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How Coronavirus Disinformation Gets Past Social Media Moderators

April 3, 2020

By Robert Evans

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced social media companies to take a more active stance against disinformation. The most striking recent example came on March 31, when Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all banned videos from Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. These videos featured Bolsonaro advising the use of an antimalarial, chloroquine, to treat the novel coronavirus. Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, had a post on the same subject removed a few days earlier

Rumors about chloroquine had been spreading for days by this point, spurred on by President Trump’s voicing support for usage of the medicine during a March 20 press briefing. Three days after that briefing, a man died after taking a substance he believed was the same as chloroquine. His wife, who also took the substance, was hospitalized. Then, a little over a week later, a world leader was prohibited, by every major social media service, from spreading chloroquine disinformation again.

The buzz around chloroquine represents a type of disinformation that is simple — and it is therefore easy for social media companies to have a clear stance on it. Doctors do not advise people to take chloroquine to treat or prevent the novel coronavirus, and so anyone saying otherwise is clearly spreading disinformation. When institutional will exists, businesses can easily build policies around stopping the spread of a potentially dangerous “cure.”

Yet the most insidious information being spread about the coronavirus is not so easily stopped. In fact, a loose, headless network of media personalities and news websites has developed a fairly robust strategy for spreading coronavirus lies on social media — while also evading bans.

An Illustration Of The Problem

The coronavirus pandemic is still in its early stages, and it’s not currently possible to chart any of the conspiracy narratives it has spawned from beginning to end. So, for a look at how disinformation functions, let’s think back in time to the historic wildfires that tore through Australia in December of 2019. The fires of “black summer”, as it came to be known, eventually engulfed more than 1.5 million acres. They were seen by many as a startling example of the dangers of climate change.  

Deep within the fever swamps of fringe far-right media personalities, Infowars reporter Paul Joseph Watson responded to the fires by building a new narrative that would shift the blame for this disaster off of climate change entirely. On January 3, 2020, he published an article on summit.news, a website he probably owns (Paul and his brother, Steve Watson, appear to be the only contributors). This article was the first to put out the claim that “arsonists & lightning” were to blame for the fires, not climate change.

The entire article was based on a misleading tweet from 7 News Sydney, who claimed police were investigating whether arsonists were to blame for “much of the devastation”. This is actually wildly untrue. The majority of Australian bushfires are caused by lightning. From September 2019 to January 8, 2020, only 114 of the 1,048 fires in Queensland were “deliberately or recklessly lit” by humans. But the facts did not stop the rumors from spreading. 

Summit.news is not a particularly large site. Its Twitter account only has 250 followers. Paul Joseph Watson’s article was only able to gain meaningful traction because the author himself has an enormous Twitter presence, with some 1.1 million followers. His tweet of the article was shared more than 1,811 times.

It took three days for this new narrative to reach the various biomes of the disinformation ecosystem. Then, on January 6, Breitbart.com, Infowars, and a site called the Post Millennial all dropped stories on the same subject. The framing varied only a little. Infowars went with the most incendiary (and least accurate) headline:

The Post Millennial is a medium-sized Canadian right-wing news website. Their article is much more carefully worded than those authored by Paul and Infowars. They merely state that Australia has taken “legal action” against 183 people during the bushfires. The body of the article quickly gets to the fact that “other causes”, like high temperatures and dry conditions, may have started the fires. The Post Millennial does not botch the basic facts here in a way that would attract attention from any social media company.

However, the arcs of the articles are identical: they introduce the idea that arsonists are behind wildfires, then pivot to make fun of various celebrities for blaming the fires on climate change. 

The Post Millennial’s article even cites one of Paul Joseph Watson’s tweets in its own text:

Brietbart’s article, published on the same day, mostly goes over the different individual arson cases, before making the case that bushfires are almost all caused by humans. The insinuation is that climate change had less to do with Australia’s awful summer than sinister groups of shadowy arsonists.   

Two more days pass, this narrative passes into the Internet churn and, on January 8, we start to see another evolution to the narrative. Now, the fires aren’t just the fault of anonymous “arsonists” — instead, Muslims are to blame.

These selections, from Renew America, News-Communique, and D.C. Dirty Laundry, are just three of the first examples of this new permutation of the “bushfire arsonist” story. In less than a week, a Paul Joseph Watson article about arson turned into a conspiracy theory about Muslim terrorists. None of the individuals responsible for this  have upset content moderators for major social media services. 

