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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.

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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.

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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.

  • The best protocol we have for establishing truth is maintaining absolute freedom of expression. Any other “fixes” are just power struggles for the bullhorn.

  • Do we know the name or names of workers at the Wuhan biolabs and when they became ill in this latest escape of bat virus. And their outcomes.

  • one has to note, if one is objective, that all of the supposedly unreliable sites mentioned in this article are right-wing-biased; so, according to left-wing-biased and mainstream people, that is all that it takes to discredit them. Also, sites and people like this author have in common is that they always discredit any stories that support any kind of conspiracy (which is the term they use to instantly discredit any theory) regarding the trustworthiness of government oversight agencies and mainstream “conventional wisdom”. Their premise is that ‘the experts” (who are so-named due to being elevated by mainstream officials) are correct and are never keeping the truth from us, and can be trusted to be safeguarding our interests. This goes all the way into medicine, education, and most other social institutions–such that their statements and actions are not to be questioned or challenged, and there’s no followup on the legitimate concerns that members of the public may have, since they are dismissed as conspiracies.
    While I agree that many times false narratives get around before being checked out thoroughly, I don’t think we should “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. Having studied alternative news, including health news for 30-plus years, I consider myself much better prepared for what comes around and may come around.

  • When comparing left and right and putting (NEWS) into perspective. I think it’s fair to say the truth lies in the middle. However there is no middle ground especially for the left. News publications like this are more interested in censorship, discrediting and silencing their opposition rather then reporting fair truthful news. The auther of this garbage artical seems more interest on tooting him own horn and jumping on the finger pointing wagon rather then reporting on the virus itself. Why don’t you take some time and research the Corona virus and form your own opinion…. Oh wait… No don’t do that… Some other leftist propagandist… I mean reporter might put you on their list of conspiracy theorist and all will be lost for you.
    I’m so sick of this garbage news

  • Hello from Malta in Europe. Here we have observed a case of a misinformation site that was ultimately set up to push sales of masks and related materials at extortionate prices. Not sure if you observed this in any of the sites that you have analysed.

  • Censorship Is the wrong way to go on any issue irregardless of your belief in hoax conspiracies. Colloidal silver is a natural antibiotic used for many many centuries. Whether it will be effective for this virus remains to be seen. It has many different qualities, who knows it may help boost the immune system preventively. Who are you to decide if individuals have the right to try it based on your “homeopathic degree” you acquired in journalism school. FYI I check the CDC and WHO websites daily and the CDC gives very little information other than handwashing, coughing and sneezing techniques so I’m going to reccomend that anyone concerned enough to research ways to help their families be allowed to do just that without your censorship.

    • Agreed. Censorship is garbage. The WHO is demonstrably corrupt, and I won’t listen to them on much of anything. I do trust the CDC, though.

  • Of course it wasn’t “created” but I am sure it was being studied in that lab when it escaped. Plus the first cases have shown NOT to come from the market.

  • if you chose to get your information from WND over the CDC, it is just wilful ignorance

    and if anything

    – Has the US military been developing bioweapons? SURELY
    – Is this administration lacking morality and willing to go any length to achieve its goals? ABSOLUTELY
    – Is there any hint of a possible involvement (allegedly) of the US government in the outbreak? WILBUR ROSS TACTLESSLY CLAIMED THAT THE VIRUS OUTBREAK IS GOOD FOR THE US AS IT IS DAMAGING THE CHINESE ECONOMY

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