On social media, disinformation can spread quickly. Science, with archaic terminology and complex communications challenges, is vulnerable to disinformation. In these reports, we track the trends, hot topics, and impact of science, medicine, and COVID-19 disinformation, from conspiracy theories to coordinated campaigns.
Below, you will find key highlights from the reports, and links to complete reports.
09/02/20: Global enthusiasm and American trepidation in Russian diplomatic vaccine efforts
The announcement of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, also referred to as Sputnik V, has received marginal reception in the United States. Within U.S. domestic social media conversation, Sputnik V is seen as unreliable. These concerns might add to preexisting skepticism towards vaccine efforts in the U.S..
In contrast to low interest in the U.S. social media ecosystem, international social media conversation includes high volumes of Sputnik V content, particularly in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey, and India. Since August 11, Russia has announced partnerships with 16 nations ranging from testing help, production support, and securing initial releases of the vaccine. Of particular note, Indian and Russian officials are in negotiations to secure mass production of the Sputnik V vaccine in India. Find a list of current agreements below.
The FAS Counter-Disinformation Research Team detected significant Sputnik V content across 10 languages from August 17 to 25. This analysis focuses on developments within the Spanish language vaccine conversion and finds a significant narrative shift away from the UK’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine efforts to focus on the Russian Sputnik V program.
The narrative emerging in Mexico and Venezuela is supportive of Russian efforts, highlighted in public statements from Mexican President Lopez Obrador offering praise to Russia’s vaccine development and volunteering to be the first Mexican to take the vaccine.
Trending disinformation on an old publication taken out of context from 2005 is fomenting theories and disinformation surrounding the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19. Though many health organizations have debunked the utility of the drug for treating COVID-19, bad actors have capitalized on that study and have stepped up attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The #Plandemic has evolved into the #Scamdemic, as media personalities and anonymous individuals alike are making false claims about how coronavirus testing is not only unreliable but that the disease itself is a hoax. Tweets featuring #Scamdemic echo previously debunked claims about US testing rates and show the continued efforts to bring disinformation to trend online.
The announcement of a Russian vaccine, called Sputnik V, was met with baseless claims that the US has purchased 100,000,000 doses of the rushed vaccine from Russia. Though no single tweet has reached virality, the idea is quickly spreading around Twitter networks with the potential to grow as more and more users discuss the Russian vaccine rollout.
07/23/20: Masks, microchips, Michigan, and misinformation
Twitter and other social media platforms have increased their monitoring and surveillance of conspiracy theories and disinformation, resulting in an observable suspension of accounts and deletion of tweets spreading disinformation.
According to a recent poll released by Axios-Ipsos, nearly a third of Americans believe that the number of deaths resulting from COVID-19 are less than what is officially reported. These poll results, which were released on July 18, are consistent with other disinformation campaigns such as the ongoing efforts to discredit public health experts, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, regarding COVID-19 guidance and recommendations.
Conspiracies regarding government surveillance via microchips in vaccines and through contact tracers are ongoing.
Most tweets about COVID-19 are retweets or quotes. Original tweets or replies about the virus make up only 18% of total tweets. This shows that most tweets are not original ideas but are instead regurgitated statements contributing to echo chambers.
In Michigan, local medical experts are combating the view that government officials are inflating mortality numbers for the purpose of pressuring mandatory mask usage. Similar trends have emerged in Wisconsin, where disinformation campaigns have been labeling contact tracers and contact tracing activities as government surveillance.
Our social media analysis shows the overall sentiment of the conversation regarding “masks” were 59% negative and 44% negative for “contact tracing.” This suggests the compliance on mask usage and contact tracing will continue to face an uphill battle as many social media conversations are negative instead of viewing the initiatives as positive actions that will save lives.
Apprehension and fear among Americans regarding the prospective COVID-19 vaccine persist. One of the most prolific sources of disinformation on this issue was last week’s pronouncement by Kanye West, during an interview with Forbes, referring to vaccines as “the mark of the beast” and claims that a COVID-19 vaccine was an attempt to “put chips inside of us.”
A good deal of disinformation has emerged against the World Health Organization, Big Pharma, and billionaire Bill Gates under false narratives that the virus was created for the purpose of making profits vis-à-vis the development and distribution of a vaccine. These claims are prominent within the anti-vaxxer community on Facebook and YouTube and have been further amplified by figureheads on Twitter such as Tracy Beanz (219.2K followers).
Donald Trump tweeted, with a giant reach of 83M Twitter users, claiming that U.S. COVID-19 mortality rates are among the lowest in the world. Contrary to this claim, U.S. mortality rates are estimated to be the 9th highest worldwide. The U.S. is also 2nd in mortality rates among the highest affected nations.
Videos claiming standard masks have 5G wires embedded in them received up to 1.3 million views on Twitter and other social media platforms.
Public criticisms of Dr. Anthony Fauci from the White House resulted in overall negative sentiment toward the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director.
7/02/20: Testing increases, deadly masks, lab-engineering and other myths
Based on our analysis of social media activity on Twitter between June 25 and July 2, the tweet with the widest reach that used the word virus was President Trump’s claim that “cases up only because of our big number testing.” The tweet reached 82.4 million users.
The claim is false. Although more testing in communities does uncover more cases, a major driver is increased circulation and spread of the virus — particularly among younger populations. In fact, we are experiencing higher positivity rates, or the percentage of tests being identified as positive, which is an indicator of greater spread.
Aggressive rhetoric against public health guidance for mask use also escalated in the last week. For instance, a group in Florida with an unusually high social media reach claimed that masks can “kill,” echoing other messages by several other conspiracy theory websites.
Theories regarding the origin of COVID-19 (namely, claims that the virus was man made) continue to dominate headlines, such as this tweet, which reached 75.2K users since its publication on June 29. Although the issue continues to be examined by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), conspiracy sites continue to promote the notion that COVID-19 originated from a laboratory.
Minority communities are being targeted by disinformation campaigns, particularly on the subject of vaccines. Suggestions that vaccines are unsafe and that African American communities are experiments further complicate existing challenges. Justifiable speculation and mistrust among African Americans regard medical research and experimental drug trials.
The Pew Research Center found that 28% of American adults surveyed felt confident in their ability to fact-check COVID-19 related news. Comparing misinformation surrounding COVID-19 to that disseminated during the 2016 election, the following analysis argues that misinformation regarding COVID-19 is more easily digested because it’s an emerging and complex infectious disease.
This creates “a vacuum that is all too easily filled by conspiracy theories and misinformation,” leaving Americans especially prone to what some have termed “a pandemic of misinformation.”