Once the narrative is out there, prominent individuals within the disinformation ecosystem can continue pouring fuel on the fire (pun intended), without directly making any false claims. Here’s Andy Ngo, editor-at-large for the Post Millennial, doing just that:

From reading the comments to Andy’s tweet, we can see some of his readers interpreted this as confirmation that “Muslims” were behind the bushfires. 

How Coronavirus Lies Are Laundered 

While we’re talking about the Post Millennial’s Andy Ngo, he tweeted this on April 1, 2020 to his more than 300,000 followers:

It’s a perfectly innocuous tweet on the surface. But if you look at the comments, you’ll notice a lot of his followers seem to think this lab is where China engineered the Coronavirus.  

Ngo isn’t the origin point for this false theory, nor does he do much more than dogwhistle at it. Instead, the Washington Post reports that this strain of disinformation can credit its origins to a winning combination of two deeply untrustworthy, but popular, sources. 

On January 23, the Daily Mail published an article about the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The article merges out-of-context information about the lab with unrelated facts, like that the SARS virus “leaked” from a completely different lab in 2004, to push a narrative that Wuhan’s lab is a likely point of origin for the pandemic.  

Three days after this, on January 26,  the conservative news site Washington Times posted an article claiming that the novel coronavirus “may have originated” in a lab “linked to China’s biowarfare program”. No evidence is provided to back this claim up, but they do include quotes from Dany Shofar, a former Israeli military intelligence officer. The very next day, this article was shared on Twitter by Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), netting 1.9k likes to date. 

This tweet is still up. And why wouldn’t it be? Citing the claims made in an article written by someone else doesn’t necessarily cross a line for Twitter. It’s much different than President Bolsonaro making a very specific false medical claim in a video. 

Yet both the tweet and the videos create a similar effect, which is to allow lies about a deadly pandemic to spread unchecked from person-to-person. Much of the narrative’s evolution happens below the level of these prominent individuals and media companies. For example, the website ZeroHedge published this on January 29:

ZeroHedge has been banned by every notable social media platform, and this article makes it easy to see why. Based on the shoddiest research, they blame a single individual for the deadly coronavirus pandemic, an innocent Chinese scientist who studied bats. 

The COVID-19 disinformation ecosystem is so healthy, and so large, that it actually hosts a number of constantly evolving and intermingling bioweapon conspiracy theories. If we can extend the ecosystem metaphor, Alex Jones and Infowars are responsible for their very own kingdom of coronavirus bioweapon lies. 

Jones first started discussing the possibility that the virus was man made on January 22, when he became convinced that the Pirbright Institute in the U.K. had a “patent” for the novel coronavirus. The institute actually had a patent for a completely different coronavirus, one which only affects dogs. But with that start, Jones was off to the races. 

On January 28, he suddenly reported, based on nothing, that: “…even mainline news is saying now that it looks like the virus has been stolen by Chi-Coms [Chinese Communists] out of a Canadian lab…” This narrative continued to evolve, and on February 7 Alex started to suggest that President Trump might’ve launched the coronavirus against China as a payback for fentanyl. Many of Alex’s theories evolve this way, as the result of him and his guests free-associating until they come up with a new narrative.

By February 28, Alex Jones convinced himself that the novel coronavirus was actually a creation of the United States, sold to China by President Obama as part of some convoluted scheme:

“Why would the U.S. sell this to the chi-coms and then five years later it’s released? Clearly so the Chi-Coms can crack-down and take over Taiwan.”

Ironically, two weeks later, Jones’s long-time employee Paul Joseph Watson tweeted out commentary on statements by a Chinese government spokesman, who claimed that the U.S. military started the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

At the very least, these conspiracies do sometimes come full circle.

Meanwhile, the nonsensical nature of said conspiracies makes it easy for reasonable people to ignore them. Yet we should not. The individual bits of disinformation themselves matter much less than the constant drum beat of hatred pushed by the personalities who drive this network of lies. Here’s Paul Joseph Watson, repeatedly warning his 1.1 million followers about the “Chinese foreign virus”:

On his own Twitter account, Andy Ngo continues to hammer home the idea that China is responsible for shortages of equipment in Western nations (the U.S. is currently airlifting medical supplies from China to fill U.S. hospitals). Ngo posted this on March 27:

On that same day, Alex Jones made the claim on Infowars that China straight-up “stole” masks and medical equipment from the U.S. government. Since he has been kicked off of social media, Jones has been free to go further in his fevered ramblings. On March 25 he claimed: “…right before the breakout happened 3 months ago there were Chinese everywhere…very wealthy, getting in very fancy cars, wearing very expensive watches, carrying $10,000 handbags, and it was a bioweapon pilgrimage. They weren’t running from it, it was their mission to bring it here.” 

