80% of the sites pushing coronavirus conspiracies were publishing other toxic misinformation before this crisis

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The coronavirus death toll in the U.S. has passed 50,000 as of Friday morning, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Getty
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The big story... 80% of the sites pushing coronavirus conspiracies were publishing other toxic misinformation before this crisis


But First the Quiz:

1. Which COVID-19 conspiracy theory was based on a preliminary scientific study that was withdrawn and discredited two days after it first appeared online?

a) The COVID-19 virus contains 'HIV-like insertions,' suggesting it was engineered
b) 5G cell phone technology is linked to the coronavirus outbreak
c) Garlic can cure COVID-19
d) The COVID-19 pandemic was predicted in a simulation

2. In early April, 20 telephone poles in the U.K. were torn down by people who believe the false theory that 5G mobile technology causes coronavirus. In what country did that theory first emerge?

a) Spain
b) France
c) United States
d) Russia

3. How many visitors did NaturalNews.com, a popular purveyor of health misinformation, have in March?

a) 1.4 million
b) 2.6 million
c) 3.9 million
d) 5.1 million

Read to the end of the next section for the answers.


NewsGuard Alert –The "Super-Spreaders"

We've been turning our attention to some of the Facebook pages that are most responsible for spreading the popular COVID-19 hoaxes that NewsGuard has been tracking. On Tuesday we published a list with 15 of the worst English-language offenders that we've spotted so far on Facebook. Since then, we've found 17 more pages that post coronavirus misinformation and have more than 100,000 followers. All 32 pages remain active, meaning Facebook has not taken them down (although 13 posts have been removed). The largest page that we've found so far is a Turkey-based page called Global Informers, which has shared false Iranian and Russian propaganda about the coronavirus to its 4.8 million followers. See the rest here.


Coronavirus spawned an "infodemic." But the misinformation playbook isn't new.

NewsGuard Natural News
This March 2009 article shows one of the many instances that NaturalNews.com used the term “biological weapon” to describe something that was definitively not a biological weapon. Now, it uses the term to describe the novel coronavirus. NaturalNews.com / NewsGuard

The most popular Covid-19 conspiracy theories are unsettling and shocking because we've never seen misinformation like this before. Right? Not exactly.

  • Of the 187 sites NewsGuard has now identified as publishing verifiably false information about the novel coronavirus, more than 80% had already been found to be generally unreliable by NewsGuard's journalists, meaning that they had a Red rating already attached to their URL before they published their first COVID-19 hoax — and well before that hoax might have been fact checked.

During past public health crises, such as swine flu in 2009, Ebola in 2014, and measles in 2019, the popular hoax site NaturalNews.com offered "explanations" that were eerily similar to the coronavirus conspiracy theories the site is now pushing. These articles reveal no affinity for science — only a dangerous desire to push a host of outlandish, incongruous theories until one sticks.

  • Breaking it down: "Reporting" by Natural News on past outbreaks stokes panic and fear, no matter how big the public health risk, while also undermining public health guidance.
    • Natural News has warned for years of a potential Ebola outbreak on U.S. soil, despite the fact that only four Americans contracted the disease in 2014, according to the WHO
      • A July 2019 article asked (without evidence): "Why is the U.S. government importing thousands of migrants from Ebola-stricken nations and distributing them across U.S. cities?"
    • Amid last year's measles outbreak, Natural News saw an opportunity to criticize vaccines — and to promote natural remedies sold on the site. (The CDC reportedthat nearly nine in 10 measles patients had not received the vaccine.)
      • As early as 2009, the site called vaccines "biological weapons." When measles reemerged, Natural News said it had been right all along.
  • One popular coronavirus conspiracy theory says COVID-19 was engineered as a biological weapon at a military laboratory in Wuhan. Natural News has been sounding the alarm on "bioweapons" for years. Natural News founder Mike Adams — who calls himself the Health Ranger — also operates a website called BioDefense.com, with tips to "defend yourself" against pandemics and biological warfare.
    • 2014: "Ebola can be easily harvested and released as a bioweapon," the site claimed.
    • November 2018: "Globalists plan to exterminate 90% of the human race" by releasing a "bioweapon viral strain."
      • It was not the first time Adams had cried bioweapon, but when the novel coronavirus emerged just over a year later in Wuhan, the conspiracy-minded spotted more than just a coincidence.

