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Investigating Coronavirus Fakes And Disinfo? Here Are Some Tools For You

March 27, 2020

By Natalia Antonova

There is no dignified way of putting it — the world has gone bananas as the COVID-19 pandemic rages. When the threat of deadly infection is mixed with the peculiar rush of going viral, people are bound to spread fakes. Even those of us who mean well.

Many Bellingcat team members are impacted by this on more than just the professional level. Our older parents, for example, frequently fall prey to fakes. Sometimes, coronavirus disinformation is passed on by friends who simply want to keep us safe.

Why are fakes such a problem in the middle of a pandemic? Here is a good way to think about it:

The prevalence of fakes normalizes disinformation while helping erode overall trust in government and media institutions. This is especially bad as passing on important information through trusted channels can and does save lives.

Even the most benevolent fakes create a kind of “white noise” on social media. They saturate the information ecosystem, resulting in enormous distractions during a critical time.

Disinformation can and is weaponized by self-serving government officials keen to shift the blame for the spread of the virus. This video our investigator Robert Evans did together with Newsy explains more.

Fakes and disinformation can lead to panic, confusion, and death. They can create a run on critical infrastructure. They can even cause a stampede at your local supermarket. After all, what if tomorrow some popular YouTube health guru decides that organic capers “definitely” cure coronavirus? Immediate, physical danger can be the result of disinformation (just consider this recent case in India).

With that in mind, if you take your time to investigate fakes and disinformation, you are doing God’s work (or the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s work, or whatever floats your boat). This is why we at Bellingcat are determined to bring your attention to the wide array of tools and guides we have available to conduct online investigations at this difficult, confusing, and dangerous time:

— This is the free Bellingcat Online Investigation Toolkit, put together by Christiaan Triebert. There are a lot of resources in there and a lot of information — it may not be especially useful for beginners, but it’s good to keep it bookmarked.

— This is Aric Toler’s guide to using reverse image search (especially useful if you think an old photo is being recycled online). WATCH THIS SPACE: Reverse image search technology is constantly evolving.

— But *how* to figure out *when* a particular photo was taken? Especially with many photos of empty city streets sometimes being recycled from the olden days as well? This case study (featuring Russian assassins!) is of use here..

— The number of flights may currently be dwindling, but they are still out there. Flight information can especially be useful if you are cross-referencing information (for example, a friend was recently claiming to me on Facebook that a group of unnamed Chinese businessmen just sent “dozens” of planes for aiding the pandemic-stricken United States… yeah, that was false, and I knew it right away, but what about more sophisticated claims?). Here is Giancarlo Fiorella’s guide to flight tracking for beginners.

— Charlotte Godart has pulled together a guide for doing research on TweetDeck. Twitter is swarming with disinformation right now, and TweetDeck can help you greatly simplify your research, saving precious time.

— Here is a sad and true story: A businessman in Philadelphia has played hardball with city officials as they struggle to find space to treat an influx of coronavirus patients. The problem? Some outraged people recently “found” his number online. Unfortunately, it belonged to a completely different, innocent person. With that in mind, here is Aric Toler’s guide to using phone contact apps for digital research.

— A worldwide panic is a great time for scammers to thrive! Using cryptocurrency, meanwhile, is an especially easy way to scam people. With that in mind, here is Brenna Smith on how to analyze bitcoin transactions.

— Need to investigate one of those fake doctors who naturally pop up during a pandemic? Nathan Patin’s guide to investigating LinkedIn may be just the ticket.

— Google Earth can be a great way to figuring out if people are where they say they are. For example, I recently saw someone claim they were “broadcasting” from the “panic-stricken” U.S.-Mexico border, when they were most likely in their grandma’s backyard. This case study can help you geolocate the liars and goofs.

— And look, secondhand trauma is a real phenomenon in times like these. It’s not just for wartime, a pandemic can also leave lasting psychological scars. If you are delving into content that may be disturbing, please read Hannah Ellis’ guide to vicarious trauma — and what to do about it — beforehand.

Good luck, stay safe, stay healthy, and stay indoors as much as you are able. At least with our investigation tools at the ready, you will have plenty of exciting research to do in quarantine.

Natalia Antonova

Natalia Antonova is the editor of Bellingcat. She is also a writer and researcher, interested in Russia, religion, disinformation, and various adjacent topics. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, Vox, Strange Horizons, Newsweek, n+1, et al. She does not wish to argue with you about the capitalization of the word "oblast" (OF COURSE it's not capitalized).

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  1. Bill Brasky (SOB)

    Ok, all this is excellent info, invaluable in times like these. But how do I stop getting suspened from Twitter? After giving up on convincing one of these people, a singular path remains. It’s the low path; the one on which I call them terrible names.
    How do I get my proof that Karen2369 TEXT TRUMP TO 80889 did, indeed, deserve to be called a fucking idiot to Jack Dorsey?

