Nearly two-thirds of inaccurate coronavirus claims have a grain of truth in them but are twisted into something false, a study has found.
The Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford analysed more than 200 COVID-19 claims rated either false or misleading by fact-checking organisation First Draft News.
It found 59 per cent of claims were “reconfigured”, meaning they true information was reworked, recontextualised or twisted into something false. The remaining 38 per cent of false claims were found to be completely fabricated.
In terms of twisting information, the report provided an example through a commonly repeated false narrative: because the virus is unstable at high temperatures, the sun will kill it at 27℃. The grain of truth is that the virus does become unstable at rising temperatures, according to preliminary studies. However, that temperature is above 70℃.
This type of misinformation is nothing new, however, according to the lead author of the report, Dr Scott Brennen.
“We only look at COVID-related misinformation in this study, but there have been many studies done in the past few years on different forms of misinformation and the fact that we saw the majority of the content is reconfigured is in line with a lot of other studies,” he told Euronews.
Has there been much use of artificial intelligence?
Deepfake technology has been widely discussed over the past year as a worrying threat amid the battle against disinformation. This technology uses audio or video manipulation – making it appear that someone is saying something that they are not.
However, according to the study and the samples analysed, those spurring on misinformation need little technology to circulate false claims.
“Despite a great deal of recent concern, we saw no examples of misinformation employing deep fakes or other AI-based tools,” the study found.
The type of misinformation has been “produced using techniques that have existed as long as there have been photographs and film”.
Most of the false claims focus on the actions of public health authorities
The study found that the misinformation largely centred around public authorities. Nearly 40 per cent of the claims concerned the actions and policies being taken to tackle the crisis by official organisations, from false claims regarding local health authorities to misinformation about the World Health Organization (WHO) or the United Nations (UN).
“That shows how important it is for independent fact-checkers to be involved in the process of trying to confront some of this misinformation,” Dr Brennen said.
The second most commonly made claim they found was with regards to the spread of the virus. Although much of the discussion surrounding coronavirus misinformation has focused on the conspiracy that 5G is linked to the outbreak, only 17 per cent of the claims analysed were conspiracies.
Public figures have a central role in the spread of misinformation
Although only 20 per cent of the false posts within the sample were shared by prominent figures, including celebrities and politicians, these falsehoods had a significant amount of reach, and garnered nearly 70 per cent of the total engagement (likes, comments and shares) in the study.
According to the report, “while the majority of misinformation on social media came from ordinary people, most of these posts seemed to generate far less engagement”.
Is it possible to quantify how much of the misinformation is being pushed by bad actors?
Many people share misinformation unknowingly – often with a frame of mind that a piece of advice many help others.
However, disinformation is the spread of falsehoods with an intent to mislead.
“Misinformation are things that may be unintentionally wrong that are shared versus disinformation that is knowingly false or fabricated that is shared,” said Dr Brennen. “We chose in this report to just use the term misinformation to refer to all types of false information or false content.”
The distinction between misinformation and disinformation “is really important” Dr Brennen told Euronews, although difficult to distinguish.
“We don’t always know which pieces of misinformation are intentionally fabricated to deceive rather than just mistakenly shared,” he said. “We found when we wanted to label individual pieces of misinformation, that that distinction became really difficult.
“State-produced disinformation made to sew discord is really different from your family member sharing a piece of health information that happens to be slightly wrong. But the problem is, is that it is really hard to tell those apart sometimes”.