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July 6, 2020updated 09 Jul 2020 5:18pm

Infodemic investigation: Facebook is biggest source of false claims about coronavirus

By Michael Goodier

Most misleading stories about coronavirus originate on Facebook, Press Gazette research has found.

Several social media giants, including Twitter and Google-owned Youtube, are coming under pressure over coronavirus misinformation that is spreading virally on their platforms. A Press Gazette campaign, Fight The Infodemic, is calling on social media firms to crack down on such content.

But Press Gazette analysis of the global Poynter Coronavirus Facts database, which holds details on more than 7,000 misleading claims about the pandemic, suggests Facebook is performing worse than its peers.

Facebook is currently facing a boycott from many brands over hate speech and misleading information on the platform, with than 900 pausing their marketing activity with the social media giant.

Most false coronavirus claims originate on social media

Source: Poynter CoronaVirusFacts Alliance Database

For the research, our data team analysed the listed source of 7,295 misleading claims on Poynter’s database (more falsehoods have been added to the list since we conducted our research in late June). 

The database is not fully comprehensive – only claims that have been fact-checked appear there, and so rumours spreading in certain geographic areas could have more prominence. However, it is a large database that includes work from more than 100 fact-checkers in over 70 countries, and so it provides a useful snapshot of the coronavirus misinformation problem worldwide.

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Each entry in the database has a text field detailing where the claim originated. Some claims can have more than one origin written in the field – for example “Facebook, Whatsapp” (see example below).

Example of how the fact-checks appear on Poynter’s database

After cleaning the data we found that Facebook was mentioned in the origin field on 4,094 entries.

Some 1,066 false or misleading claims started on Twitter, 999 on Whatsapp, and 265 on Youtube, according to our analysis. Ninety of the false claims in the database originated on Instagram.

Some 269 entries on the database mentioning “media” (other than the phrase “social media”) in the origin field, and 162 mentioning “news”. 

Donald Trump was named as a source for at least 30 of the false or misleading articles, including the claim that the drug Chloroquine is an effective remedy for coronavirus.

Facebook says that it has been removing information that can directly cause harm, and adding warning labels to conspiracy-theory content on both its main platform and on Instagram.

A company spokesperson said: “We have removed hundreds of thousands of pieces of Covid-19-related misinformation that could lead to imminent harm including posts about false cures, claims that social distancing measures do not work, and that 5G causes coronavirus.

“During March and April, we put warning labels on about 90m pieces of Covid-19-related misinformation globally, which prevented people viewing the original content 95% of the time.

“We’ve also directed over 2bn people to resources from the WHO and other health authorities through our Covid-19 Information Center and pop-ups on Facebook and Instagram.”

WhatsApp – owned by Facebook – has also partnered with fact-checkers to set up coronavirus health information lines and fact-checking services, to keep people informed and provide a source of accurate information.

India is the world’s Covid-19 misinformation hotspot

Source: Poynter CoronaVirusFacts Alliance Database

Much like the virus itself, misinformation around coronavirus is a global problem.

A country featuring high on the list does not guarantee that it is the worst – it could just be that there are many fact-checkers focused on this geographic area.

However, of the countries included, India saw the most pieces of Covid-19 misinformation, with 1,485 of the claims originating there. That is followed by the US with 954, Spain with 562, and Brazil with 416. The UK had 55 entries – placing it 29th worldwide.

Bill Gates is one of the biggest targets for Covid-19 misinformation

Source: Poynter CoronaVirusFacts Alliance Database

Microsoft founder Bill Gates is among the most popular subjects of coronavirus misinformation. His name was mentioned 115 times among the false claims, according to our analysis.

It is not true, for instance, that Mr Gates has admitted that he wants to vaccinate everyone because he makes 2,000%  profit with vaccines.

It is not true that he wrote a letter that says coronavirus has a “spiritual purpose” and is “a great corrector”.

And it is not true that he has been detained as the creator of the coronavirus. These were all false claims on the database.

Fact-checkers are particularly concerned about claims that mislead people about supposed cures to the virus.

Press Gazette was able to identify 393 false claims containing the word cure, cured or cures.

These ranged from false claims that hot steam and tea or chewing raw onions can cure the disease, to posts stating that cannabis, mixing aspirin and paracetamol or gargling with bleach can cure coronavirus. 

Claims around false cures can have serious consequences.

Since Donald Trump’s now-infamous statement on bleach, the poison control center of Belgium has seen an increase of people trying to protect themselves from Covid-19 by pouring a dash of bleach into their bath water. 

There have also been misleading claims – some 346 in total on the database – made over vaccines for the virus.

These include claims that a vaccine has been found, has been known for years, or will be mass-produced by December.  

Misinformation has also been used to fuel political and ethnic grievances. There were 161 mentions of the word Muslim or Muslims in the database – the vast majority of which originated from India.

These included several false claims that Muslims were violating the lockdown in India, or deliberately spreading coronavirus through infected banknotes.

A text search of different political leaders also offers insight into the counties facing the largest issue with political misinformation.

Trump was mentioned 123 times, and Indian PM Modi’s surname appeared 44 times.

Donald Trump is mentioned more than any other political leader in Covid-19 misinformation

Source: Poynter CoronaVirusFacts Alliance Database

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