Researchers at Cornell University have analysed 38 million media articles, finding that US President Donald Trump is the largest driver of Covid-19 misinformation.
The authors performed a comprehensive analysis of media coverage on the Covid-19 pandemic, using a platform that aggregates online news, blogs, podcasts, TV and radio media pieces sourced by webcrawlers and third-party providers. The study database totalled 38 million articles in English-language published between January 1 and May 26. ‘Misinformation’ articles were identified using a string of keyword searches based on Covid-19 misinformation sub-topics, such as ‘Democratic party hoax’, ‘5G’, and ‘Wuhan bioweapon’ among others. The authors retrieved more than 1.1 million articles pertaining to Covid-19 misinformation.
Mentions of US President Donald Trump in the context of misinformation made up by far the largest proportion of the so-called ‘infodemic’, totalling 37.9 per cent of all misinformation articles. In contrast, articles that were specifically fact-checking Covid-19 misinformation made up just 16.4 per cent of all misinformation articles. The findings suggest that a large proportion of articles containing Covid-19 misinformation are published without question, correction or verification.
After the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on the 11 March 2020, it soon began to usher warnings around the ‘infodemic’ surrounding it – the wealth of misinformation and contagious spread of falsified delusions that rapidly began to warp public discourse.
‘We’re not just battling the virus,’ said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a WHO press release. ‘We’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response.’ Misinformation on Covid-19 poses a serious threat to global public health. The potential for people to propagate unverified information can mislead large numbers of people about the nature, origins and treatment of Covid-19. In result, they are less likely to observe official health advice from governing bodies and institutions, exacerbating the pandemic’s spread.
The Cornell study authors urge vigilance from media professionals: ‘By choosing to uncritically report statements and remarks made by influential persons, without necessarily verifying or discounting the accuracy of those claims, [media professionals] risk unwittingly facilitating the dissemination of misinformation’.
Grassroots sources, such as antivaccination groups, 5G opponents and political extremists likely promulgated misinformation during the period of data analysis. However, the study highlights that these groups contributed less to the overall volume of Covid-19 misinformation than President Trump, whose name and tweets were cited in 38% of misinformation articles. The study authors believe that though such misinformation is commonly associated with social media platforms, misinformation can be amplified by the coverage of unsubstantiated claims from high profile figures, such as the US President.
The authors highlight 11 different conspiracy theories and misinformation sub-topics that were present in the 1.1 million articles they found containing misinformationMiracle Cures (26.4 per cent of Covid-19 misinformation articles)
- Articles discussing ‘miracle cures’ represented the largest of the 11 sub-topics of misinformation and conspiracy theories (26.4%). From March 19, President Trump began to advocate for the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine for the treatment of Covid-19, leading to a peak in the number of published articles containing ‘miracle cures’ misinformation. The drug cocktail, routinely used as an anti-malarial treatment, had no peer-reviewed clinical data showing efficacy or safety. The second peak in misinformation spread pertaining to miracle cures occurred when Trump claimed to be taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventative. Shortly after on March 24, a married US couple both ingested a fish tank cleaning product containing chloroquine phosphate. Both fell ill shortly after; the man developed respiratory problems and later died. The event came after President Trump publicly announced his own use of hydroxychloroquine, writing on Twitter that it had “a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,” when taken with the antibiotic azithromycin. By far the largest peak for the number of misinformation articles occurred on April 24, when Trump inexplicably suggested ingesting bleach and other disinfectants as a Covid-19 cure.
New World Order / Deep State (4.4 per cent)
- Misinformation and conspiracy theories pertaining to an alleged secret ‘new world order’ or ‘deep state’ government bodies accounted for 4.4% of Covid-19 misinformation articles during the study period. President Trump aloofly joked about the US State Department being a ‘Deep State’ during a White House Covid-19 press conference, leading a to a peak in ‘new world order / deep state’ related misinformation article.
Democratic Party Hoax (3.6 per cent)
- In January 2020, a conspiracy theory suggesting that Covid-19 had been engineered by the democratic party to coincide with Trump’s impeachment trial, on January 16 during which he was found not guilty. His son Eric Trump took to interviews with mainstream media outlets to promulgate the idea. Fox News reported comments from Eric Trump on May 17 that “coronavirus will magically all of a sudden go away and disappear and everybody will be able to reopen” after the November 3 presidential election.
Bill Gates (2.5 per cent)
- As the coronavirus emerged, conspiracy theorists began citing a 2015 TED talk that Gates gave about the serious threat that pandemics could bring to human society and fragile systems, producing the first peak in this subject of misinformation. The conversation quickly began to be warped as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation started funding Covid-19 vaccine research: conspiracists claimed that Gates planned to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines and equip them with microchips to track and control people’s actions. Groups of ‘anti-vaccination’ people played an outsized role in dispersing claims of Gates’s alleged nefarious intent. The second peak of misinformation on this subtopic came when a controversial Italian politician, Sara Cunial called for Gates’ arrest for crimes against humanity. Earlier in 2018, Cunial compared vaccines to ‘genocide’.
5G Technology (2.1 per cent)
- In January 2020, French conspiracy website Les moutons enrages suggested a correlation between the emergence of the novel coronavirus with the installation of 5G towers in Wuhan, China. The article ‘First noticed correlation between 5G and a viral or bacterial mutation?!’ would later be picked up by mainstream media outlets, leading to vandalism of 5G towers in the UK and other countries. A March 2020 report from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection found no evidence that 5G networks posed a risk to human health.
Wuhan Bioweapon (2.6 per cent)
- The Wuhan Institute of Virology quickly came under fire from conspiracists worldwide, who claimed that the 2019 novel coronavirus was synthesised in a laboratory and nefariously released as a bioweapon. President Trump announced on April 15 that the US government was investigating whether the virus had originated in the Wuhan lab. Yuan Zhiming, professor at WIV and the director of its National Biosafety Laboratory said the ‘malicious’ claims had been ‘pulled out of thin air’. This topic of misinformation quickly gained traction amidst the US government’s geopolitical struggle with China: Trump repeatedly blamed China for the pandemics’ origin and their subsequent response to it. Scientists writing in Nature Medicine journal in March 17 said ‘all notable SARS-CoV-2 features were also observed in related coronaviruses in nature’, concluding ‘we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible’.
The WHO has launched efforts to curb the spread of dangerous conspiracies that could undermine issued public health guidance. In February, WHO officials met at Facebook headquarters to discuss how to promote accurate information and public health guidance on Covid-19. The WHO is now working with more than 50 digital companies and social media platforms including Google, WhatsApp, YouTube and Tik Tok to ensure that science-based health messages from the WHO take priority in people’s searches for information related to Covid-19. Additionally, a cooperative campaign between the WHO and the UK Government called ‘Stop the Spread’ aims to raise awareness of the threat of Covid-19 misinformation. To counter its spread, the campaign encourages the public to report misinformation, and to double check information with trusted sources, such as WHO and national health authorities.
The threat of the ‘infodemic’ has been so severe this year that the WHO launched the first ‘Infodemiology’ Conference, which took place from 29 June to 1 July. The United Nations community has been amplifying verified public health information through its own anti-misinformation initiative ‘Verified’. The initiative’s ‘Pause. Take care before you share’ campaign encourages people to take the necessary to time to verify sources before deciding to share the content to others online, advising that ‘sharing misinformation may cause violence in the real world’.