photo is a composite — one of a Venetian canal, and the other, a stock photo of an alligator (not a crocodile) in the Florida everglades.

The Taiwan FactCheck Center also spoke to an animal expert from the National Taiwan Normal University who said crocodiles are not native to Venetian canals.

2) Chinese Dr. Leslie Chow discovered the coronavirus and died soon after.

The world was first introduced to the character Leslie Chow in the 2009 comedy movie The Hangover when he leapt naked out of the trunk of a Mercedes and began beating actor Bradley Cooper with a tire iron. While the Korean American actor who portrays Chow (Ken Jeong) is a doctor in real life,  the fictitious character obviously didn’t discover COVID-19.

In debunking this claim, both ColombiaCheck and Mexican fact-checking network Spondeo Media acknowledged this was a clear case of satire. However, both warned that this  seemingly lighthearted fun can be repurposed as fact.

3) Wearing a mask will lead to hypoxia as you re-breathe your own carbon dioxide.

International Fact-Checking Network Associate Director Cristina Tardáguila addressed this issue in her weekly report on the CoronaVirusFacts Database. She found that the claim had circulated in 11 countries (Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Spain, Brazil and France) that wearing a mask could lead to a dangerous drop in blood-oxygen levels, which could cause fainting and death.

While it is true that breathing in too much carbon dioxide is dangerous, Brazilian fact-checking network Agência Lupa, along with many others, pointed out that a mask would have to be airtight against the wearer’s face to cause the damage alleged in this false claim.

4) Left unattended, alcohol-based hand sanitizers can cause car fires.

This hoax first appeared in Thailand, but eventually spread to Costa Rica and Brazil. Its first incarnation features a video of two young men getting into a car that quickly catches fire burning them alive.

AFP Thailand’s fact-check used a reverse-image search and found the video was actually from 2015. The two young men were Saudis who unadvisedly combined a lighter with an aerosol spray in a confined space. AFP also found an Egyptian news article about the incident.

Costa Rican fact-checking network La Nación discovered that while car fires are not infrequent in Costa Rica, there have been no reports of hand sanitizer causing them.

Brazilian fact-checkers Aos Fatos and Estadão Verifica found that a car would need to reach an internal temperature above 300 degrees Celsius (572 degrees Fahrenheit) to cause hand sanitizer to combust. A study by Arizona State University looking at cars parked in triple-digit summer heat found temperatures topped out around 160 F (71.11 C).

5) You can test the quality of a reusable mask by trying to blow out a lighter.

This claim dealt with a series of videos showing people testing the quality of medical masks by blowing through them to extinguish a lighter. The errant belief is that a quality mask will prevent that.

The Mass Communication Organization of Thailand spoke with that country’s Director-General of Public Health Dr. Panpimol Wipulakorn, who debunked this claim saying different people have different breath capacity. She also warned that inhaling could potentially burn your mask.

Instead, Wipulakorn suggested looking at the internal structure of the mask, noting that medical masks have filter layers to protect the wearer from fine particulates. Fake medical masks will not have this layer.

Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering fact-checking and misinformation. Reach him at hmantas@poynter.org or on Twitter at @HarrisonMantas.