Back to the origin of Severe Pneumonia with Novel Pathogens (commonly known as COVID-19), the key for the public to learn about the virus comes from a piece of “disinformation”, according to the PRC official.
In December 2019, Chinese doctor Li Wenliang sent a message in his medical school group, mentioning that 7 patients who had been to Huanan seafood market got a SARS-symptoms-related disease. The patients were put into isolation rooms in the hospital where he worked. In January 2020, after the message spread through the internet, the message was identified as disinformation by the government. As we all know what happened thereafter, the virus mentioned in this disinformation spreads worldwide, and has taken more than five hundred thousand lives.
In the past six months, besides the medical staff combating the virus on the front line, a group of people have been fighting the real “disinformation” spreading worldwide like the virus. “At that time (late January), the spread of the virus was restricted to China, but already causing rampant disinformation globally. It is the largest collaborative project ever launched in the fact-checking world, ”Harrison Mantas, reporter from ICFN, stated.
Credited to the warnings from Taiwan, the International CoronaVirusFacts Allies was founded.
On the night of January 23, the news of Wuhan lockdown due to the pneumonia epidemic came from China, when Summer Chen, the chief editor of Taiwan FactCheck Center, was still working. She worked together with Cristina Tardáguila, the associate director of IFCN. They completed a fact-checking report: “China arrested 8 for spreading ‘hoaxes’ about what is now known as coronavirus. What happened to them?” and one of the 8 was Li Wenliang, who was widely known later.
“It’s a very serious thing. It may effect the world!” Chen told Tardáguila immediately.
Summer Chen mentioned that after they finished the article about the “whistlers”, Tardáguila wrote a letter to IFCN members from different countries, inviting them to collaborate, and the IFCN CoronaVirusFacts Allies was born. These fact checkers check the messages on social websites, and Facebook and Google , collaborated with IFCN, will mark a warning sign on the disinformation which fact checkers have confirmed in order to warn people.
Disinformation travels far too fast. For example, people were afraid of getting infected, so they took false remedies and got illness, or even died. For instance, over 200 people were dead in Iran after drinking toxic alcohol. This is why fact checkers should work without delay.
According to a report by Reuters, to describe the challenge that Maldita.es, a Spanish fact-checking news organization, is facing, it quotes: in the last elections, they received via WhatsApp an average of 600 requests per day and about 900 on peak days. Now they receive between 1,500 and 2,000 per day.
Fact checkers from 40 over different countries have already been working hard, as if a relay, working from one time zone to another. They also publish the inspection reports immediately on a public database. Through manual analysis of over 5000 fact-checking reports up to mid-May, READr delves into disinformation topics and their influence in top three countries and Taiwan. We found that disinformations about “exaggerated pandemic”, “exaggerated government regulation” and “Health-related” were most widespread, and the trend of Taiwan was opposite from that of the world.
When observing the “influence” of disinformation, aside from the fact that horrible news is easy to strike a chord, we discovered that people tend to share “good news” of the pandemic. As celebrities have many followers, their influence on spreading disinformation are much stronger.
We made a visualized project with more than 5000 fact-checking reports and their influence, as you can read here.
Although the number of fact-checking report does not directly represent the real number of disinformation, the quantity gap may also be related to the activity level of local fact-checking organizations, and it represents the activity level of disinformation to some degrees.
READr referred to the research method of Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and classified the samples manually. We found that the trends were almost identical to their research, but “community spread” was the type with a remarkable amount. This type explains the impact of the virus to different areas, from claiming the first case occurred in a certain area to blaming certain races for spreading the virus. Most contents are about exaggerating the impact of the epidemic.
The Community Spread of Virus: Spreading Fear
“Italy decided to stop treating the elderly. It’s socialized health care, bro. ”
“More than 25 thousand of infected Chinese were shot dead (this video is from a reliable source), please share!”
“Italians are throwing money on the streets, saying the money is useless for saving their lives. ”
This type of disinformation has the largest number, accounted for a quarter. They usually use videos or photos of irrelevant events to describe the impact of COVID-19; for example, French yellow vest protesters, dozens of coffins of shipwreck victims and people who faint on the street.
In the top three countries in the report, we can see that India is troubled by this type of disinformation the most.
In India, the number of reports in “community spread” surpasses other types. Among all reports, we can hardly find reports in the type of “the epidemic is not serious.” It is consistent with the epidemic in India: India has been overwhelmed by COVID-19; India set a record of nearly 10,000 news cases in a single day, and the death toll exceeded 6,000 in early June.