    I can’t wait another 10 hours and 46 minutes to reply to her ‘retort.’ The time to act is now.

    • George Johnston

      You could try using the phrase “fucking moron” instead of “fucking idiot”, apparently it was good enough for Rex Tillerson to describe #45?

    • Bob B.

      At first I lasted a year, then POOF, SUSPENDED.
      Then ONE MONTH
      Trump comes and its ONE WEEK
      NOW I gave up p when they dont even last DAY.
      Do good on facebook. “Real QAnon follow the White Rabbit” it’s my group, please join.

  2. Mohammed S Malik

    Hi Bellingcat

    Where can I find the Turkish public prosecutors 117-page indictment prepared by the prosecution, against 20 Saudi nationals, including two former top aides to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, charged with the brutal 2018 murder of Riyadh critic Jamal Khashoggi.

    Apparently it was released on Monday.

    Many Thanks

    M S Malik

  3. London CT Publishing

    Bellingcat arent the only concerned individuals in this world! London CT Publishing have been working behind the scenes for decades uncovering far right activity! Coronavirus has become a publishers enigma however two recent developments must be provided so that those that claim the virus isnt man made must themselves be DEBUNKED here right now.

    1.Professor Luc Montagnier, 2008 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine, claims that SARS-CoV-2 is a manipulated virus.



    London CT Publishing :
    Luc Montagnier, was one of the co finders of HIV,before Luc statements were issued London CT Publishing placed articles upon Dark Politricks web publishing site explaining that certain proteins found within COVID-19 are remarkably similar to HIV virus.Furthermore based on paralegal work London CT Publishing although not qualified put forward another theory that whenever a virus mutates from species to species basically many Doctors explain that the protein structures of the new mutated virus in this case COVID- 19 will have changed from where ever it came from – thats kinda easy to understand,what happens when a virus mutates is it becomes more friendly towards other virus (we dont mean friendly as in the new virus wants to facilitate in a way to benefit the infected virus we mean it has to change its structure in order to physically bond to another virus) the problem is as follows there are 2 bat coronavirus that are about 90 percent or above similar to COVID-19 (go to Datk Politricks for more info) HOWEVER there are 100 percent similarities in certain areas between the bat virus proteins and COVID – 19 proteins and to date certain Doctors claim that would be impossible because in order for the the virus to have mutated the proteins discovered that match according to world microbiology studies wouldnt match!! unless COVID -19 was engineered (man made)

    The Author IS NOT AN AUTHORITY AND ONLY HAS BASIC PARALEGAL EXPIERENCE to state the above.This is evidence provided not the authors opinions!

  4. London CT Publishing

    London CT Publishing May 9, 2020 at 7:28 am – Reply

    The above should really read virus attacking cells but be open minded!!

    The above should really read Virus attacking cells however keep open mided :

    London CT Publishing May 9, 2020 at 7:27 am – Reply

    Viruses are world champion parasites—think of all the trouble they give us, from Ebola to HIV. Now French researchers have discovered a viral first … a virus that infects another virus.

    A virus that scientists are calling Sputnik was found in a newly discovered strain of so-called mimivirus, which is the world’s largest known virus. Virologist Jean-Michel Claverie, of France’s National Center for Scientific Research and a team from the University of the Mediterranean in Marseille, happened upon the strain of mimivirus swimming in the water of a Parisian cooling tower. When they peeked inside the viral particle, they discovered Sputnik, which consists of only 21 genes.


  5. London CT Publishing

    coronaman May 9, 2020 at 9:03 am – Reply

    Anonymous9 May 2020 at 09:01

    Not attack. That would imply purpose which viruses aren’t capable of. Viruses do what they do because it’s possible & random mutation has found that possibility.

    So when simultaneous co-infection occurs there is a spectrum of possible consequences ranging from competitive blocking to synergy (such as the Philippines’ first victim of CoVID-19, who was simultaneously infected with swine flu).

    In between is the worst option of all, when two strains of the same virus infect the same host simultaneously & create a recombinant hybrid.

    This happens regularly among flu viruses & is known to occur in coronaviruses.

    Until now the MERS CoV has shown no inclination to do this, but now SARS-CoV-2 is in Saudi Arabia too that may change.

  6. Estee

    Estee May 9, 2020 at 9:24 am – Reply

    Anonymous9 May 2020 at 09:22

    Estee – Absolutely. I mean, so there was a case report I think in the New England Journal of Medicine a few years ago of exactly that – a man who presented with HIV infection and then was subsequently re-infected with another strain and had a faster disease progression and died in fact.

    Chris – Because once you’ve got one strain, if you add another one on top then they can share genes between the viruses and you end up with a virus that’s got all of the worst bits of both.

    Estee – Absolutely.

  7. GoinFawr

    He does not wish to argue with you about the capitalization of the word “canton” (OF COURSE it’s not capitalized).


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