The amount of Covid-19 misinformation doing the rounds on social media is frightening. We are little more than a fortnight into the pandemic stage of the virus, yet the BBC has already warned readers of five email phishing scams aiming to take advantage of concerned members of the public. Images of cleared shelves are a common sight on the “Covid-19” hashtag on Twitter, and essential supplies such as toilet roll and hand sanitiser are appearing on eBay and other online merchants at ludicrously inflated prices. Bargain-basement entrepreneurs are seeking to make a quick buck by exploiting the anxieties of panic-stricken Britons.

There is a clear motive here. But what about the more bizarre examples of misinformation connected to these Coronavirus hashtags circulating on social media?

At the heart of the issue is trust. Trust in the advice of the government and of public institutions. Many commentators have been quick to condemn the UK’s comparatively mild response to the virus, and it gets a hearing when trust is low. There is even a widely circulated graphic attempting to illustrate how anaemic the British response to the virus is by showing a row of empty checkboxes flanked by a list of countries that have implemented stronger measures to delay the peak of infection numbers and “flatten the curve”. Johnson’s approach is a political gamble, but one that is fundamentally based on sound scientific reasoning – but this is difficult to communicate to a nervous public.

Online trends reveal a concerning rise in searches including “are we being told the truth about coronavirus?”, and “coronavirus what they are not telling you”. The latter surged 250% earlier this week, while many of those who want answers appear to be turning to a selection of foil-crowned Twitter accounts exploiting an eagerly credulous public. A particularly outrageous example, casting itself “COVID-19 UK UPDATES”, has posited a variety of weird theories surrounding the coronavirus – all while enjoying a healthy rise in follower numbers. According to this person, who proudly advertises an “advice leaflet” that provides a “real chance”, the virus has been weaponised by the US military and mixed with HIV to create “airborne AIDs”, while the spate of panic buying stands as testament to why “they don’t and won’t tell us about alien life”.

As laughable as these theories are, they would be essentially harmless in a normal situation. But this is not a normal situation. Follower count is largely inconsequential, as once the hashtags are trending, one does not have to scroll far for this content to appear, uncontested.

Nor is this bilge confined to Twitter, or even to those we can comfortably dismiss as generally troublesome kooks. An email I received yesterday from a calm and rational contact in my address book contained nonsensical advice to hold my breath for 10 seconds each morning and keep sipping water to “prevent the virus entering my windpipe” – which I tracked to a right-wing Slovenian website. The original article, which cited advice from the “Stanford hospital board”, “Taiwan experts” and “Japanese doctors” in the same breath, has been discredited only in isolated pockets and continues to spread faster than the illness itself. When I rang the sender to inform them it was a hoax, they were surprised. I would hope they wouldn’t be as easily seduced, as some are, by the mad theory that we are all Guinea pigs for GlaxoSmithKline, of whom Patrick Vallance was president of research and development from 2012 to 2018.

Measures taken in response by YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, to link to WHO advice wherever possible, and to make sensationalist content less visible, are much-needed and welcome steps.

It is easy to write off these unpleasant theories and those who distribute them, but many people can be taken in by these stories. This can make an abstract problem much more real – with panic buying, backed-up 111 calls, round-the-block pharmacy queues and crowded GP waiting rooms at a time when the most prudent action is to stay put.

This is a problem that begins with a Prime Ministerial press conference being deemed so honest that it must be a lie, all exacerbated by bad actors on social media fanning the flames. Whether they are being told the truth or not, it is difficult to calm a public that feels they are being lied to.

We must all combat these conspiracies wherever possible. It is worth the WHO, NHS and British Government, echoing the recent warning of Margaret Somerville, Professor of Bioethics at University of Notre Dame Australia: “Maintaining trust in the context of health care can be a very important factor in maintaining the more general ethical fabric of every community.”