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Corona virus: worldwide spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories

Corona virus: worldwide spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories


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Dissemination of misinformation and conspiracy theories about SARS-CoV-2

The coronavirus pandemic has caused great uncertainty in many people and there is a great need for information, which is often served with misinformation and conspiracy theories, especially on the Internet. How such false information spreads globally and what dangers it entails is highlighted in a current article by the renowned specialist magazine "Nature".

Both the emergence of the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and its spread exist in numerous wild theories, which cannot be proven by any scientific studies, but have spread globally at an enormous speed. In the current review article, researchers analyzed the origin and spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories around SARS-CoV-2 and explained the resulting risks.

Misinformation is hardly relevant at first

In several studies, millions of social media posts related to COVID-19 were evaluated and the distribution channels of unknowingly passed on misinformation, conspiracy theories and targeted false statements were recorded. In the early phase of the pandemic, misinformation, for example, played only an insignificant role in the posts on Twitter, the researchers report. Rather, the focus would have been on basic scientific uncertainties about the outbreak, since essential features of the virus such as transferability and mortality could only be estimated with large error rates.

"Uncertainty vacuum" due to knowledge gaps

The honest admission of knowledge gaps created an “uncertainty vacuum” that allowed superficial sources to step in without real expertise, explains biologist Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington in Seattle. For example, some conspiracy theories emerged that Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, suspected as the driving force behind the pandemic. Some claim that Gates created the virus himself, others say he patented it and was planning to use a vaccine to control people.

Bill Gates and the Corona Virus

In mid-March, the Biohackinfo.com website incorrectly claimed that Gates was planning to use a coronavirus vaccine as a trick to monitor people through an injected microchip or quantum dot spy software. A corresponding YouTube video, which has now reached almost two million clicks, went online two days later. Former President Donald Trump's adviser, Roger Stone, commented on the theory on a radio show in April, adding that he would never trust a Gates-funded coronavirus vaccine.

Long range with little effort

This is how the conspiracy theory went its own way and the New York Post newspaper reported on the interview without debating the thought. The article was shared or commented on by almost a million people on Facebook. "It's a better performance than most mainstream media news," said Joan Donovan, a sociologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And here lies a core of the problem: Given the extremely high reach, which can easily be achieved with misinformation and conspiracy theories, there is an incentive to focus on such topics.

Corona virus is the perfect prerequisite for conspiracy theories

The Gates conspiracy theories are part of a barrage of misinformation about the corona virus that has spread online. While such theories arise around every major news event, the coronavirus pandemic offers the perfect conditions for spreading rumors and misinformation, explains data scientist Walter Quattrociocchi from the University of Ca’Foscari in Venice. Because people spend more time at home and look online for answers to an uncertain and rapidly changing situation.

Abundance of information

"The topic is polarizing, scary, captivating," says Quattrociocchi. In addition, it is really easy for anyone interested to get information that matches their own belief system. "An abundance of information - some correct and some not - makes it difficult to find trustworthy sources of information and reliable guidance," emphasizes the expert. This situation is said to be "infodemic".

Dangers of misinformation

The problem of the "infodemic" is its huge extent. Because much more information is produced than we can really analyze and consume, the researchers explain. And in a global health crisis, inaccurate information is not only misleading, it can also make life or death decisions, for example if people start taking untested medicines or ignore public health advice, the experts warn in the article.

Organized fraud with misinformation

Organized fraud is also a significant problem. This year, more than 68,000 website domains with keywords related to the corona virus were registered, many of which try to sell questionable products with false promises of treatment or to access the personal data of the users. Some fraudulent websites have also managed to top Google's search results by using a combination of keywords that are optimized and targeted to a specific audience.

Enhance reliable information

All in all, there is a drastic problem with the spread of misinformation on the Internet, even if the reasons behind it can be of very different nature. Since people cannot be prevented from passing on unsubstantiated rumors anyway, the question arises as to how the spread of reliable information can be strengthened so that it can spread faster and further than the misinformation, the researchers sum up.

Social media platforms have to act

The social media platforms are also required. Their main goal is to maximize user engagement and not to share evidence-based information. However, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube have recognized the challenge and have already announced cooperation to combat misinformation.

Posts deleted by the Brazilian president

For example, contributions from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro with incorrect information on the effects of hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19 have already been deleted and advertising for "miracle cures" or for overpriced face masks has also been prevented. However, the platforms often react very sluggishly and corresponding misinformation has already spread widely by then.

Some cannot be convinced

In principle, efforts to make good information known and to warn bad information also have their limits. "If people think that WHO is anti-American or Anthony Fauci corrupt or Bill Gates bad, then the higher rating of an alternative source doesn't do much - it just makes people think that the platform is conspiring with that source," emphasizes Renée diResta from the Stanford Internet Observatory in California.

Which sources are trusted?

The problem is therefore not a lack of facts, but the question of which sources people trust. It doesn't help here to explain to conspiracy theorists that they should be critical media consumers, because they think that they are doing just that by doing their own research and that what others are advocating is misinformation.

The researchers also expressly warn against how extremist groups use misinformation about the corona virus to attract people's attention and, at the same time, an open-mindedness for radical views. "The increase in anxiety and misinformation surrounding COVID-19 has allowed malevolent thought and hate promoters to grapple with the mainstream audience on a common topic of interest and to urge them to hateful views," the researchers said. (fp)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dipl. Geogr. Fabian Peters

Swell:

  • Philip Ball, Amy Maxmen: The epic battle against coronavirus misinformation and conspiracy theories; in: Nature (published May 27, 2020), nature.com


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