Fact-checkers battle spread of coronavirus misinformation
April 13, 2020
COVID–19 misinformation is spreading worldwide, but fact-checkers are fighting hard to put things right.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford in the UK has just published a new piece of research on how misinformation about the pandemic is spreading around the world.
It analyses 225 pieces of misinformation rated false or misleading by fact-checkers and published in English between January and the end of March 2020.
This sample is drawn from a collection of fact-checks maintained by First Draft News.
The main findings show that independent fact-checkers have moved quickly to respond to the growing amount of misinformation.
The number of English-language fact-checks rose more than 900 per cent from January to March, although the total volume of coronavirus misinformation has almost certainly grown even faster.
The research also found that only 38 per cent of the misinformation was completely fabricated.
It showed that 59 per cent involved various forms of reconfiguration, where existing and often true information is spun, twisted, recontextualised or reworked.
Reconfigured misinformation accounted for 87 per cent of social media interactions while fabricated content was only 12 per cent.
The researchers also found that misinformation from politicians and public figures made up just 20 per cent of the claims but accounted for 69 per cent of total social media engagement.
Social media platforms have responded to a majority of the social media posts rated false by fact-checkers by removing them or attaching various warnings, according to the research.
“But not every platform has responded in the same way,” the Reuters Institute said.
“On Twitter, 59 per cent of posts rated as false remain up.
“The percentage is much smaller for YouTube (27 per cent) and Facebook (24 per cent).
Meanwhile, the UK government has set up a specialist unit to combat misinformation about coronavirus.
The Rapid Response Unit is tackling a range of harmful narratives online – from purported “experts” issuing dangerous misinformation to criminal fraudsters running phishing scams.
Up to 70 incidents a week, often false narratives containing multiple misleading claims, are being identified and resolved, the UK government said.
UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “We need people to follow expert medical advice and stay at home, protect the NHS [National Health Service] and save lives.
“It is vital that this message hits home and that misinformation and disinformation which undermines it is knocked down quickly.
“We’re working with social media companies, and I’ll be pressing them…for further action to stem the spread of falsehoods and rumours which could cost lives.”
When false narratives are identified, the Rapid Response Unit issues a direct rebuttal on social media, working with platforms to remove harmful content and ensuring public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources.
Such false claims include holding one’s breath for 10 seconds to test for coronavirus and gargling water for 15 seconds as a cure.
“This is the kind of false advice we have seen coming from sources claiming to be medical experts,” said UK Paymaster General Penny Mordaunt.
“That is why government communicators are working in tandem with health bodies to promote official medical advice, rebut false narratives and clamp down on criminals seeking to exploit public concern during this pandemic.
“These measures follow recent advice from the National Cyber Security Centre, which revealed a range of attacks being perpetrated online by cyber criminals seeking to exploit coronavirus earlier this month.
“This included guidance on how to spot and deal with suspicious emails related to coronavirus, as well as mitigate and defend against malware and ransomware,” Ms Mordaunt said.
She added: “Certain states routinely use disinformation as a policy tool, so the government is also stepping up its efforts to share its assessments on coronavirus disinformation with international partners.”