Coronavirus: Misinformation

Trump biggest driver of Covid-19 misinformation, study finds

Evaluation of articles finds his comments drove spikes in topic of 'miracle cures'

Activist Mike Hisey dressed as President Donald Trump in a prison jumpsuit reading The New York Times in front of the paper's office in Manhattan, New York City, last month.
Activist Mike Hisey dressed as President Donald Trump in a prison jumpsuit reading The New York Times in front of the paper's office in Manhattan, New York City, last month.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump has been the world's biggest driver of Covid-19 misinformation during the pandemic, a study from Cornell University said on Thursday.

A team from the Cornell Alliance for Science evaluated 38 million articles published by English-language, traditional media worldwide between Jan 1 and May 26.

The database they used aggregates coverage from countries such as the United States, Britain, India, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, as well as other African and Asian nations.

They identified 522,472 news articles that reproduced or amplified misinformation related to the Covid-19 pandemic, or what the World Health Organisation has called the "infodemic".

These were categorised into 11 main sub-topics, ranging from conspiracy theories to attacks on top US infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci.

But the most popular topic by far was what the study authors termed "miracle cures", which appeared in 295,351 articles - more than the other 10 topics combined.

The authors found that comments by Mr Trump drove major spikes in the "miracle cures" topic, led by his April 24 press briefing where he mused on the possibility of using disinfectants inside the body to cure the disease. Similar spikes were seen when he promoted unproven treatments like hydroxychloroquine.

"We conclude therefore that the president of the United States was likely the largest driver of the Covid-19 misinformation 'infodemic'," the team wrote.

Professor Sarah Evanega, who led the study and is director of the Cornell Alliance for Science, said: "If people are misled by unscientific and unsubstantiated claims about the disease, they may be less likely to observe official guidance and thus risk spreading the virus."

Co-author Jordan Adams, a data analyst at Cision Insights, which provided the database, added: "One of the more interesting aspects of the data collection process was discovering the staggering amount of misinformation coverage directly linked to the public comments of a small number of individuals."

After miracle cures, the second most prevalent misinformation topic was that the pandemic was created to advance a "new world order". Next came the claim that the pandemic was a hoax for political gain by the US Democratic Party, followed by conspiracies alleging the virus was a bioweapon released by a laboratory in Wuhan in central China, where the outbreak originated.

 
 

Conspiracy theories linking the pandemic to philanthropist Bill Gates came next, then the hoax that Covid-19 symptoms are caused by 5G phone networks, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and the notion that the virus is a form of population control.

Attacks on Dr Fauci, references to the debunked "Plandemic" video and blaming the virus on Chinese people consuming bat soup rounded off the list.

The study's authors found there was some effort to correct the misinformation in the form of fact-checking articles, which appeared 183,717 times. They also tracked how the stories were shared on social media, finding that the posts elicited 36 million engagements, three-quarters of them on Facebook.

The research was partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2020, with the headline 'Trump biggest driver of Covid-19 misinformation, study finds'. Subscribe