The coronavirus pandemic's global presence and ubiquity in everyday life is a perfect storm for misinformation, as conspiracy theorists from different corners of the web converge on a shared news topic—the only topic, at the moment. From the earliest days of the crisis, everyone from pro-Trump QAnon conspiracists to left-leaning purveyors of dubious home remedies could find a strain of misinformation tailor-made for their interests.
In new research led by its cyber intelligence analyst Melanie Smith, the social analytics AI company Graphika compared snapshots of the coronavirus conversation on Twitter in January, February and March, creating a bird's eye view of misinformation about the virus from its earliest online mentions.
Researchers from Graphika, which specializes in disinformation, found that coronavirus conspiracies thrived unchecked in January and February, when news of the virus had yet to fully capture the world's attention. Into March, more mainstream voices emerged to fill the information vacuum. At the same time, previously popular xenophobic hashtags like #chinavirus and #wuhanvirus were overtaken by mainstream public health terms for the virus.
In the early info vacuum, misinformation generally focused on the cause of the virus and the mystery of its origins, with plenty of unfounded theories put forward. In February, a flurry of conspiracies accused Bill Gates of creating the pandemic and potentially profiting from a vaccine, claims that originated with a QAnon-linked YouTuber.
Unfounded treatments for COVID-19 including "garlic, bleach, a strict water intake, and Silver Solution (potentially lethal doses of colloidal silver)" also emerged during this time, with colloidal silver in particular taking off among QAnon supporters on Twitter.
After the earliest waves of misinformation crested, the idea of the coronavirus as a political issue emerged on Twitter in February, according to Graphika's researchers. The emergence of politicized content about the virus happened along with a "marked" decrease in activity from science and health outlets at the time and a surge in clickbait sites providing low-quality coronavirus updates. During this upswing in coronavirus political conversation, a subset of Twitter users added references to the virus into their profiles and some previously unrelated political groups on Facebook changed their names in an effort to "rebrand into COVID-19 centric groups."
There are some signs that efforts by social media companies to counter misinformation and disinformation are having an effect. Between February and March, "fringe voices" commanded a smaller share of the online coronavirus conversation.
"By March, conspiratorial accounts and alt-right news sources like Zero Hedge and Breitbart were missing from the top mentions... and were replaced by influential Democrats such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and left-leaning journalists such as Jake Tapper and Chris Hayes," the researchers found.
While the downturn in conspiracist content might be the natural result of mainstream attention turning toward the virus, a continued trend in that direction could signal that efforts by social media companies to staunch the flow of misinformation are having an impact.
Still, it's probably too early to know. While these insights are interesting and helpful for weathering future misinformation storms, they're also not reflective of this month's trends—analysis we'll have to wait a bit longer to look back on in aggregate.