This is the second of two posts on how conspiracy theories and misinformation, often spread by social media, are affecting the course of the COVID Pandemic. See also COVID: Myths and Misinformation 1.
A lot of the strange conspiracy theories connected with COVID involve 5G mobile networks. These ideas have sprung up all over the World, even in countries like Bolivia, which doesn’t have 5G technology! There is no way that 5G phone signals either transmit the virus or reduce our defences to it, but that hasn’t stopped the conspiracy ideas developing, accompanied in some cases by people damaging 5G equipment. Others have claimed that symptoms attributed to the virus are actually caused by 5G radiation. The spread of this misinformation has been made worse by politicians and religious leaders posting false claims on Facebook, and YouTube: for example a former Nigerian senator, and an evangelical pastor in Tanzania. A former grand mufti in Egypt has spoken on television about the 5G network, and how it might have caused electromagnetic disturbance, apparently creating a perfect environment for the spread of the novel coronavirus! In Europe 5G conspiracy thinking has been promoted in Serbia by Novak Djokovic, and in the UK by David Icke.
Another group of conspiracy theories revolve around Bill Gates. One of the commonest false claims is that the billionaire philanthropist is involved in a secret plan to implant microchips in millions of humans along with a coronavirus vaccine! Variations of this “theory” have turned up in at least 14 countries. One YouTube video from Argentina endorsing the idea has been viewed over 1.3 million times. A Facebook video in Pakistan promoting the notion has over 650,000 views.
As noted in my previous blog post, a significant proportion of the population is prone to believing these conspiracy theories. These people commonly rely on social media for their news, and I suspect they tend to be fairly uncritical of the information that they find there. Those hoping to find out if claims made online are true would tend to turn to fact-checking sites like Snopes.com. Unfortunately, COVID has generated so many pieces of information which may or may not be true that the fact-checking sites have been overwhelmed. The World Health Organisation has concluded that the Pandemic has been accompanied by an “infodemic” which “makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
Snopes has seen a a record amount of visits to their site since the pandemic began: 37 million visitors from late February to late March. This is a 43% increase from the previous month. However, the increased demand for fact-checking is not accompanied by increased revenue for the site, which is clearly a major problem for them. Readers submitted about 10,000 COVID-related queries to Snopes during the last two weeks of March alone!
Other fact-checkers have been similarly overwhelmed, so the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute, which includes over 70 members, has set up The CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance Database which contains over 3,000 fact checks on COVID from around the World. This is the largest ever collaboration of fact-checkers. Sharing the work has allowed the people involved to see more easily which myths are most prevalent, and to track their movements around the planet. One of the commonest conspiracy theories is said to be that SARS-CoV-2 is a biological weapon created in a laboratory.
Even with this coordinated effort, however, it remains difficult for fact-checkers to determine the source of the misinformation. It is also hard for them to know whether something is a relatively innocuous rumour, or part of a coordinated campaign, with a more sinister agenda.
A Real Conspiracy?
Twitter is a much smaller social media platform than Facebook. It is, however, worrying to discover that researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that nearly half of 200 million tweets about COVID-19 probably came from bots. Many of these were promoting fake “cures”, spreading conspiracy theories like the ones mentioned above, and pushing to “re-open America”. It is very difficult to be certain of the origin of these tweets, but Russia and China seem likely candidates. Reuters has reported a European Union Study which concluded that the Kremlin and pro-Kremlin groups have launched a “disinformation campaign” regarding COVID to generate panic in the West.
One can only speculate about the aims of the organisations/ countries behind these misinformation campaigns, but Jevin West of the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington has said that they are “about creating distrust in the overall ecosystem and institutions. It’s not so much about picking a side as it is about creating confusion and doubt and distrust of authority.”
The Carnegie Mellon University researchers who came up with the bot data from Twitter are now also examining messages on Facebook, Reddit and YouTube.
It seems when it comes to COVID, although some of us are more prone to conspiracy thinking than others, the old rule still applies: just because you are paranoid, it doesn’t mean they are not out to get you!