Kritika Goel, journalist fo The Quint, an Indian fact-checking organization, reported that: they saw a surge in the "community spread" category mainly in early March after a religious congregation by the members of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic organization. It was reported that nearly 4,000 people from across the country and other countries came to Delhi for this event which reportedly contributed to large chunk of cases in India at the time.
After this incident, there were claims where people of the minority community (Muslims) were targeted for intentionally spreading the virus. They were falsely blamed for spitting on food, fruits, notes in order to spread the virus.
A video of “a group of infected Muslims licking utensils” is going viral with the claim that it shows them trying to spread coronavirus.The video was uploaded in 2018. According to the description of the video, the people seen in the video are Dawoodi Bohras, who are licking the utensils in an attempt to follow their belief of zero wastage of food.
“This guy is spitting into the food he's packing for you. Boycott Muslims to avoid infection.”In the video, there was a Muslim man, but it was uploaded in 2019, which has nothing to do with the current coronavirus situation.
Another video of “Muslim men swaying and sneezing in unison in a mosque” is shared with the claim that the Muslims are sneezing deliberately to spread virus into the air, and they will come close and make people infected: it is their new Jihad.
Lots of disinformation accusing Muslims deliberately spreading COVID-19 were going viral from April.
Based on a report from AFP, Hindu neighbors threw stones at a Muslim family’s home and set their workshop on fire. Muslim truck drivers and nomads have been assaulted, and Muslim vendors pushed, shoved and threatened. In one case confirmed by police, a Facebook video showed a young Muslim man bleeding and pleading as he was beaten with sticks. One attacker is heard demanding: "Who sent you to spread the coronavirus?"
From the local study we can see that what led to the increase of religious hatred in disinformation was not just unsubstantiated claims on social media, but also unverified information being played up by mainstream news organizations, politicians, and public figures.
Home Remedies: Disinformation with Dire Consequences
Another type of disinformation that will lead to serious consequences is “health” news. According to the study by READr, this type ranks third, meaning 1 out of 5 disinformation is in this category.
“Can vitamin C cure COVID-19? No, it cannot even cure cold,” Canada-based independent media Agence Science-Presse wrote in their fact-checking report. Owing to the fact that there is no vaccine or medicine for COVID-19, disinformation of “home remedies” travels fast and never stops, and it is also the most prevailing type in Taiwan.
In this type, aside from vitamin C, there are implausible disinformation such as fighting coronavirus with “a mixture of camel milk and urine”, “cow dung and urine”, “eating soaps”, “having sex”, etc. As fact-checkers, Tardáguila and her colleagues received a request to debunk if pure alcohol was good for COVID–19. At first she thought it was a ridiculous claim. But then, a few days later, she saw that dozens of Iranians had died from drinking pure alcohol.
At least 2,197 people have been poisoned by alcohol across the country since the first reported cases of coronavirus in early February, and 244 had died as of ABC news reported in late March. A Hindu group hosted a cow urine drinking party to ward off the coronavirus as of Reuters reported.
In this type, “celebrity synergy" is often seen. Chen mentioned that news with celebrity "endorsements" would be easily taken, just like advertisements. "If there is no authority, rumors will fabricate an authority." “The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed, doctors said, celebrities used this method to recover...” These words become the most common “first step” of home remedies disinformation. Moreover, in Mexico, the renowned sauce brand "Li Jin Ji" is regarded as a Chinese doctor who successfully developed a vaccine.
The Highest “Authorities”: Public Authority Action/Policy
The “authorities” look very persuasive, so disinformation speaks for authorities. According to statistics, disinformation of “Public authority action/policy”, including the claims of state policies or WHO recommendations, ranks second, and the amount of this type is almost the same as the third ranking “General medical advice and virus characteristics”.
“WHO warned the second wave of COVID-19 is catastrophic.”
“Don’t go out after 23:30 tonight. Keep doors and windows shut. The government will send helicopters spraying disinfectant to kill COVID-19. Please share the message to your friends.”
“Russian President Putin released 500 lions on the streets to ensure people stay indoors.”
Besides fabricating policies of the government or authorities, disinformation in this type would even exaggerate the policies. Another feature is that it is easy to spread across borders. For example, fact-checking reports from at least 8 countries there is disinformation like “You will be fined or jailed without wearing a mask”; from at least 12 countries, Taiwan included, fact-checking reports contain disinformation like “The government will send helicopters spraying disinfectant, so do not go outside.”
“In our fact-checking work, PolitiFact comes across claims about government control regularly. Before COVID19, most of these claims centered around gun control. There is long-standing suspicion of government intrusion in the United States,” Holan said.