There has already been one stabbing of an Asian-American family in the United States as a result of this sort of rhetoric. Since March 7, the NYPD has seen at least 11 coronavirus-related hate crimes reported by Asian-American victims. As long as this disinformation network continues to operate, it will provide fuel to this sort of bigotry. 

(Special thanks go to Dan Friesen, of the podcast Knowledge-Fight, for his unparalleled knowledge of Alex Jones.)

Robert Evans

Robert Evans has worked as a conflict journalist in Iraq and Ukraine and reported extensively on far-right extremist groups in the United States. He's particularly interested in the ways terrorist groups recruit, radicalize and communicate through the Internet. He has a podcast on the HowStuffWorks network (https://www.behindthebastards.com) and you can contact him via revanswriter@gmail.com or Twitter: https://twitter.com/IwriteOK

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37 Comments

  1. Jurgen

    I’m an early backer of Bellingcat since the campaign on Kickstarter. Impressive work on MH17 and Syria.
    But the coverage of the coronavirus epidemic is disappointing. Only the usual conspiracy theorists believe it was “made” in a lab or, worse, that it was intended as a biological weapon. But the theory that it “escaped” through a person infected by the testing done in the Wuhan lab is not far-fetched at all. In fact there is a lot of circumstantial evidence. I

    Reply
  2. MrCarGuy20

    This is some laughable work from this site. I’ve been reading a while and this article is a prime example of hypocritical investigation. Are a virologist or even a biologist? Do you realize that opinion is currently divided in the medical community over whether or not COVID-19 is natural? Let the investigations by intelligence and medical experts follow through instead of jumping to “bigotry” because a few people conflated Chinese people with the CCP.

    The CCP was censoring, deleting, and playing down Zhengli, her associates, and the results of her work. You’d think these people would be very helpful to the public currently. Of course, you’d also expect that of whistleblowers.

    Reply
  3. Luke Fernandez

    Are you guys getting paid by the Chinese Government, because someone with half a brain would realise there’s too many dodgy thing’s happening with China in relation with Covid, but Bellingcat is only standing up for China. Please explain why? And remember, if it’s about people being racist, that happens regardlessly, if people had a clearer truth it may fix the issue. Also, you’re protecting a government who are being extremely racist to foreigners, especially Africans right at this moment; and in standing up for them, encouraging it (I know first hand about this as I have friends there).

    Reply
  4. Jeff

    The Washington Post writes:

    “Richard Ebright, a Rutgers microbiologist and biosafety expert, told me in an email that ‘the first human infection could have occurred as a natural accident,’ with the virus passing from bat to human, possibly through another animal. But Ebright cautioned that it ‘also could have occurred as a laboratory accident, with, for example, an accidental infection of a laboratory worker.’ He noted that bat coronaviruses were studied in Wuhan at Biosafety Level 2, ‘which provides only minimal protection,’ compared with the top BSL-4.”

    They continue:

    “Ebright described a December video from the Wuhan CDC that shows staffers ‘collecting bat coronaviruses with inadequate [personal protective equipment] and unsafe operational practices.’ Separately, I reviewed two Chinese articles, from 2017 and 2019, describing the heroics of Wuhan CDC researcher Tian Junhua, who while capturing bats in a cave ‘forgot to take protective measures’ so that ‘bat urine dripped from the top of his head like raindrops.”

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/how-did-covid-19-begin-its-initial-origin-story-is-shaky/2020/04/02/1475d488-7521-11ea-87da-77a8136c1a6d_story.html

    Reply
  5. Ria

    Thanks for the article – was really good to get a breakdown of how these stories spread. Just one thing – I remember reading that the Pirbright Institute got a patent for a coronavirus for poultry, not dogs – see here:

    https://factcheck.afp.com/false-claims-patents-fuel-novel-coronavirus-conspiracy-theories-online

    Documentation for the Pirbright Institute patent can be found here: https://worldwide.espacenet.com/patent/search/family/051494985/publication/EP3172319B1?q=EP3172319B1&called_by=epo.org

    and here:

    https://patents.google.com/patent/EP3172319B1/en

    Also, the link in the sentence “From September 2019 to January 8, 2020” doesn’t seem to be working.

    Reply

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