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CRICOS No.00213J
‘Like a Virus’:
Disinformation in the Age of COVID-19
Tim Graham and Axel Bruns
timothy.graham@qut.edu.au / a.bruns@qut.edu.au
CRICOS No.00213J
https://research.qut.edu.au/dmrc/
CRICOS No.00213J
I. Origins and Early Spread
II. Dissemination and Popularisation
III. Preliminary Observations
Structure
(https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/
news/politics/2020/03/28/fighting-the-
infodemic/15853140009611)
CRICOS No.00213J
Click to edit
Master title style
Conspiracy Theory:
COVID-19 as Bioweapon
I. Origins and
Early Spread
CRICOS No.00213J
(https://amp.theaustralian.com.au/business/the-wall-street-
journal/coronavirus-all-evidence-point-to-wuhan-labs-as-source-of-
infection/news-story/70d9aa9d5c18d348f4973bd1b15c535b)
CRICOS No.00213J
Data and Methods
• 8.5 million #coronavirus tweets
• 21/1/2020 to 28/1/2020; late January 2020
• Filtering data to examine six conspiracy theories and
hoaxes
• Coordinated amplification of retweets;
‘co-retweeting’
• By co-retweeting the exact same third party
message, astroturfing campaigns can boost the
number of messages that fit their campaign goals
(Keller et al., 2019: 260)
• Cluster analysis of the bioweapon conspiracy
co-retweet network
Full co-retweet network of the bioweapon conspiracy
(nodes are Twitter accounts sized by degree)
CRICOS No.00213J
Coordinated retweeting of conspiracy
theories / hoaxes during late January 2020
Beard removal
as
precautionary
measure
Pope
Francis
testing
positive for
coronavirus
Coronavirus
caused by
5G
Home remedies for
preventing and/or
curing coronavirus
Bill Gates is
sponsoring the
coronavirus
Coronavirus
bioweapon
1 2 8 241 5,740 11,213
Table 1 - Co-retweet frequency by conspiracy theory / hoax during late January 2020
CRICOS No.00213J
Bioweapon conspiracy clusters
Co-retweet subnetwork of the bioweapon conspiracy, showing the top
10 community clusters by number of nodes (nodes are Twitter accounts
sized by PageRank; nodes are coloured by community cluster).
Group identity Communities Total number of
accounts
(and % of total)
QAnon / pro-Trump #1, #5, #6, #7, #9 452 (50%)
Alt-right gamers #4 81 (9%)
China as rival #2, #8 194 (21%)
Conservative Indians #3, #10 177 (20%)
CRICOS No.00213J
Twitter profile of a leading pro-MAGA/QAnon
account retweeting the bioweapon conspiracy
Twitter profile of US Senator Jim Banks; 2,342
co-retweets of his tweet promoting the conspiracy
CRICOS No.00213J
Key takeaways
• We estimate that co-retweets of the bioweapon
conspiracy were viewed by about 1.6 million
people (i.e. ‘impressions’)
• Predominantly right-wing accounts from the US
and India coordinated to amplify it
• Vital role of popular accounts on Twitter who
relied on disinformation in fringe right-wing news
outlets and blogs
• These early disinformation operations
were ultimately successful
CRICOS No.00213J
Click to edit
Master title style
Conspiracy Theory:
5G and COVID-19
II. Dissemination
and Popularisation
CRICOS No.00213J(https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/10/technology/coronavirus-5g-uk.html)
CRICOS No.00213J
Data and Methods
• Triangulation between datasets:
• GDELT: global open-access dataset of news articles from mainstream, niche, and
questionable sources
• FakeNIX: QUT DMRC dataset of tweets sharing links to suspected ‘fake news’ sites
• CrowdTangle: global proprietary dataset of Facebook posts by major public pages, groups,
and verified profiles
• Preliminary analysis:
• Forensic retracing of the origins of the 5G / COVID-19 conspiracy theory
• Identification of key inflection and amplification points
(Source: GDELT, https://www.gdeltproject.org/)
CRICOS No.00213J
(Source: GDELT, https://www.gdeltproject.org/)
CRICOS No.00213J
(Source: QUT DMRC FakeNIX dataset, tracking tweets linking to suspected ‘fake news’ sites)
CRICOS No.00213J
(Source: data provided by CrowdTangle)
CRICOS No.00213J
(Source: data provided by CrowdTangle)
CRICOS No.00213J
Click to edit
Master title styleIII. Preliminary
