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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. big strong nigerian man

    please post a follow up to this addressing the 5G-coronavirus disinformation campaign

    Reply
  2. frgthgvfhj65tg

    Even if the Covid-19 wasn’t from a bio lab, that still doesn’t change the fact China covered it up for almost to over a month since last December until it became too huge of a problem to do that because Wuhan governors and local party leaders are afraid they’ll go to jail or executed if they report this epidemic/pandemic.

    Reply
  3. Magda-PL

    I wish you would tell us more about the lack of immediate & adequate reaction of the WHO, which, knowing about the virus apparently since end of Dec. 2019, did absolutely nothing to estimate the risk of pandemy accurately to all of its members and then prepare our health care systems for various scenarios! I do not blame China, I try not to, honestly, but I really feel betrayed by WHO as “my” civilized institution which, until 2020 served with guidelines and experience for every medical procedure doctors had to be involved with !Now they give us nothing but statistic data, death rates, stories about washing hands..We all wish we had more information about this virus from day one (1st of January 2020), and more resources (medical equipment, human resorces) to deal with it effectively.. This pandemy will leave a long time trauma to our western health care workers, who are now dealing with load of unknowns, shortages of face masks and uniforms,and are fighting under enormous pressure of time. The risk of pandemy was underestimated for very long time, perhaps 2.5 months – or longer. WHO consequently trusts Chinese reports, and doesnt verify information from them. Lets not forget People’s Republic of China is not a country where freedom of speech and free information are respected values. It is a communist regime with concentration camps spreaded all over the country.

    Reply
    • Meg

      Sorry, but you’re wrong. SARS-Cov2 sequence was on the public database since January, 7, for all scientists in order to prepare the kits we’re now using. A complete history is here https://nextstrain.org/. Moreover it seems that you didn’t read WHO reports which since the beginning were considering the severity of the disease (it is clearly referred in the first reports that a bad complication is a severe and sudden interstitial pneumonia which worsened in few hrs. Many times WHO Secretary called world leader to take seriously this epidemia.
      Unfortunately this didn’t happen, and we should all think about the real capacity of our elected representatives and leader to have pragmatic and minded responses, not only to sudden health problems but also to other possible acute crises.

      Reply
    • Servus

      Nice try M, if you want to be a poison pen writer , better learn to conceal your style.

      WHO is an advisory and does not absolve any government from their own responsibility.

      Only Russian oligarchs prepared by buying up for themselves all respirators available on the Russian market at the time when your idol Putin et al were laughing at this nonsense

      Reply
      • M

        I am disappointed, after so many months of interaction You’ve confused me with someone else. 🙂
        PS my name is not Magda
        PPS I know what WHO is and BTW as part of the UN is just as inefficient 🙂 as the whole UN.

        Reply
      • Inqisuitor

        Bad bad Putin!!! Grappling back Russia from the hands of western backed oligarchs and improving the living standards of countless of Russians. Perhaps you are still sore that Skripal managed to escape back to Russia and the Mill Pub incident backfired? Diddums. Ooops, forgot I can’t say anything that goes against the mainstream ideology . . . apologies in advance.

        Reply
    • LondonUK

      It’s ‘Pandemic’, not ‘Pandemy’. Although I can understand the mistake because it is ‘Pandemia’ in Poland.

      Reply
    • Almight Dollar

      It was an opinion piece and clearly labeled as such. There is a difference between a “news” article at “the times” and an opinion piece submitted by an outside author.

      Reply
    • Rock

      It was also accurate as multiple states in the south are allowing religious groups to congregate.

      Reply
      • Hans

        So?
        New York is badly affected and is not in the south.

        With respect to the NYT: well most tweets are also personal opinions.
        Just a different medium.

        Reply
    • Gary

      It is a well-known and proven fact that the American Evangelical Christians have been hostile to science since Charles Darwin wrote his “Origin of Species” and cosmologists stated that the universe began with the Big Bang. Since they have allied with themselves with the pro-oil Republican Party, they are also hostile to climate science and climatologists and all scientists who agree with them that human activities are responsible for global warming.

      They also have Trump’s ear and are fans of Fox News, so they are indirectly responsible for denying that there is a serious threat from the coronavirus.

      There is no bias in the article. Just the fact.

      Reply
  4. Bill Gertz

    As the reporter who wrote one of the articles mentioned in your story, your article inaccurately suggests my Jan. 26 Washington Times report is a source of disinformation. False. First, the origin of the virus has not been determined. Anyone claiming to know where it came from — or did not come from — is ill-informed or deceptive. Second, I reported accurately that the virus may have originated from a lab. That is also accurate. I did not report that it was manufactured or engineered in lab. Top scientists stated in Nature Medicine March 17: “Basic research involving passage of bat SARS-CoV-like coronaviruses in cell culture and/or animal models has been ongoing for many years in biosafety level 2 laboratories across the world, and there are documented instances of laboratory escapes of SARS-CoV2. We must therefore examine the possibility of an inadvertent laboratory release of SARS-CoV-2.” https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9

    Third, it is also accurate to report that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is linked to China’s biological warfare program. That is a fact, according to the expert I quoted.

    Your article fails to provide any mention about the unknown origin of the virus because the origin is not known and China’s government has hid and destroyed evidence. Significant omissions that undermine the credibility of your report.

    Reply
    • Bill Gertz

      * Quote from Nature Medicine should be “SARS-CoV,” not SARS-COV2. Error mine from partial footnote in source.

      Reply
      • Chico Cornejo

        From the Nature link you provided:
        “The genomic features described here may explain in part the infectiousness and transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimized RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

        It seems natural for writers who gloat to be ‘seeking truth’ to have a feeble and delusional relationship to it, as if it were a mirage, if you allow a facile metaphor. So, of all instances of “may/might” found in your retort above I believe the profusion of claims to “accuracy” is not so warranted.

        Reply
        • MrCarGuy20

          Did you even read his comment? Furthermore, “laboratory based scenario” refers to engineering. These labs handle a variety of natural viruses which can lead to others with enough carelessness.

          His article, ironically, has less disinformation in it than this article does. From a site dedicated to investigating. Hilarious.

          Reply
      • MrCarGuy20

        Opinion is divided in the medical community on natural origin. Let the investigations play out.

        Reply
  5. kaliph

    Bellingcat’s coverage of the coronavirus outbreak have been lackluster to say the least. The kind view is that they have absolutely no presence in China and are thus incapable in providing balanced coverage.

    Reply
  6. Anne Ortiz

    The hydroxychloroquine situation is more complex than it may appear. Its potential benefits were first highlighted by Prof. Raoult, a French infectious-diseases specialist and director of a major lab in Marseille, on the basis of promising in vitro testing but inadequate testing on human beings. The French government issued some sensible caveats and the situation turned into an all-out internet war fuelled – ironically – by mainly left-wing Macron haters. When joined by the likes of Messrs. Trump and Bolsonaro, the conflict went nuclear.

    The facts of the matter are these: Prof. Raoult’s recommendation is that hydroxychloroquine be administered together with the antibiotic azythromycin as soon as the first symptoms of CV19 appear, which is not happening as by the time people are taken into hospital the disease is already well advanced and hydroxychloroquine has become of little use. So what we have is an unproven but not unlikely scientific theory issued by a person with authority to do so, which should not be dismissed as “disinformation”. It is more a case of “Possible But Not Proven”.

    Which doesn’t mean that both Trump and Bolsonaro don’t deserve a hefty kick up the derriere for distorting the facts.

    Reply

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