The coronavirus has spawned an infodemic.
That’s the World Health Organization’s term for the conspiracies, unsubstantiated claims, and phony cures surrounding the outbreak of Covid-19 that emerged in China at the tail end of 2019.
The challenges to accurate information on the disease outbreak took center stage at this week’s White House press briefing when President Trump said that “the risk to the American people remains very low” despite the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention’s warning that the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is bound to spread more widely in the U.S.
I’m an editor at NewsGuard, which rates the credibility of news and information websites. Our ongoing analyses show that misinformation about the outbreak is clearly beating reliable information when it comes to engagement on social media worldwide.
Much of the misinformation centers on the unfounded claim that the virus was created in a laboratory. In one version of this false story, the source of the outbreak can be traced to Chinese spies who stole the virus from a lab in Canada, then mutated it into a biological weapon before it leaked out from a state-owned virology lab in Wuhan, China — where the first case of Covid-19 was identified.
This fanciful tale relies on both an unfounded conspiracy and willful ignorance of the available evidence.
Two Chinese scientists were, indeed, escorted out of a lab in Winnipeg in July 2019. But the Public Health Agency of Canada told the Canadian Broadcasting Company that this was due to an “administrative matter,” not some James Bond-esque act of espionage related to the coronavirus.
In fact, genomic studies strongly suggest that the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 originated in bats, with no concrete evidence supporting the idea that it was created in a lab.
Like the coronavirus itself, misinformation and false claims have spread far and wide, drowning out reliable health information on social media. Among the sites that have shared the “coronavirus is a bioweapon stolen from Canada” narrative, we determined that Zero Hedge, a politics and finance blog, had 2.1 million engagements — shares, likes, comments, etc. — on social media over the past 90 days.
In contrast, the CDC’s website had only 175,000 social media engagements during that same period, even though CDC.gov is the top result in any Facebook search for the term “coronavirus.” The WHO’s website had only 25,000 engagements. Yet those two sites, along with those of local and state health departments, are providing reliable information that the public could use to counter the health hoaxes and conspiracies.
NewsGuard has rated the credibility and transparency of more than 3,200 news and information sites in the U.S., accounting for 96% of online engagement, previously reporting that more than 1 in 10 of these sites share health misinformation. The rationale for these ratings, detailed in what we call “Nutrition Labels” that are based on nine journalistic criteria, designate a site as green, meaning generally reliable, or red, not generally reliable.
So far, our Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center has identified 93 sites publishing false and potentially harmful information about the outbreak across the U.S., United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and France. Many of their posts are being exponentially more widely shared than those from the health authorities trying to deliver real and reliable information.
The Mind Unleashed, a conspiracy theory-filled site that has amassed 14.9 million engagements on social media over the past 90 days, promoted the baseless theory that the virus was man-made by tying the outbreak to a virology lab in Wuhan. The same claim has been repeated on hyperpartisan sites such as WND.com (10.5 million engagements) and AmericanThinker.com (3.6 million engagements).
To lend their narratives an air of legitimacy, sites sometimes turn to shoddy scientific research. For example, a Feb. 1 article on Zero Hedge touted a paper on preprint server bioRXiv as proof that the novel coronavirus “might have been genetically engineered for the purposes of a weapon.” The research, which had not been peer reviewed, claimed to have found similar proteins in the new virus and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
According to health fact-checker Health Feedback, the researchers failed to recognize that the same protein sequences could be found in a variety of organisms. The paper was withdrawn, but not before the false claim had two days to spread around social media.
Taking advantage of frightened readers, health care hoax sites are exploiting the outbreak by promoting ineffective “cures” or prevention methods for coronavirus, some of which are not only unproven, but dangerous. For example, GreenMedInfo.com’s “natural protection strategy” against the coronavirus includes colloidal silver, a liquid substance with small silver particles that can permanently turn your skin blue.
What is perhaps the most prolific peddler of health misinformation — the NaturalNews.com network — has joined the party by launching Pandemic.news. Readers on this strategically-named site see headlines, all redirecting back to NaturalNews.com, spreading the latest in coronavirus conspiracies.
Silicon Valley’s opaque, algorithmic solutions are failing to stop the coronavirus infodemic. It would be a public service if the social media and search companies that make it so easy to spread these falsehoods also armed their users with tools to know which sites are trustworthy and which should be read with extreme caution.
John Gregory is NewsGuard’s deputy editor on health.