Misinformation, disinformation and the COVID-19 infodemic

The global coronavirus pandemic has spread rapidly, triggering a deluge of disinformation and misinformation. It is worth defining the two terms before progressing because they are often confused and conflated. Disinformation refers to content that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm. Misinformation is inaccurate or misleading content shared by someone that believes it is true. As such, disinformation can morph into misinformation when shared by those that do not realise that it is fake. The spread of both during the COVID-19 pandemic has become so dire, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an “infodemic” of incorrect information about the virus, putting global health at risk. [1]

As is the case during events with a global reach, generic falsehoods concerning the coronavirus have been widely circulated. Some are clearly implausible; others, however, are convincing enough that they are widely disseminated, even by otherwise credible sources. It is these stories that are often the most effective because people are far more likely to believe something that is at least based in fact than something that is clearly nonsense.

The pace and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with its shocking newness, have catalysed the spread of disinformation and misinformation. This is because an unexpected, fast-moving and disruptive incident creates an immediate and sustained demand for information. The supply of verified facts is insufficient to slake the public’s thirst for details. This uncertainty creates a vacuum that is filled with speculation, unfounded theories and intentionally malicious attempts to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt. With over three billion people on social media, this content spreads faster and further than ever before.

Coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, in December last year. To date, more than 1.4 million people have been infected, over 83,000 of whom have died. [2] Disinformation about the source of the virus has been particularly prominent. Two widely shared Washington Times articles suggested that the virus was part of China’s “covert biological weapons programme” and may have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. [3] Despite a broad selection of experts swiftly debunking the claims, this didn’t stop several prominent US sources from sharing them, including US Senator Tom Cotton and conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh – host of the most popular radio show in the US. [4] Limbaugh alleged that media hysteria surrounding coronavirus had been artificially engineered to topple Trump, sentiments that were echoed by many of the president’s supporters. [5]

Ironically, allegations that COVID-19 was in fact a US bioweapon are also rife. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian claimed that the US developed COVID-19 and deliberately released it in China. [6] After President Trump became aware of the allegations, he began referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus”. [7] Allegations of US culpability were also propagated in other countries in which anti-US sentiment is widespread, including Iran, Venezuela and, most notably, Russia.

Numerous Russian politicians, media sources and public figures have stated that the US deliberately engineered COVID-19 to wage an economic war on China. [8] Indeed, it has been suggested that Wuhan was selected as the epicentre of the virus precisely because of the presence of the Wuhan Institute of Virology – the perfect cover for the outbreak. Given that the US is now the country worst affected by coronavirus, proponents of these theories have fallen silent or shifted their narratives to fit the changing situation. As long as the overarching strategy is maintained, clearly facts are irrelevant.

In part, this content is intended for a domestic audience, to bolster the narrative that the West is responsible for many of Russia’s ills. However, according to the EU, pro-Kremlin media are also engaged in a “significant disinformation campaign” to stoke “confusion, panic and fear” in Europe and the US. Allegedly, the intention is to aggravate the coronavirus pandemic, as part of a broader strategy to “subvert European societies from within”. Part of this involves deploying an army of state-linked false personas and bots to disseminate disinformation. Previously these have posted on topics such as Syria and the French gilets jaunes movement. They have since been repurposed to push “disinformation about the coronavirus in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French online”. [9]

Russia has also been blamed for one of the more outlandish conspiracy theories: linking 5G networks to the coronavirus pandemic. Various unfounded claims are circulating on social media, including that 5G directly caused the outbreak in Wuhan, or that the coronavirus outbreak is a cover-up for 5G-related illnesses. Despite numerous official sources stating that the allegations are biologically impossible and “complete rubbish”, the rumours have had significant real-world consequences. Across the UK in the past week, activists have set fire to what they believed were 5G masts at 20 locations, prompting the government to urge social media platforms to do more to stem the flow of 5G conspiracy theories. [10]

State-sponsored disinformation of this nature can have a detrimental societal impact at a time when cohesion is paramount. False claims about testing, treatment and cures can also have harmful consequences for individuals. There have been claims that cocaine sterilises the nostrils and protects against infection [11]; that Africans are genetically resistant to the disease; and a slew of other unsubstantiated health claims. [12] Some of these are relatively benign: drinking lemon and water won’t prevent coronavirus but won’t harm you either. Others are potentially deadly: 480 people died, and 2,850 others were injured in Iran after drinking methanol, mistakenly believing that it would cure or protect against coronavirus. [13]

Combating the spread of coronavirus-themed disinformation is difficult. With an unprecedented and fluid situation, it is often harder to discern which information is reliable from what is not. Sensationalist stories are more attention-grabbing and thus tend to be shared more widely than the accurate, but less eye-catching, updates. Compounding the problem, human beings are hardwired to trust content that reinforces their established beliefs, regardless of its authenticity. As a result, disinformation is often widely disseminated before it has been identified as misleading or malicious. Indeed, studies have shown that false news travels faster, farther and deeper than verifiable content. [14] On top of this, if it supports the reader’s previously held beliefs, fact-checking disinformation is often not enough to convince them it is fake. [15]

Social media platforms have been accused of doing too little to stem the tide of disinformation and misinformation. However, they have taken some steps to help stem the tide of COVID-19 disinformation. On 31 March, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all banned videos from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. [16] These featured the president claiming that the antimalarial drug chloroquine could be used to treat the virus. Rumours about the efficacy of chloroquine had been circulating for days but had not been endorsed by medical professionals.

That, however, was an unusually clear-cut example: most are more nuanced and harder to judge. The reality is that it is extremely difficult to effectively moderate billions of daily posts on social media. The scale of the task necessitates solutions powered by artificial-intelligence. However, these are far from perfect. Indeed, complaints that authentic content is being removed from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have already emerged. [17] Not only does this risk throttling the flow of genuine information, it also undermines the source, further muddying the waters.

Disinformation and misinformation have always been a fact of life. However, in the past, its reach and impact were limited by technological constraints. A false story published in a newspaper or broadcast on the radio could only travel so far. The proliferation of social media and instant messaging has supercharged the spread of fake news. A new media culture focused on profit over accuracy has only compounded the problem. A concerted and multi-faceted approach is required to tackle this issue. Governments, tech giants and the media should all be doing more; individuals, however, also have their parts to play. We all have an obligation to fact check sources, report malicious content and think twice before sharing information that may have come from a questionable source.