Observations
CRICOS No.00213J
Key Takeaways So Far
• Social media and the COVID-19 infodemic:
• Conspiracy emergence parallels virus outbreak since mid-January 2020
• This seeds subsequent activity (especially on the right fringe)
• Some evidence of coordinated inauthentic behaviour on both Facebook and Twitter
• Notable content take-downs (on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter), but much remains
• Conspiracy theories and the media:
• Substantial spread begins only once mainstream media amplify conspiracies
• Tabloid media serve as amplifiers, reaching audiences beyond the conspiratorial fringe
• Celebrity and politician endorsements provide further extension and amplification
• Fringe media outlets report mainstream coverage as endorsement of their earlier stories
• State propaganda outlets exploit confusion in further reporting
CRICOS No.00213J
Further Outlook
• Mainstream media and politics:
• Tabloid media recklessly exploit conspiracy theories as clickbait
• Difficult balance: reporting about conspiracies can be necessary, but provides more oxygen
• Media coverage and political discussion of conspiracies can lead to significant offline consequences
• This includes physical damage and personal harm
• Social media platforms:
• Take-downs and content warnings do have an effect, but users route around them
• Strong state intervention can be counterproductive as it supports conspiracy views
• Social media users:
• Substantial need to develop critical media literacies and consider consequences of sharing
• Heavy-handed rule enforcement only a last resort: substantial collateral damage
• Research:
• Substantial need for greater and more timely data access across platforms
• Urgent need for national research infrastructure to capture, store, and process large datasets
CRICOS No.00213J
This research is funded in part by the Centre for Responsible Technology,
and by the Australian Research Council projects DP200101317 Evaluating
the Challenge of ‘Fake News’ and Other Malinformation and FT130100703
Understanding Intermedia Information Flows in the Australian Online Public
Sphere.
Facebook data are provided courtesy of CrowdTangle.
Acknowledgments

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‘Like a Virus’: Disinformation in the Age of COVID-19

  • 1. CRICOS No.00213J ‘Like a Virus’: Disinformation in the Age of COVID-19 Tim Graham and Axel Bruns timothy.graham@qut.edu.au / a.bruns@qut.edu.au
  • 3. CRICOS No.00213J I. Origins and Early Spread II. Dissemination and Popularisation III. Preliminary Observations Structure
  • 5. CRICOS No.00213J Click to edit Master title style Conspiracy Theory: COVID-19 as Bioweapon I. Origins and Early Spread
  • 7. CRICOS No.00213J Data and Methods • 8.5 million #coronavirus tweets • 21/1/2020 to 28/1/2020; late January 2020 • Filtering data to examine six conspiracy theories and hoaxes • Coordinated amplification of retweets; ‘co-retweeting’ • By co-retweeting the exact same third party message, astroturfing campaigns can boost the number of messages that fit their campaign goals (Keller et al., 2019: 260) • Cluster analysis of the bioweapon conspiracy co-retweet network Full co-retweet network of the bioweapon conspiracy (nodes are Twitter accounts sized by degree)
  • 8. CRICOS No.00213J Coordinated retweeting of conspiracy theories / hoaxes during late January 2020 Beard removal as precautionary measure Pope Francis testing positive for coronavirus Coronavirus caused by 5G Home remedies for preventing and/or curing coronavirus Bill Gates is sponsoring the coronavirus Coronavirus bioweapon 1 2 8 241 5,740 11,213 Table 1 - Co-retweet frequency by conspiracy theory / hoax during late January 2020
  • 9. CRICOS No.00213J Bioweapon conspiracy clusters Co-retweet subnetwork of the bioweapon conspiracy, showing the top 10 community clusters by number of nodes (nodes are Twitter accounts sized by PageRank; nodes are coloured by community cluster). Group identity Communities Total number of accounts (and % of total) QAnon / pro-Trump #1, #5, #6, #7, #9 452 (50%) Alt-right gamers #4 81 (9%) China as rival #2, #8 194 (21%) Conservative Indians #3, #10 177 (20%)