It is mentioned in a research by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism: the large number of disinformation in this type could also indicate that governments have not always succeeded in providing clear, useful, and trusted information to address pressing public questions. In the absence of sufficient information, disinformation about these topics may fill in gaps in public understanding.
We have seen some "interesting" cases which fill the gaps in public understanding. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a curfew on Sunday, 22 March, started from 7 am on Sunday and ended at 9 pm on the same day. A message on social media immediately claimed: “The coronavirus stays on surfaces for a maximum of 12 hours. The curfew is for 14 hours. So the places where the virus lives will not be touched for 14 hours, which will break the chain on infection and make India safe.“ This is false, and the coronavirus can survive on some surfaces for days.
Another case, again after the prime minister's announcement, in this one he urged people to come out in their balconies and light torches and candles, and switch off their lights at 9:09 pm to show the nation's collective resolve in its fight against coronavirus. ““Coronavirus don’t survive in hot temperature, as per research by NASA. If 130 candles are lit together, the temperature will increase by 9 degrees. So coronavirus will die at 9:09 pm on Sunday. Masterstroke by Modi,” the claim said. But … Modi has never said this statement, and we cannot kill the virus by doing this action.
Conspiracy Theories: A Battle Royal of Origins of Coronavirus
In other types, we should pay special attention to disinformation in “Conspiracy Theories.” Although this type is in the lower overall rank, it is ranked third in the US.
Angie Holan, the editor-in-chief of PolitiFact, shared with us: “In our fact-checking work, PolitiFact comes across conspiracy theories regularly. They seem to have become a part of the American disinformation landscape. We've seen many conspiracies before COVID19, and I expect to see more afterward.” She was not sure why there were so many conspiracy theories in the US, and said, “We know we have been targeted to some extent by outside governments, but we also seem susceptible to home-grown conspiracy theories as well.”
Conspiracy directly points out the origins of the epidemic. With the evolution of the epidemic, “the origins of the virus” begin to diversify:
It is worth noting that, compared with other types of disinformation, the conspiracy theory disinformation is not diverse, and most of them center around these topics. Even if they have been checked as a mistake, disinformation on the same topic have spread to different countries along with the epidemic.
For example, from January 29, the day that the IFCN CoronaVirusFacts Alliance Database was launched, disinformation like “Bill Gates is behind COVID-19”, “5G will spread COVID-19” had appeared. As we can see in the data, similar disinformation still there until May.
Summer Chen also mentioned: among all conspiracy theories, disinformation of “origins of virus” was commonly spread on Taiwanese social media, and it became a popular topic of late stage fact-check. According to the research by Doublethink Lab, it was the most often spread message apart from “masks”.
From Summer Chen’s observation, disinformation after March centered around 4 topics: the virus was man-made; the virus was made in lab; the virus was China’s bioweapon; the origin of the virus was either Wuhan or the US.
“This type of disinformation is very tricky, because it is interspersed with scientific articles and seems to be confirmed by experts, but the cited research actually does not mention these things at all,” Chen indicated, “Or, disinformation will make use of language gaps, such as Japanese TV reports, US President Trump’s statement, Italian Minister of Health’s speech, etc.”
If coupled with the promotion of authority figures in real life, the rumors are even more credible. For example, we can see from the fact-checking reports that the former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and the former Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly stated that “Coronavirus comes from the laboratory”; Taiwan’s political talk show has quoted a “Chinese research” from a disinformation, saying that the United States is the origin of the virus. The Weibo of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of PRC immediately shared and mentioned "Taiwanese media confirmed”, and so on.
"Regarding the origin of the virus, it has become a political war of words." Chen said.
What is Taiwan Lacking in Epidemic Prevention? Wipe Out Wrong Home Remedies
If we evaluate Taiwan's epidemic prevention performance by Taiwan's disinformation topics distribution, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) holds a daily press conference to keep the epidemic situation transparent, which obviously has an effect. Although the "exaggerated epidemic" disinformation ranks second, as we look closely at the content, only 5 scenes are set in Taiwan, and the rest are exaggerated foreign epidemic situations; compared with the high level of the type of "official institutions’ actions" in other countries, this type only ranks fourth in Taiwan, accounting for 12% of the total.
But the number one: "medical related" disinformation is clearly what Taiwan needs to reinforce. Chen mentioned, "From the rumors you can observe the poor knowledge of the public. Although the government and experts continue to promote knowledge about epidemic prevention, you can tell that people don’t fully understand, from the rumors prevailing during that time."
