Misinformation Monitor: March 2020

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by Gabby Deutch


The big story… 132 websites and counting are pushing coronavirus conspiracy theories


But First the Quiz:

1. Which coronavirus conspiracy theory is the most popular in the U.S., Italy, Germany, France, and the U.K.?

a) Bill Gates owns the patent to the COVID-19 virus
b) The coronavirus is a biological weapon developed at a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan
c) The explanation for the coronavirus is simple: It’s not actually a coronavirus, and instead a result of 5G wireless technology, which causes flu-like symptoms
d) African migrants brought the coronavirus to Italy and caused the outbreak in Europe

2. Which of these websites publishes legitimate science and health news?

a) Science.news
b) ClimateScienceNews.com
c) ScienceNews.org
d) Pandemic.news

3. Which of these widely-shared coronavirus cures is legitimate?

a) Colloidal (liquid) silver
b) MMS (a bleach-like solution) 
c) Vitamin C
d) None of the above

Read to the end of the next section for the answers.


How an obscure Indian hoax site created a conspiracy theory that might reach millions of Americans

The Facebook page associated with Red State Watcher — which published a coronavirus conspiracy theory that first appeared on an unknown Indian website — has over 4 million followers and is framed as a platform for President Trump’s supporters.
(Facebook / NewsGuard)

Suppose you and millions of others see a conspiracy theory about coronavirus spreading. How did it start? 
➔  Popular unreliable sites don’t operate in a vacuum — they often take misinformation from smaller, more obscure websites.
➔  That way, the false claim then gets recirculated on several unreliable sites. And tracing it back to its source becomes near-impossible.

NewsGuard traced one increasingly popular coronavirus hoax to its source: GreatGameIndia.com, an Indian website that bills itself as a “Journal on Geopolitics and International Relations” and publishes conspiracy theories on topics ranging from Indian politics to the 2014 crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine. The site gets hardly any engagement (likes, shares, or comments) on social media. Yet one of its stories made its way to a popular American political site. How?

➔  GreatGameIndia.com published an article on January 26 called “Coronavirus Bioweapon – How China Stole Coronavirus From Canada And Weaponized It,” which claimed two Chinese spies smuggled the virus from a Winnipeg lab to a Wuhan military laboratory, where the virus “leaked” out and began infecting people. This wasn’t Great Game India’s only coronavirus conspiracy (another tied the virus, somehow, to AIDS), but this one got picked up. According to NewsWhip, a social media analytics platform, as ofMarch 19,the article has received only 1,600 social media engagements since its publication.

➔  But ZeroHedge, a U.S. political and financial blog that peddles all kinds of conspiracies, reposted Great Game India’s story the day after Great Game India concocted it.

  • ZeroHedge added a hint of speculation to its post rather than copying the article verbatim. The headline: “Did China Steal Coronavirus From Canada And Weaponize It?” The post on ZeroHedge — ranked in the top 900 sites in the U.S. — received over 24,500 social media engagements since its publication.

➔  Then, RedStateWatcher.com, an anonymously operated conservative site that regularly republishes false stories, picked up ZeroHedge’s post the same day.

  • Red State Watcher is among the 150 most popular sites in the U.S., and its Facebook page — @DonaldTrump4President, which does not state whether it is affiliated with the Trump reelection campaign — has more than 4,200,000 followers, though NewsGuard did not find the coronavirus hoax article shared on this Facebook page.

Why we should care: One story that originated on an obscure Indian website — and that’s been debunked by PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — ended up being viewed and shared by tens of thousands of Americans because unreliable news sources regularly follow and republish each other, with no regard for the facts. The takeaway is how easily misinformation can be amplified by even a small group of unreliable sites that share their claims on social media. Put differently, social media is a misinformation force multiplier, NewsGuard’s Washington Correspondent Gabby Deutch argued in Wired.


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QUIZ ANSWERS:

  1. (b) The false theory that the coronavirus is a biological weapon developed at a military lab in Wuhan has dominated misinformation in all five countries. 
  2. (c) ScienceNews.org is affiliated with Science News magazine and passes all of NewsGuard’s credibility and transparency criteria. The other domains are all in the Red-rated NaturalNews.com network. 
  3. (d) None of these “cures” can treat or prevent coronavirus. Colloidal silver can permanently damage and discolor skin. The FDA says that no research shows MMS (a type of bleach) to be “safe or effective in treating any illness.” Vitamin C is a useful nutrient but ineffective in curing coronavirus or any disease.

