A State Department report has identified millions of tweets promoting false information and conspiracy theories about the new strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, that is rapidly spreading across the globe.
The Washington Post obtained a copy of the unreleased report by the Global Engagement Center, the agency’s program that fights propaganda. The Post reports that the study, which excluded the U.S., analyzed 29 million tweets from Jan. 20 to Feb. 10, when the virus began to spread outside China. Seven percent, or approximately two million posts, included misinformation.
Lies and conspiracy theories being peddled include accusations that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created the disease and that the U.S. government made it as a bioweapon to target China, among others.
The researchers found that some of the tweets exhibited “evidence of inauthentic and coordinated activity,” the Post says.
Although State Department officials have previously indicated that some of the coronavirus misinformation spreading on social media may be linked to Russia, the report didn’t identify any suspects, Russia or otherwise. The agency reportedly also hasn’t provided social media companies with any evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement.
Both State Department and Twitter declined to comment to the Post. Neither immediately responded to the Daily Dot’s request for comment.
Since the outbreak began, Twitter, Facebook, and Google have added features intended to curb the spread of false information. TikTok has partnered with the World Health Organization to combat misinformation.
Twitter now encourages people in the U.S. who search for the virus to consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure they “get the best information.”
According to the report, the most widely shared articles studied included accurate reporting from reliable sources. But inaccurate information, such as an article that incorrectly spread the racist trope that the disease originated from Chinese people eating bat soup, was shared widely as well.
The Post states that some of the most dangerous false narratives were promoted by coordinated means, including Twitter bots (accounts set up to automatically perform various functions, such as retweeting, liking and commenting).
One such hoax includes the false claim that the Gates Foundation is responsible for the virus.
This conspiracy theory persists on the platform today. The Daily Dot found numerous tweets referring to it, some with hundreds of interactions, including one from the verified account of Republican congressional candidate Joanne Wright.
Another hoax that was apparently amplified by coordinated accounts blamed the Defense Department for creating the virus and targeting China, the Post adds.
The report noted that at least some misinformation was counterbalanced by credible stories and reporting, which were among the most widely-shared on the platform.
As of this morning, the CDC reports 22 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., spanning seven states on both coasts. The number, which doesn’t include people like the Japanese cruise ship passengers who returned to the states after being infected, is expected to rise, as several states have reported presumptive positive cases in the last 24 hours.