More than 46,000 Twitter posts a day point to coronavirus misinformation, investigation finds

Posted on: March 26, 2020 by Claire Meadows

More than 46,000 Twitter posts a day were published in March linking to coronavirus misinformation, an online news platform has reported. 

As part of an investigation by Tortoise, figures compiled by Manlio De Domenico, a statistical physicist at Italy’s Bruno Kessler Foundation and the Tortoise team, show the extent of misinformation available around the Covid-19 coronavirus on social media platforms.

The data and research compiled by De Domenico and Tortoise show how fake news and misinformation are swamping social media with the true extent of the problem likely to be much worse.

The report states: “Figures shared with us by [De Domenico’s] team, based in Trento, Italy, show that 46,000 Twitter posts which linked to Covid-19 misinformation were published each day this month [March] on average – exposing potentially tens of millions of people to conspiracy theories, hoaxes or false statistics.

“This is an infodemic and, within it, a colossal amount of fake news about the novel coronavirus is swamping social media and threatening to overwhelm public health messages” Tortoise has reported.

The slow news venture, launched by former Times Editors and BBC Director of News James Harding, has formed a collaboration with the Kessler unit to continue to analyse disinformation on the virus. The results of the collaboration will be published throughout the pandemic. 

After collecting what is possibly the largest database of coronavirus-related tweets in the world, the team at Italy’s Bruno Kessler Foundation set to work to pull out posts that linked to fake news or misinformation, Tortoise reports.

Between 22 January 2020, when the city of Wuhan was locked down by Chinese authorities, and 14 March 2020, around 275,000 Twitter accounts posted 1.7 million links to unreliable information about the virus, the Italian data shows.

Tortoise reports: “Using data from third-party fact-checkers and machine learning, the analysts were able to identify 5.9 million virus-related tweets that shared a URL to a news site. About a third of these – 1.7 million – linked to a third-party website containing unreliable or false information” it added.  

The investigation reports that De Domenico found that many of the tweets posting misinformation – around 40 per cent – came from accounts controlled by bots, or non-human actors.

The findings are likely to grossly underestimate the extent of misinformation online as the sample is limited to Twitter, it acknowledges. Despite valued efforts by social media companies to tackle misinformation and remove fake news from their sites, research has found numerous examples of fake or misleading news about the coronavirus on several main platforms.

Tortoise reports: “One YouTube video watched by more than 16,000 people promotes chlorine dioxide – a type of bleach – as a cure for Covid 19. Another Facebook video viewed more than 100,000 times shows a British woman describing herself as a nurse blaming deaths from the virus on 5G networks.

“Separate analysis by Tortoise of more than 200 specific examples of coronavirus-related fake news found that Facebook posts represented 72 per cent of all examples of misinformation flagged to fact-checkers around the world between 22 January and 18 March. However, this could reflect Facebook’s policy of encouraging third-party fact-checkers to vet its material, as well as its overall size,” it concluded.

The most viral misinformation available online, it found, includes Chinese scientists having created the coronavirus in a secret laboratory; that drinking bleach or eating garlic cures the infection; that Pope Francis caught Covid-19; and that new 5G technology caused the virus, Tortoise reports.

The investigation can be read in full here.

As part of the Society of Editors Campaign for Real News we are working to combat fake news by highlighting examples where they occur and supporting both the mainstream media and emerging new media that both recognise high standards of editorial excellence.