Coronavirus misinformation is widespread, according to new report that calls it an 'infodemic'

A new analysis examines the online conversation on coronavirus.

April 23, 2020, 7:23 PM

A new report from network analysis firm Graphika concludes that Twitter is awash with novel coronavirus-related misinformation, some of which is being promoted by far right, anti-vaccination and pro-Kremlin online communities.

"You have this kind of convergence of health conspiracies, political conspiracies and technology conspiracies, which I think is particularly concerning," said Melanie Smith of Graphika, an artificial intelligence film that studies online communities.

Smith, a cyber intelligence analyst, co-authored the report, entitled "The COVID-19 'Infodemic.'"

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The report title echoes a comment by the director-general of the World Health Organization, who said in February that the world is not only fighting the coronavirus epidemic, but also an "infodemic."

Here are four findings from the report:

"Right-wing" groups have had a significant role in the global conversation relating to coronavirus disinformation

Accounts categorized into "right-wing groups" by Graphika have played a substantial role in "producing and engaging" with coronavirus disinformation on Twitter, according to the authors of the Graphika report, who utilized multiple maps within the analysis to illustrate Twitter conversation.

"Conservative groups have a larger total presence than liberal groups in the disinformation map, and the combined volume of activity from conservative groups is 27%, compared with 8% from left-leaning groups," the authors wrote, referencing a map built spanning most of February looking at accounts utilizing certain hashtags associated with coronavirus disinformation.

"Right-wing groups are more populous in the disinformation side of the coronavirus conversation, and they're louder. The content they are producing isn't always false or misleading, but when it is, the space that these accounts occupy in the coronavirus conversation lends that content a large audience," Smith said.

Certain participants in the coronavirus conversation have used the coronavirus pandemic to spread racist rhetoric, including that aimed at China and its people

The Twitter data also shows that anti-Chinese xenophobic content was shared widely and that pro-Kremlin and anti-Chinese communist party communities helped amplify false information about the novel coronavirus.

"A strong emphasis is placed on the Chinese origin of the virus, noted often in the popularity of hashtags like #ChinaVirus and #WuhanCoronavirus, with posts often mentioning traditional Chinese food and culture in a stigmatizing manner. The hashtag #KungFlu also had brief bouts of popularity in February and March -- from February 2 to 17 and from March 9 to 16. The use of this hashtag was mostly, if not entirely, concentrated in the US Right-Wing cluster," the authors write.

In response to the findings, a Twitter spokesperson said the company was encouraged that Graphika had used public Twitter data to conduct its analysis.

"Twitter is one of the few companies that empowers this type of research," the spokesperson said. "For our part, we’ve challenged more than three million accounts to protect the COVID-19 conversation and removed thousands of Tweets for violations of our policies. We've also significantly expanded our policies to ensure we’re mitigating people’s exposure to risk, including taking action on medical misinformation that could cause physical harm."

The focus on conspiracy theories has shifted since December

The analysis found that the conversation around the coronavirus online has been "blighted" with what the authors described as conspiracy theories, but the focus online has shifted since December in terms of specific conspiracies.

PHOTO: A passenger uses an iPhone while sitting in a waiting room at a railway station on April 7,2020.
A passenger uses an iPhone while sitting in a waiting room at a railway station on April 7,2020.
Getty Images

The reports say that initially, the conspiracy theories focused on the cause of the outbreak and rehashed well-known misinformation tropes about a "new world order" and "population control" while taking aim at influential figures like Bill Gates and George Soros.

"These phrases are affiliated with politically focused conspiracy theories that revolve around the idea of a 'liberal elite' that controls international decision-making," Smith said.

As the disease spread to countries in which these conspiracy theories are already quite well known, the focus of the conspiracies became more closely focused on governmental responses to the outbreak, according to the report.

"Actors looking to influence conversations often aim to have certain narratives become mainstream so as to attract a larger and more diverse audience for their underlying message," Smith said.

Pro-Kremlin voices in the coronavirus conversation center on undermining global institutions

The authors have noted the insertion of pro-Kremlin viewpoints into the COVID-19 conversation online, which they say can heavily influence the conversation. Graphika identified the pro-Kremlin communities as groups of users following pro-Russian voices, such as contributors and journalists for Russian state-owned media and other assets, which are confirmed as having been involved in previous Kremlin-backed disinformation operations.

The report said these pro-Kremlin accounts were present both in the hashtags related to conspiracy theories and misinformation, and in the hashtags related to the general COVID-19 conversation.

"As often noted in studies of information operations, these seemingly independent accounts can have a heavy impact on an online conversation, either by injecting Russian state-sponsored talking points into susceptible communities or by setting the Kremlin's agenda with their reporting," the authors wrote.

Smith said that this is nothing new and is a tactic seen in other disinformation campaigns.

"A strategy of previous state-backed information operations has been to involve their affiliated social media accounts in online conversations around controversial issues, in order to gain traction with communities that have specific grievances," she said.

This story has been updated to include a comment from a Twitter spokesperson.

What to know about the coronavirus:

Tune into ABC at 1 p.m. ET and ABC News Live at 4 p.m. ET every weekday for special coverage of the novel coronavirus with the full ABC News team, including the latest news, context and analysis.

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