“For example, it is correct that the virus may be hindered by high temperature. But it will be transformed by rumors,” Chen explained. Rumors will tell people to open the heater, drink hot water or take a hot spring bath, but none of these works. “Real knowledge is abstract, and the experts only said ‘the virus is not airborne transmitted’ but what does airborne transmitted mean? Rumors will take advantage when you don’t have enough real knowledge.”
In addition, there is very little disinformation about “the epidemic is not serious” in Taiwan. According to the research conducted by Doublethink Lab, disinformation of this type mainly appeared in January (that is, before the IFCN database was launched, so it is not within the scope of this READr research), and it is related to the operation of PR firms and the attack of Chinese information war.
Taiwan is the first place outside China to receive the epidemic, and the entire society has experienced SARS in the past. "Before the first case was diagnosed, the atmosphere was already tense. The disinformation that ‘the epidemic is not serious’ is difficult to be accepted in Taiwan."
"The disinformation differs in different countries, depending on the real situation in each country. Although officials say that the epidemic prevention policy is based on science, such science is very political." Chen took masks as an example, and the government will measure the materials and the epidemic situation, to advise people to "wear masks in the right place at the right time". For Taiwan, "right" refers to confined spaces and hospitals; but for foreign countries that have serious community infections, it is a completely different situation.
She takes masks as an example. For masks are in short supply in other countries, it is more useful to make their people think that masks should be left to medical staff, so there are a lot of messages about "wearing masks is useless"; but in Taiwan, we have implemented mask-rationing system very soon after the pandemic, and as the social consensus so far is that "masks are effective for epidemic prevention" from the past SARS experience. Disinformation like "wearing masks is useless" is impossible to spread in Taiwan.
"In Taiwan, where supplies are relatively abundant, (fake) messages do not tell people ‘don’t wear masks’, but tell us "wearing masks everywhere." Chen said, but the fake message of "wearing masks everywhere" is difficult to be accepted abroad, "it's two extremes."
”Such science is very political.”
Another conflict is that "reuse masks by steaming with electric pots" is promoted vigorously by Taiwan’s CECC, and it was checked by many international fact-checking organizations as disinformation. These reports mainly refer to the WHO guidelines that “medical masks cannot be reused”.
In fact, reviewing the entire epidemic prevention process, in early time, Taiwan officials did not recommend reusing masks. Ms. Huang, the head of Research and Inspection team of the Food and Drug Administration, said that the policy change came from Minister Chen Shi-chung, who believed that it is good for everyone if the materials can be saved. He referred to scholars' research, did experiments by himself and then confirmed that the bacterial filtration efficiency could still maintain the national standard, after the dry steaming procedure.
However, CECC still advises the public to reuse the dry-steamed mask for 3 to 5 times at most, and to discard it after visiting high-risk places. Also, the method is not recommended to practice for medical staff usage. Dr. Lai from the leading team of mask reuse research, the expert team of the Science Media Center, and the Department of Occupational Safety and Health at Chung Shan Medical University, said that there is such a proviso, because COVID-19 has not been directly tested, but only the virus with similar characteristics has been done. The filtration efficiency maintains the standard.
"This is not for me to debunk," Chen said. The social context in which disinformation appears is very important. If Taiwan enters a serious stage of community infection, CECC may not recommend reusing the mask.
The Influence of Disinformation
In addition to the topics, we also tried to explore the influence of disinformation, and we found a trend that is unlike the quantity.
According to the notes made by fact-checking organizations, 782 of the reports were disinformation spread on Twitter. We manually extracted the original text of the disinformation in the reports. (Notes: Some fact check reports do not mark the original text. Some original text have been lost on Twitter. We found a total of 351 articles, accounting for 45% of the total), and we checked their influence in Twitter and the archived tweet data provided by Yu-Chung Cheng’s team at National Chengchi University.
The influence of disinformation in the type of "incidents caused by the epidemic" is obviously more powerful than other types. In the total statistics of fact-checking reports, this type of disinformation only accounts for 8% of the total, which is not much.
This type of disinformation is not directly related to COVID-19, but incidents caused by the epidemic. For example, many countries have stopped events and festivals due to the epidemic, allowing nature to return to peace; political struggles or criticisms among politicians; frauds that occur when the public needs supplies and detection, and so on.
For example, the first and second popular tweets that have been retweeted more than 300,000 times are a group of photos of dolphins appearing in the Venice canals after lockdown in Italy. However, it embezzled unrelated photos. These "good news" are obviously more popular in the world where the epidemic has been out of control. For example, another film that has been retweeted more than 60,000 times is a film about people in quarantine dancing on the balcony.
