Who is spreading COVID-19 misinformation and why

ABC News(WASHINGTON) — BY: BENJAMIN BELL and FERGAL GALLAGHER

The crippling spread of COVID-19 across the globe has progressed in parallel with a flood of information online relating to the pandemic. The World Health Organization branded that spread as an “infodemic” earlier this year.

The “infodemic” has highlighted the importance of readers identifying false information about the coronavirus and those who might be spreading it.

Here’s a look at potential sources of false information and a few quick embedded tips to deal with it.

If you have to remember one thing, always consider the source of the information. Ask yourself: Is the information from a trusted and authoritative entity? If not, then you should proceed with caution.

ABC News took a look at the different types of people spreading false coronavirus information and their motivations for doing so.

Conspiracy theorists

Conspiracy theories are not new but social media has allowed people the world over to convene and build fantastical theories. Some of the efforts to spread this misinformation are very well coordinated and cause real world damage, like the “pizzagate” conspiracy that resulted in a shooting in Washington, D.C.

There is no shortage of conspiracy theories circulating online relating to COVID-19. Earlier this month, a slickly produced conspiracy film focused on the novel coronavirus was viewed millions of times, according to The Verge, as platforms tried to remove it from their sites. Many of the shocking conspiracy theories put forth about COVID-19 are specifically meant to manipulate the consumers’ emotions, experts say.

Before believing or sharing the content out of fear or anger, “take a breath” as First Draft’s Claire Wardle told ABC News earlier this year. A simple check of the source or a quick search can help vet something that may seem suspicious, according to experts.

“If it seems like a really detailed and hard-to-follow network of information related to the interests of different parties in spreading COVID-19, you are probably looking at a conspiracy theory,” Joan Donovan, an expert who studies disinformation campaigns at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, told ABC News. In March, multiple tech giants issued a joint statement saying they planned to work together to fight misinformation and elevate authoritative content.

“We’re helping millions of people stay connected while also jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies around the world,” the statement read in part.

Scammers

Donovan’s advice to avoid scams is pretty straightforward: You should avoid buying things — insurance among them — from vendors you are not familiar with.

“Right now, you should only do businesses with those you’ve done business with in the past,” Donovan said. “There is little chance of an ‘amazing deal’ on life insurance, masks, hand sanitizer and other items. Be very cautious of putting your credit card number into new websites and never click a link that comes to you via … unsolicited text message.”

Similarly, while not necessarily being an intended scam, false or misleading marketing of products related to COVID-19 is something to be on the lookout for as well, experts warn.

Politicians and foreign powers

President Donald Trump, who has a history of making false statements, is not the only politician who has made unproven claims. But he presents a unique problem when it comes to the spread of inaccurate information. As leader of the world’s most powerful democracy, the president possesses an extremely powerful platform and the ability to reach billions of people instantly. Trump has a history of saying things that are untrue or misleading.

The president has made unproven, misleading and confusing statements since COVID-19 hit the United States. For example, he initially downplayed the outbreak and said it was under control, and recently suggested that a disinfectant may be able to be injected as a treatment against it.

Trump has defended his administration’s response by, among other ways, saying he blocked travel from China, where the virus is believed to have originated. He also said he was being “sarcastic” about the disinfectant remark.

Still, it is important for news outlets to fact check and add context to the president’s assertions, experts advise.

“Sharing misinformation only makes things worse, whether it’s from a politician or anyone else,” Donovan said.

Foreign nations have also been accused of spreading false information. The State Department said it has identified campaigns by Russia, Iran and China to spread disinformation about the pandemic.

Earlier this year, with no evidence, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson promoted the theory that the United States was responsible for the outbreak, saying the American military brought the coronavirus to China in October.

Members of the White House, including Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have also speculated, without evidence, that the coronavirus may have been released from a lab in Wuhan, China, a claim China denies.

Political operatives

The second category of political operatives includes groups of people pushing a specific agenda who are not officially linked to the state or a specific political party, such as anti-vaccine protesters. “The biggest players are those who are pushing health misinformation based on conspiracies about the deep state, and who reject science and evidence that COVID-19 is a devastating illness,” Donovan said.

Family, friends and celebrities

Yes, it is a risk — especially during a health crisis — to assume that the information offered by your friends and family is always accurate. Again, it is important to always try to ascertain the source. Also, it’s OK to “compassionately engage” your friends and family members who you know are sharing false information, Donovan said.

In terms of celebrities, just because they are famous does not mean they are putting out accurate information. Be wary. Be skeptical. Your favorite actor or sports star is not the place you should be getting the latest updates on the pandemic.

“We saw how impactful celebrities were in the past when they spread health misinformation that vaccines cause autism. Celebrities, because they are newsworthy and have fans, become the perfect amplifier for misinformation,” Donovan said.

Conversely, celebrities can use their social media reach to spread accurate information, as exemplified recently when certain celebrities, including Julia Roberts and Millie Bobby Brown, handed their accounts over to coronavirus experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Satire

This category is pretty easy. Certain sites or accounts intentionally produce information intended to entertain, not inform. For example, The Onion famously produces satirical “news pieces.”

Always knowing the source of your information is key here — as it is generally.

For those users interested in a deeper dive, ABC News has previously published a guide to spotting disinformation and First Draft has collated helpful resources related to online verification and the coronavirus.

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