There are “hyperlocal” stories but most of the top COVID-19 related myths show surprising persistence across languages.
There is by now a well-established link between the spreading of COVID-19 myths and traditional conspiracy theories (see this blog post by the BBC Anti-disinformation unit on the link-up between QAnon and COVID-19 pseudoscience claims). A report by the European External Action Service (EEAS) found that state-sponsored disinformation on COVID-19 was already prominent online in the first month after the pandemic hit Europe. And the Graphika research firm, in its recent report Secondary Infektion, found that COVID-19 quickly became part of a large-scale disinformation campaign that has been running for six years. With so many pieces of misinformation (unintentionally wrong or misleading) and disinformation (deliberately spreading false content in pursuit of political or commercial objectives) circulating online and offline, it is worth taking a look at what the discussion is about. So what are the main COVID-19 related conspiracy claims?
A report published by source-checking company NewsGuard this month identifies 15 top myths related to COVID-19 and vaccines. They have appeared in some of the 6,000 news and information websites worldwide that the company rates. The myths range from the ludicrous yet widely spread (vaccines will implant patients with microchip surveillance technology funded by Bill Gates), to the pseudoscientific (vaccines are not tested against a placebo in clinical trials) and the macabre (a nurse in Alabama died hours after receiving the vaccine). These claims build on a broader range of misinformation themes that have kept pace with the spread of the pandemic. The Cornell Alliance for Science, in one of the most comprehensive studies on COVID-19 misinformation, identified 11 such themes in a study of 38 million pieces of content published in English by traditional media between January and May 2020 (the report also highlighted the role of Donald Trump as the largest driver of the COVID-19 “infodemic”).
Chart from Evanegah, Sarah, Mark Lynas, Jordan Adams and Karinne Smolenyak, “Coronavirus Misinformation: Quantifying sources and themes in the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’” report by the Cornell Alliance for Science.
Clearly, same as in other pandemic episodes in the history of humanity, “miracle cures” were the most discussed topic. The next two most prominent topics, looking at the supposed role of the “Deep State” and the Democratic Party, come as no surprise given the level of polarisation and vitriol that political debate has reached in the United States. The topics are proving to be resilient — NewsGuard’s top 15 myths feature two separate claims that the vaccines cause infertility, and one on Bill Gates.
You may be wondering — is there a big difference between myths publicised in English and in other languages? The evidence suggests otherwise. In French, the Hold-up documentary, produced after a crowdfunding effort collected nearly 200,000 euros, played a similar role to the English-language Plandemic. The 2h40min film features 37 speakers and bundles together various conspiracy theories clustered around the idea of the COVID-19 pandemic being an exercise in population control by a global elite. In Spanish, false information about COVID-19 was widely shared by users in Spain and the Americas — AFP Factual, the platform of Agence France Presse fact checking news in Spanish, found 419 false or misleading claims since the start of the pandemic. A study led by Ramón Salaverría at the University of Navarra looked at the types and themes of misinformation related to COVID-19 in March-April 2020 after a state of emergency was declared in Spain. Similarly to the NewsGuard research, the study identified false science and health-related claims and recommendations as the most common topic. Those naturally included the “miracle cure” hydroxychloroquine. Misleading information on treatments and vaccines was also widespread.
While I have not yet compared across more languages, the evidence from English, French and Spanish points to themes that remain constant regardless of context. It is evident that most of the factually wrong claims are directly related to science and health, and there are multiple speakers, some of them public figures, relaying them in different languages.
The picture emerging from even a brief review of the main COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation themes across several languages is one of fluidity and considerable exchange across communities and local contexts. There are the “blockbuster” myths that originate in a community known for spreading conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, and find their way to various platforms worldwide. And then there are the “superlocal” myths such as claims challenging a local government’s lockdown measures.
The ease through which false information crosses from one information space and language to another, gets modified, amplified and often crosses back, brings home the importance of cooperation in countering disinformation. Organisations under the UN umbrella have already launched United Nations Communications Response initiative and issued an appeal to member states and international organisations to address the issue. Hopefully, the sheer scale of the COVID-19 pandemic will focus minds and resources and lead to more concerted efforts. Already, government and international organisations and the big internet companies have taken a series of steps in this direction. I will review these efforts in my next post.