London, United Kingdom – Theories have spread almost as fast as the new coronavirus: chloroquine is a proven remedy, children are immune, and 5G has caused the pandemic.
Apparently plausible fake news and predictable fake news about COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, are flooding the Internet as we strive to make sense of a crisis that has ravaged the world.
Uncontrolled, this so-called “infodemia” threatens to hamper the world’s best collective effort to reduce the coronavirus, which has killed more than 115,000 people in just over 100 days since news of its appearance in Wuhan, in China, has consumed media around the world.
“Should we see this [pandemic] as a conflict, we could then speak of two fronts, “Carl Miller, research director of the Center for the Analysis of Social Media of the British think tank Demos, told Al Jazeera.
“The first is the public health response, and the second front is the waves of social and political chaos that have been brought about by the virus and our response to it – this is a key battle on that front. “
“So much misinformation”
As millions of us remain locked into our homes under strict lockdown laws, on WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere, a range of bogus stories and half-cooked conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19 have caught on considerable global momentum.
|The best tips to fight disinformation|
| * Stop and think. If you have doubts about the accuracy of something, don’t share it.
* Check the source. The most reliable sources of information on the coronavirus are public health organizations, such as the World Health Organization.
* Pay attention to the quality. Reliable sources have high standards of grammar and presentation. Typos and odd formatting can be an indicator of inaccuracy.
* Beware of emotional messages and take into account prejudices. We are more likely to share content that corresponds to our own opinions or that excites powerful emotions, but that does not necessarily mean that it is accurate.
* Ask a pro. Several reputable media organizations offer free fact-checking services or have fact-checking teams responsible for identifying false information on social media.
In the UK alone, almost half of all adults have been exposed to false allegations or misleading information online about the virus, according to a study published last week by Ofcom, the watchdog of the country’s media.
Some 35% have seen claims that drinking more water can help eliminate the disease, for example, while almost a quarter have seen advice suggesting that the infection can be treated by gargling with salt water – both of which have been rejected by the World Health Organization and contradict UK public health guidelines.
Among those who have personally witnessed the pernicious advance of disinformation, Ahmed Aweis, a London-based business owner, is himself the epicenter of the workload for the British coronavirus.
For weeks, he saw fake news spread freely on WhatsApp and Facebook.
Towards the end of March, Aweis said that up to 25 videos a day revealing false truths were shared among a handful of his groups of friends and relatives online – while COVID-19 tightened its grip on parts of Western Europe.
Despite his best efforts to refute claims, “everyone just shared things left, right and center,” he said, including content that would have proven that the coronavirus was due to humans. or caused by the deployment of 5G mobile technology.
“It was scary and infuriating because you know that this information is false, but the people who share it have the confidence that it will help or save humanity – and others realize it,” said Aweis. at Al Jazeera.
“I am very, very worried; there is so much misinformation coming out. “
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Platform to platform, country to country
According to Ofcom’s survey, based on a weekly survey of around 2,000 people, some 40% of adults in the UK “have a hard time knowing what’s right or wrong about the virus.”
The professional fact checkers said that the widespread confusion was due in part to the large amount of content available online regarding COVID-19, which had an impact on all continents except Antarctica.
“Every country in the world is talking about it,” Claire Milne, deputy editor-in-chief of the British Full Fact fact-checking charity, told Al Jazeera.
“And so a large number of false statements start in one place, then are translated into many different languages, and move from platform to platform and spread from country to country. “
Full Fact has so far debunked a multitude of stories and misrepresentations, and expects more to emerge.
Among the most notable stories to refute, shared reports on Facebook suggesting that Russia had unleashed 500 lions to prevent people from leaving, and publications on Twitter claiming that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – who recently spent several days in hospital after contracting a coronavirus – was dead.
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Above all others, said Milne, one particular thread of misinformation has been particularly important online in recent weeks – theories linking the pandemic to 5G mobile technology.
The “meta conspiracy theory”
The anti-5G conspiracy theories are not new. For decades, each successive generation of mobile phone technology has drawn unfounded claims about perceived health risks.
But earlier this year, Belgian doctor Kris Van Kerckhoven breathed new life into the claims by claiming that there is a “possible link” between 5G and the coronavirus.
Van Kerckhoven’s comments were made public in January in an article published online – and then deleted – by a Belgian news site. Within weeks, his words had been caught by the anti-5G movement, which in turn sent conspiracy theories to the Internet.
Now, according to Miller of Demos, the scale of the crisis is unlike anything we have seen before.
My very strong feeling is that it completely blows anything out of the water that we have seen before, just in terms of volume and virality on social networks.
Carl Miller, Social Media Analysis Center
“We are witnessing the emergence of the conspiracy meta-theory,” he said, citing QAnon’s “freezing together”, a set of conspiracy theories on the right, and the “9/11 truth”, as well as anti-coronavirus anti-5G movements, among others.