How Misinformation Pays: The Economics of a Health Care Hoax Site

InfoWars capitalized on consumers’ fears that they wouldn’t be able to access food during a coronavirus quarantine. (InfoWars / NewsGuard)

NewsGuard’s Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center has found 132 sites — 82% of which NewsGuard had identified as unreliable prior to the coronavirus outbreak — that are publishing false claims about the coronavirus. What’s in it for them? Money.

Eight American sites (including the NaturalNews.com network, which has 54 domains) are promoting and selling their own products as cures or remedies for coronavirus.

  • Alex Jones’s InfoWars is seizing on the panic with a huge ad that reads ”OTHERS ARE SOLD OUT!” and offers a 4-week supply of “Patriot Food Supply.” This and all of Jones’s sketchy health products, including colloidal silver — liquid silver, which the FDA warns can permanently turn humans’ skin, nails, and gums grayish-blue — are available on Amazon, too.
  • NaturalNews.com’s 54 domains (with names like WashingtonPosted.news and FactCheck.news) are posting blatantly false, harmful content (one recent story accused Sacramento County officials of trying purposely to spread the disease) aimed at scaring readers — and selling “Military-Grade” masks in ads alongside these articles.
  • NaturalHealth365.com is selling air fresheners to fight coronavirus. HealthImpactNews.com is advertising coconut oil in an article that claims that the oil destroys coronavirus. Mercola.com says an antioxidant called quercetin will boost readers’ immune systems. And you can buy it on the site.
  • In Germany, France, and Italy, this kind of marketing happens less frequently. That is because, according to the EU regulation on health claims, the health information provided by supplement retailers must be based on generally accepted scientific data and thus be substantiated. Of course, these scientific findings do not yet exist for supplements related to the coronavirus.
Advertisements for the NRA, a gun rights group, and the AIDS Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for people with HIV/AIDS, appeared next to a conspiracy theory on Red State Watcher. (RedStateWatcher.com / NewsGuard)

Advertisements from legitimate companies and political organizations also help the sites earn revenue. 

  • A fake story on TheBL.com about the CDC urging Americans to “just say ‘no’ if friends offer them coronavirus” featured an ad from Planned Parenthood. An ad for the National Rifle Association appeared on a false coronavirus story on Red State Watcher. Ads for Herschel backpacks accompanied an inaccurate story in TheMindUnleashed.com about the virus’s origin.

Italy is on lockdown. Coronavirus misinformation isn’t.

Italy has the most cases of coronavirus outside of China, and NewsGuard has identified false claims about the COVID-19 virus on 16 Italian sites. In Italy, there are two main strains of misinformation.

  • Like other countries in Europe and the U.S., a conspiracy theory about the virus’s origins is by far the most popular on Italian sites. As we reported last month, the theory that the virus originated in a Chinese military laboratory in Wuhan was popularized by Paulo Liguori, the editor-in-chief of the popular TV network Tgcom24.
  • One popular Italian theory — which has not yet circulated widely in other parts of Europe or the U.S. — links the virus to migration, and has been propagated by right-wing anti-immigrant sites.
    • Leggilo.org claimed that two sick migrants on a ship that arrived in Sicily from Africa were infected with coronavirus, even though Italian health officials did not back this up.
    • VoxNews.info published an article suggesting that Italy’s patient zero could be a Pakistani man who works in a Chinese restaurant in Pavia. Although the man tested positive for the coronavirus and did not respect the quarantine, there is no evidence that ties him to the country’s first case of COVID-19. (VoxNews.info is not affiliated with the American site Vox.com.)
      • The article included this screed against immigrants: “Thinking about it, the hypothesis of a Chinese restaurant’s delivery man as ‘patient zero’ would be the most reasonable. It would be the most effective method of spreading coronavirus, don’t you think? It is this modern society: Pakistanis and Africans who deliver Chinese food in Italy. Eat Italian, you idiots.”
      • This false claim has since appeared on Infowars, the website of American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
  • Why we should care: The virus has grown exponentially in Italy. Experts suggest the coronavirus could take a similar path in the U.S. and other European countries, and as more people are infected, expect to see new false narratives about how the virus started and how it’s spreading, many of which will seize on these xenophobic themes.  

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