But it is not just joy that affects emotions. A doctor wiped tears sadly and said goodbye to the quarantined baby; the police arrested a person who violated home isolation; a black man was beaten up by Asians in China... The influence of these fake films should not be underestimated.
It Affects More When Celebrities Shared Disinformation
Furthermore, if celebrities with a lot of followers get involved in disinformation, it will be dangerous. The third most retweeted disinformation came from US President Donald Trump. It is noticeable that the reason of making it disinformation is the follow-up effect: Trump constantly praised Quinine's efficacy on Twitter, and one of his tweets was retweeted more than 120,000 times, supported by the media’s misreporting. People who are afraid of infection take Quinine by themselves without medical advice, which will pose a danger.
The tweets from former US Vice President Joe Biden are also on the list. He pointed out that a CDC official who warned against COVID-19 was silenced. This tweet was retweeted nearly 50,000 times, but it was not true, checked by the Washington Post.
In more than 5,000 fact-checking reports, there are 31 disinformations from Donald Trump and 4 from Joe Biden.
The Danger of Disinformation
Although after quantification analysis, disinformation with tens of thousands of retweets are more visible in the chart. But for disinformation, as long as one person shares, it may cause real harm and impact.
The idiom "three men make a tiger" means that the rumor is repeated many times, and some people will believe that it is true. According to the polls from Yahoo News and YouGov:
57% of Republicans (Trump’s political party) believe that COVID-19 was made in a Chinese laboratory;
44% of Republicans believe that everything is a conspiracy of Bill Gates. He will launch a large-scale vaccination and implant microchips into human body to monitor people;
Even though the US CDC warned that Quinine could only be used in clinical trials or hospitals because it could cause fatal arrhythmias, 41% of Trump voters said they would take Quinine if they had it.
“You cannot believe the kind of things people believe,” Tardáguila said when she was interviewed by the Reuters. However, these fact-checking reports only reveal a part of disinformation. Those disinformation published only in private area or those hard-to-solve ones continue to spread through people's fear and anxiety.
1. The research foundation of this report comes from The CoronaVirusFacts Alliance Database. We capture a total of 5,216 fact-checking reports from January 29, 2020 to May 12, 2020, referring to the research methods of the Reuters News Institute to manually classify these fact-checks.
2. The research method of Reuters News Institute classifies disinformation into 9 types, and READr adds 2 types (with *), the content of each type as the following table:
|Public authority action/policy||claims about state policy/action/communication; claims about WHO guidelines and recommendations, etc.|
|Community spread||claims about how the virus spreads internationally, in nations/states, or within communities. Claims about people, groups or individuals involved/affected, etc.|
|General medical advice and virus characteristics||health remedies, self-diagnostics, effects and signs of the disease, etc.|
|Prominent actors||claims about pharmacy companies or drug-makers, companies providing supplies to the health care sector, or other companies. Or claims about famous people, including claims about which celebrities have been infected, claims about what politicians have said or done (but not if the disinformation is coming from politicians or other famous people).|
|Conspiracies||claims about the virus was created a bioweapon, claims about who is supposedly behind the pandemic, claims that the pandemic was predicted|
|Virus transmission||claims about how the virus is transmitted and how to stop the transmission, including cleaning, the use of certain types of lights, appliances, protective gear, etc|
|Explanation of virus origins||claims about when and how the virus originated and properties of the virus.|
|Public preparedness||claims about hoarding, buying supplies, social distancing, (non)-adherence to measures, etc|
|Vaccine development and availability||claims about vaccines, the development and availability of a vaccine.|
|Other incidents caused by COVID-19*||Incidents caused by COVID-19, such as frauds, kidnapping, political conflicts, etc. Or the nature is healing due to fewer human activities.|
|The epidemic is not serious*||claims about COVID-19 pandemic is not serious at all, including comparing the death rate with the flu and other diseases, or using pictures of an empty hospital to imply this claim.|
3. In the influence part, there are 782 reports mentioning the disinformation is spread on Twitter. READr manually finds the original text of the disinformation in the reports, and checks their influence on Twitter and the archived tweet data provided by Yu-Chung Cheng’s team at National Chengchi University. However, due to the fact that some reports do not mark the original text, and some original texts have been lost on Twitter, we find a total of 351 articles, accounting for 45% of the total.
4. The archived tweet data is provided by Yu-Chung Cheng’s team at National Chengchi University. From January 31 to May 31, her team used Twitter Search API to collect following keywords: coronavirus, Wuhan, nCoV2019, 武漢肺炎, 新冠肺炎, wuhancoronavirus, wuhanvirus, covid19, and only missed the data of March 6. The total amount of data is 802,1949.