“My very strong feeling is that it completely blows away anything from the water we have seen before, just in terms of volume and virality on social media. “
On YouTube, the 10 most popular 5G coronavirus conspiracy videos released in March have been viewed millions of times. Meanwhile, content linking the pandemic to mobile technology continues to spread on Twitter, and Facebook groups – still active today – are filled with fake news of the same kind.
Milne said that Full Fact had identified three main areas around which 5G theory seemed to merge; one claiming that it weakens people’s immune systems, another claiming that the pandemic was invented to cover the health impact of the deployment of mobile technology, and another claiming that 5G is accelerating the spread of the virus.
“There is no evidence of this,” she said.
5G Crackpot Claims
Despite being refuted by scientists as “complete rubbish”, theories about 5G and the coronavirus have been boosted on social media platforms by a series of celebrities, including British boxer Amir Khan and American actor Woody Harrelson.
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And in an even more disturbing twist, conspiracies have now begun to spread in the real world.
In Britain, where claims for 5G seem to have been particularly strong, dozens of telephone towers and other critical communications infrastructure have been vandalized since early April. The Netherlands also reported several cases of cell towers damaged by arson or sabotage in the past week.
Meanwhile, images of British telecommunications engineers – among those identified by the British government as key workers in the coronavirus epidemic – harassed by members of the public have surfaced online.
“You know, when they turn it on, it will kill everyone,” said an unidentified woman in one of these clips released on April 2, and since it has been viewed a million times on Twitter, you can hear Technicians lay fiber optic cables.
“Do you have children, do you have parents?” She asked the pair of workers. “Are they paying you well enough to kill?” “
– I have all the time today (@aaqua_mel) April 2, 2020
British government officials have said that such incidents appeared to have been fueled by theories of “weirdos” circulating – conspiracies which were marked separately by Stephen Powis, National Medical Service national medical director, as “the worst type of fake news.”
We have received several reports of criminal damage to telephone poles and abuse of telecommunications engineers apparently inspired by crackpot conspiracy theories circulating online. Those responsible for criminal acts will be subject to the full force of the law.
The facts tthttps: //t.co/QWYcc4bOEg
– DCMS (@DCMS) April 5, 2020
Accountable to tech giants
Overall, the litany of common lies about COVID-19 is “a great example of how bad information can ruin lives,” said Milne of Full Fact.
“People rely on the information they see to protect themselves right now,” she said.
In a situation where online lies could directly lead to offline damage, “we all have a responsibility with what we choose to share,” she said.
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Senior UK politicians have directed their review elsewhere and called on tech giants to do more to tackle disinformation on their platforms.
Julian Knight, Member of the British Parliament who heads a commission of inquiry into online coronavirus misinformation, recently urged social media companies to play their part and “to eliminate deliberate attempts to spread fear of COVID-19 “
“It is fair that they are called to account,” he said in a statement on April 6, a week after the British government announced that it was pressing social media companies to crack down on fake news and harmful content online.
A Facebook spokesperson, who also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, told Al Jazeera that the company is taking “aggressive measures to prevent disinformation and harmful content from spreading on our platform.”
“This includes false treatments, false claims that 5G technology is causing the symptoms or contraction of COVID-19 and messages encouraging attacks against 5G masts,” the spokesperson said, adding that Facebook was also focusing on the promotion of “official guidelines for local health authorities”.
With regard to the WhatsApp encrypted messaging service, the spokesperson said that measures were being taken “to reduce and combat virality on the platform”, in particular by reducing the ability of users to transmit messages to a large number of people.
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Twitter, which has already announced measures against deceptive and harmful content, and YouTube, which has banned all conspiracy theory videos mistakenly linking symptoms of coronavirus to 5G networks, had not yet responded requests for comment at the time of publication.
‘A wake-up call’
But despite these measures, disinformation continues to spread online, increasing the spectrum of official public health recommendations to stop the fall of COVID-19 in the ears of a deaf person, with potentially fatal consequences.
To further complicate matters, tech giants’ decisions to censor inaccurate COVID-19 content may fuel the narrative that conspiracy theories have in the first place, Miller warned, creating a kind of feedback loop negative online.
“They see it as when they get closer to the truth, the establishment will react,” he said.
“And the engraving of 5G masts is an alarm signal,” he added.
“It tells us very clearly that this is not something we can ignore, and I am terribly concerned that if we do not find some sort of effective response … we will see a breakthrough in at least significant public disobedience. “
But Aweis, for his part, thinks that the tide can be reversed.
Since the end of March, the amount of disinformation disseminated on its WhatsApp and Facebook groups has dropped sharply. Part of the reason, he thinks, is his refusal to let a lie lie.
He knows he won’t win everyone, but he’s already managed to convince several friends and relatives not to share false allegations or buy baseless conspiracies – and instead heeds official advice potentially vital public health issues.
“My wife always asks me why I waste my time with this, and why the hell I stay in groups,” said Aweis.
“But I tell him that if I don’t challenge them, I don’t see anyone else doing it,” he added.
“My motto is – if they have time to constantly throw out fake stuff, I’ll take the time to challenge them. “