The World Health Organization has declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, and also an “infodemic.”
In fact, the WHO made the latter declaration more than a month before the former, saying in early February that an “over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
Carnegie Mellon University professor Kathleen Carley and her research team have identified more than 100 instances of disinformation – that is, false information purposefully meant to mislead readers – related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We found ones around the nature of the virus itself. This would include things like who is immune to it, such as people with type A blood or Africans are immune,” Carley said. “We've found ones around conspiracy theories, such as Cuba already invented a vaccine and gave it to China or this was a bio weapon created by the CIA.”
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The team also found stories related to fake preventions and cures, false diagnostic procedures – if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, you don’t have COVID-19 – and to emergency measures – that New York City is under martial law, for example.
“We've also found good news stories such as because people are staying inside,” Carley said. “The pollution is down in Venice and there's now swans and dolphins again in the canals.”
Carley has found that the amount of disinformation floating around the internet related to the coronavirus pandemic far surpasses normal disinformation events, such as elections and natural disasters.
“There’s just way more. Way, way, way, way more,” she said. “A typical natural disaster we might get around 20 stories.”
Carley also said each story is sticking around longer than usual, in part because they’re being re-shared and re-posted more often as they make their way around the globe.
Carley said her team doesn’t have the resources to trace the exact source of each disinformation story, but that some appear to come from random individuals while others have been linked to Qanon, a loose-knit group of far-right conspiracy theorists.
“Some of it appears to be very orchestrated and coordinated,” she said. “A bunch of the ones that are associated with the conspiracy theories, such as this was a CIA weapon, appear to be coordinated.”
According to report out last week from Bloomberg News, the U.S. Justice Department is tracking disinformation originating in China and Russia. The outlet quotes John Demers, Assistant Attorney General of the National Security Division, as saying that Russia appears focused on weakening trust in the European Union, NATO and Western democracies, while China is attempting to promote socialism over liberal democracy.
A top Chinese official has alleged that coronavirus originated in a U.S. military laboratory, though China’s ambassador to the U.S. has disavowed that theory.
The report doesn’t mention Iran, where supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top officials have pushed the theory that the novel coronavirus is a U.S. biological weapon.
Carley said, so far, there has been less outright fraud related to the pandemic, compared to other instances of disinformation.
“In every natural disaster, you'll get things like … here's a place to go and get put your insurance claims or to get help or to call this number if you need help,” Carley said. “But I would say we should expect that to start coming out.”