Multiplying threat, and the inspiring resistance

Would you believe that the Coronavirus was created by a cruel government to weaken its foreign rivals? Or that it was created by freedom fighters to encourage a civic revolution against big government and the deep state? It’s possible that you have seen junk health news stories in your social media feeds or by searching on Google or YouTube for information. Fortunately, we’re learning more and more about who produces them and how to stop their circulation.

While health care workers are working hard to take care of the sick, and scientists are working hard on a cure, there’s another important form of Coronavirus resistance worth encouraging and celebrating. Over the last few years the world’s fact checkers have built up their capacity for labelling lies and they’ve now turned to the problem of junk news about the Coronavirus epidemic.  They are helping social media firms move more quickly to dispel and discourage rumors, misinformation, and disinformation about the crisis.

At the Oxford Internet Institute, we’ve just completed the first large scale, multi-platform, multi country comparison of Coronavirus misinformation coming out of authoritarian regimes.  We’ve found that the state-backed English language news outlets of China, Iran, Russia and Turkey have substantial global audience, with content being shared across networks that have tens of millions of members who engage with the content millions of times.  They produce less content than other global, independent and professional news outlets, but can achieve as much as ten times the effective engagement on the material that they do produce.  They politicize health news and information by criticizing democracies as corrupt and incompetent, praising their own global leadership in medical research and aid distribution, and promoting conspiracy theories about the origins of the coronavirus and the policy choices of international public health agencies.

But the Coronavirus isn’t a biological weapon created by states or people standing up to big government. It might have been first detected in Wuhan but that isn’t crucial to the science of finding a cure or organizing a good public health response. It’s only relevant if you are trying to politicize a public health disaster or promote stereotypes about ethnic Chinese. But new stories are generated fresh each week. And research is beginning to reveal the audience size for junk news about health: some of the most subtle lies can reach a global audience of hundreds of millions social media users. Still, it is worth celebrating the broad global resistance to misinformation about Coronavirus.

First, we now know where the lies come from. Analyzing a large sample of health-related Coronavirus lies, we find that one in five can be sourced to politicians, celebrities and prominent public figures. But the content generated by these sources gets over two-thirds of the social media engagement with the junk health news that has been fact checked and falsified. And a huge proportion of the misinformation is propelled by the media agencies of authoritarian governments.

Second, we know that the civic response has response has been aggressive. The global community of fact checkers that grew up after the UK’s Brexit debate and US Presidential election in 2016 has made a significant pivot towards checking health information. Volunteers in the UK are tracking misinformation at Infotagion project. Volunteers in the US are tracking  Coronavirus testing sites. Independent fact-checking organizations have been cataloging lies, with nine-fold increase in fact-checks of health news between January and March.

Finally, social media firms are responding, albeit with different levels of success. Social media platforms have acted on the majority of the social media posts that are being falsified by fact checkers, usually by removing such content or by attaching warnings. The response from social media firms is uneven, however.  According to the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, 59% of the Twitter posts rated as false in their study sample remain up, 27% of the falsified claims caught on YouTube remain up, and 24% of the falsified claims on Facebook remain up.

The good advice about maintaining your newsfeeds remains the same. Don’t forward or share Coronavirus information with your friends and family unless you’ve spent some time inspecting the source and thinking about the claims. Keep your information sources diverse and don’t overload on political commentary if you are interested in the public health advice.  Go to public agencies like the CDC and WHO for credible health information, not political commentators.

Not only do we have to fight the virus and cope with the social and psychological consequences of sheltering in place. We have to battle junk health news and Coronavirus misinformation. Injecting half-truths and politicized health message into public life is especially dangerous, and attacking the credible public agencies and the trustworthy news organizations means more people may make poor choices for their own health and those around them.

Now that most of us are confined to our homes we’ll be looking hard for answers and guidance on the Internet. If you are healthy, consider joining the resistance to junk health news—just not spreading it is a significant contribution and an important act of resistance.

In an important way, social isolation is part of the cure for health misinformation.  If we do not share misinformation about health over social media, our social networks will get healthier.

Phil Howard is a professor at Oxford University and author of the forthcoming Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives.