COVID-19 Is a Serious Threat … But So Are Memes Claiming It’s NOT

The story of a Texas woman who reportedly shared a Facebook post claiming the coronavirus outbreak was a hoax — and later reportedly died from the virus — reminds us of the dangerous potential of misinformation.

  • Published 7 April 2020
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As a new strain of coronavirus spread around the globe in 2020, a steady stream of misinformation spread on the internet. While we’ve encountered a number of far-fetched conspiracy theories, ranging from the idea that this virus was a “man-made bioweapon” (false) to the claim that this disease was being spread by 5G cellular towers (also false), the most dangerous piece of misinformation was far more simple: that COVID-19 was no more dangerous than the flu and this “pandemic” was being overhyped by the media.

No single source exists for this dangerous and untrue rumor. While one could point the finger at any number of parties for downplaying the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact remains that a large portion of Americans didn’t see our current situation as much of a threat in the first few months of 2020. A Pew Research poll taken between March 19 and March 24 found that only 36% of Americans (41% of Democrats, 30% of Republicans) determined the pandemic to be a major threat to their personal health. 

At the same time this poll was being taken, New York declared a statewide shelter-in-place order, the 2020 Olympics were officially delayed, non-medical companies started to manufacture ventilators and masks, and the United States confirmed its 50,000th reported case of COVID-19. Despite these society-changing events, the vast majority of Americans did not see this disease as a threat to their personal health. 

Why? It may have to do with viral misinformation that repeatedly told them there was nothing to worry about. For instance, on March 13, a few days before this poll was taken and, coincidentally, the same day U.S. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, a chain message started to circulate on Facebook that insisted the pandemic was nothing more than a media creation:

There’s nothing particularly unique about the above-displayed Facebook message. Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, we’ve covered dozens of Facebook posts making similar claims. While these posts made a wide range of assertions (from bogus health cures to accusations of bio-terrorism), they all flirted with the idea that this disease was a hoax and that health officials and the media were not telling people the truth. 

This particular piece of misinformation received extra attention, however, because it was shared on the Facebook page of a woman who reportedly died from complications related to COVID-19. 

In April 2020, screenshots showing this post on Karen Kolb Sehlke’s Facebook page, as well as screenshots showing a GoFundMe page set up for Sehlke and her family after she entered the hospital, went viral on social media: 

While Twitter user Sunn m’Cheaux wrote that he posted those screenshots “not to mock Karen Kolb Sehlke’s death, but to underscore the tragic risk one takes when taking this pandemic for granted,” other social media users weren’t so reserved. Sehlke’s Facebook page, as well as her husband’s, were bombarded with less-than-sympathetic messages that more or less claimed Sehlke got what she deserved. 

When family members removed these posts, a new conspiracy sprung up holding that this woman never existed, and that this story was just Russian disinformation. The GoFundMe page was also edited to remove mentions of the coronavirus, which cast even more doubt on this incident.

But Sehlke was a real person. We found messages from her friends and family mourning her loss shortly after she passed away. While we can’t say for certain that her death was related to COVID-19, an early update to her GoFundMe page did claim she had tested positive for the disease. In addition to multiple screenshots of this comment, we captured a cached version of this update via Google. 

We also know for certain that Sehlke did not write the viral piece of misinformation posted to her Facebook page and displayed at the beginning of this article. While we don’t yet know who penned the missive, the post is the earliest version we could find and was shared more than 20,000 times. And the text was online at least a day before it appeared on Sehlke’s Facebook page. 

At the time of this writing, the U.S. had more than 375,000 cases of COVID-19, resulting in more than 11,000 deaths, and nearly 10 million people have filed for unemployment as a result of shelter-in-place orders aimed at slowing the spread of the disease. In other words, this disease is not a hoax and this disease does not care about your political affiliation. 

As the United States and the rest of the world continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to turn to trusted sources for information about the disease. Readers can get more information about COVID-19 from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you have a question about the coronavirus (or if you’ve encountered a piece of misinformation that you’d like to see debunked), please let us know. You can also see all of the COVID-19 related rumors that we’ve addressed here.