COVID-19 conspiracy theories and social media - GulfToday

COVID-19 conspiracy theories and social media


Picture used for illustrative purpose only.

Chris Blackhurst, The Independent

By now I guess most of us have experienced the corona conspiracy theorist. One exchange that sticks in my mind was early on in the crisis, walking my dogs across the common, and bumping into a friend. She’s university-educated, good job, smart. We talked about the shock of the pandemic and the impact it was having on our lives. Then she asked what I thought about the link between 5G and its spread, how the technology had weakened people’s immune systems.

To be fair, my friend did pose it as a question. Nevertheless, the very fact she raised it at all indicated she thought 5G could be responsible. Where, I wondered, had she got this from? Social media, she replied. Where? She shrugged. She couldn’t remember.

There have been several others, for example claiming the death and infection figures are grossly exaggerated and taking this or doing that will guarantee immunity or provide a cure. All rubbish, and usually traceable to anonymous postings on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Unfortunately, some folk believe this stuff and it governs their conduct. A study has found those who get their news from social media sources are more likely to break lockdown rules. It also found that those who get their information about the virus from social media were two or three times more likely to have left home with possible Covid-19 symptoms than those who looked at other sources.

People that admitted having had family or friends visit them at home were also much more likely to get their information about coronavirus from social media than those who have stuck by the rules.

The researchers conclude that there is a strong link between belief in virus conspiracy theories and pushing against the public restrictions. “Conspiracy beliefs act to inhibit health-protective behaviours,” concludes the study, “and social media act as a vector for such beliefs.“

The King’s College London report ends: “One wonders how long this state of affairs can be allowed to persist while social media platforms continue to provide a worldwide distribution mechanism for medical misinformation.”

This follows research showing that anonymous accounts play a disproportionate role in the spread of conspiracy theories about corona on Twitter. Campaign group Clean Up The Internet commissioned Valent Projects to look at 1m tweets from 256,000 UK accounts, collected between 1 March and 18 April 2020.

The researchers concluded that anonymous accounts drove the conversation about 5G and the virus. They produced over five times the volume of tweets compared with attributed accounts and were over four times (42 per cent versus 9 per cent) more likely to be actively promoting 5G conspiracy theories.

Declaration of interest: I am on the advisory board of Clean Up The Internet, founded by leading UK lawyer Stephen Kinsella. It aims to improve the quality of online debate and to tackle abuse and disinformation, with the adoption of new measures to restrict the abuse of anonymity: giving social media users the option to verify their identity; providing the option to block unverified users; making it easy to see whether or not a user is verified.

Politicians and governments are increasingly concerned by the lack of action from the social media giants. When challenged in the Commons by MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee earlier this month, Twitter’s global policy director, Nick Pickles, maintained: “If someone shows evidence or we see evidence that this is a problem, we will direct research resources there. But one of the challenges here is that there is no evidence that this is a problem, and it is very difficult for us to pre-emptively say we will study everything where there is no evidence of a problem.

“Clean Up The Internet sent the Valent study to MPs on the committee. Philip Davies MP said: “It’s common sense to most people that anonymity causes problems on social media. Yet, time and again, I see the social media companies skirt round questions on this issue. This report offers clear evidence of the role played by anonymity in the spread of incredibly dangerous falsehoods about coronavirus. It’s time for the platforms to stop dodging the issue and start offering solutions.”

His fellow committee member, John Nicolson MP, said: “Clean Up The Internet’s new research confirms what we’ve long suspected — anonymity on social media fuels harmful behaviour. If platforms are serious about reducing the amount of vile abuse and dangerous misinformation on their platforms, they need to stop pretending anonymity isn’t a problem.”

To Nick Pickles at Twitter, studies show the evidence clearly exists. Twitter and the other social media companies need to act, and given the harm being caused, they must do so quickly. If not, legislation should do it for them.

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