  • 10. CRICOS No.00213J Twitter profile of a leading pro-MAGA/QAnon account retweeting the bioweapon conspiracy Twitter profile of US Senator Jim Banks; 2,342 co-retweets of his tweet promoting the conspiracy
  • 11. CRICOS No.00213J Key takeaways • We estimate that co-retweets of the bioweapon conspiracy were viewed by about 1.6 million people (i.e. ‘impressions’) • Predominantly right-wing accounts from the US and India coordinated to amplify it • Vital role of popular accounts on Twitter who relied on disinformation in fringe right-wing news outlets and blogs • These early disinformation operations were ultimately successful
  • 12. CRICOS No.00213J Click to edit Master title style Conspiracy Theory: 5G and COVID-19 II. Dissemination and Popularisation
  • 14. CRICOS No.00213J Data and Methods • Triangulation between datasets: • GDELT: global open-access dataset of news articles from mainstream, niche, and questionable sources • FakeNIX: QUT DMRC dataset of tweets sharing links to suspected ‘fake news’ sites • CrowdTangle: global proprietary dataset of Facebook posts by major public pages, groups, and verified profiles • Preliminary analysis: • Forensic retracing of the origins of the 5G / COVID-19 conspiracy theory • Identification of key inflection and amplification points
  • 16. CRICOS No.00213J (Source: GDELT, https://www.gdeltproject.org/)
  • 17. CRICOS No.00213J (Source: QUT DMRC FakeNIX dataset, tracking tweets linking to suspected ‘fake news’ sites)
  • 18. CRICOS No.00213J (Source: data provided by CrowdTangle)
  • 19. CRICOS No.00213J (Source: data provided by CrowdTangle)
  • 20. CRICOS No.00213J Click to edit Master title styleIII. Preliminary Observations
  • 21. CRICOS No.00213J Key Takeaways So Far • Social media and the COVID-19 infodemic: • Conspiracy emergence parallels virus outbreak since mid-January 2020 • This seeds subsequent activity (especially on the right fringe) • Some evidence of coordinated inauthentic behaviour on both Facebook and Twitter • Notable content take-downs (on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter), but much remains • Conspiracy theories and the media: • Substantial spread begins only once mainstream media amplify conspiracies • Tabloid media serve as amplifiers, reaching audiences beyond the conspiratorial fringe • Celebrity and politician endorsements provide further extension and amplification • Fringe media outlets report mainstream coverage as endorsement of their earlier stories • State propaganda outlets exploit confusion in further reporting
  • 22. CRICOS No.00213J Further Outlook • Mainstream media and politics: • Tabloid media recklessly exploit conspiracy theories as clickbait • Difficult balance: reporting about conspiracies can be necessary, but provides more oxygen • Media coverage and political discussion of conspiracies can lead to significant offline consequences • This includes physical damage and personal harm • Social media platforms: • Take-downs and content warnings do have an effect, but users route around them • Strong state intervention can be counterproductive as it supports conspiracy views • Social media users: • Substantial need to develop critical media literacies and consider consequences of sharing • Heavy-handed rule enforcement only a last resort: substantial collateral damage • Research: • Substantial need for greater and more timely data access across platforms • Urgent need for national research infrastructure to capture, store, and process large datasets
  • 23. CRICOS No.00213J This research is funded in part by the Centre for Responsible Technology, and by the Australian Research Council projects DP200101317 Evaluating the Challenge of ‘Fake News’ and Other Malinformation and FT130100703 Understanding Intermedia Information Flows in the Australian Online Public Sphere. Facebook data are provided courtesy of CrowdTangle. Acknowledgments