Why we should care: 3.9 million people visited NaturalNews.com last month. That's 33 percent more than in February, according to web analytics firm SimilarWeb. The websites that drive misinformation don't come out of nowhere — they build an audience for years, waiting for the perfect storm of a global health emergency and a hunger for answers at a time when few exist.

NewsGuard FonteVerificata.it
The Italian hoax site FonteVerificata.it wrote that Boris Johnson testing positive for the coronavirus was fake, despite the headline actually being accurate. FonteVerificata.it / NewsGuard

Still, some new websites have popped up recently simply to confuse readers about the coronavirus.

  • One headlinefrom a site named Extra-Times.comsaid New York governor Andrew Cuomo was banning alcohol sales — but when readers clicked the link to the site, a message said "You Got PRANKED!"
    • The site, called Prank Mania (Extra-Times.com is the fake name it uses to trick readers), allows users to create "pranks" and share them, garnering hundreds of thousands of views on false stories. Many recent "pranks" feature totally made-up information about coronavirus.
  • An Italian site called FonteVerificata.it (which translates to "Verified Source") that emerged in March has the effect of confusing people about what is true and what is not when it comes to coronavirus.
    • FonteVerificata is designed to look like a fact-checking site, posting headlines with a banner that says "real news" or "fake news." Except the fact check actually says the opposite of what's true. "Boris Johnson tests positive for coronavirus," said one recent headline. Below, a photo of the British premier had a banner saying "FAKE" over it. Except Johnson did test positive for the coronavirus, and was treated for it in an intensive care unit.
    • FonteVerificata should be read as satire, its founder, blogger and YouTuber Gian Marco Saolini, told NewsGuard, even though that isn't made clear on the site. Saolini argued that his site would teach people to "develop critical thinking that they don't have at the moment," he said. "I want to submerge the Internet with sh*t to saturate it."

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QUIZ ANSWERS:

  1. (a) The conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 virus contains 'HIV-like insertions,' suggesting it was engineered, was based off data from a preprint study published on BioRxiv.org, a forum for scientific researchers. The paper was withdrawn two days later, but the false claim had already spread.
  2. (b) The first known false link between 5G and coronavirus was made by the French website LesMoutonsEnrages.fr in January.
  3. (c) NaturalNews.com saw visitors increase by 33% to 3.9 million last month.

Old Hoax Graduates to Fomenting Destruction: How COVID-19 misinformation merged with old 5G conspiracies to unleash havoc in the U.K.

NewsGuard Les Mountons Enragés
This January 20 Facebook post from the page affiliated with the French site Les Moutons Enragés — which means “The Enraged Sheep” — referred to 5G-Nocide (a riff on “genocide”) in this first false connection between 5G and the novel coronavirus. Facebook / NewsGuard

As has been widely reported, the U.K. has suffered from a dangerous new consequence of misinformation: organized campaigns, encouraged by peddlers of misinformation, to damage public spaces and infrastructure.

  • Earlier this month, vandals in the U.K. tore down telephone poles and verbally harassed British mobile workers after weeks of viral conspiracies falsely connected emerging 5G mobile technology to the COVID-19 virus.
  • These conspiracies first appeared on Facebook in January alongside an article from a French hoax site, before they quickly spread across what Jasper Jackson of First Draft Newscalled "a ready made network" of conspiracy theorists, referring to the dozens of anti-5G Facebook groups where messages demonizing the technology have gone viral.
    • Breaking it down: Long before the coronavirus emerged, a network of anti-5G Facebook pages — based in large part on material fabricated by Russian propaganda outlets like RT — was steeped in misinformation related to other supposed dangers of the new technology.
    • False claims that 5G technology causes cancer, radiation poisoning, the death of wildlife, and other negative effects have gained traction online for more than two years, despite the fact that exposure to radio waves from 5G technology does not pose a risk to human health, scientists found.
      • Now these Facebook groups — with the help of unreliable websites in the U.S. and Europe — are spreading new COVID-related spurious claims on their own. Having successfully muddied the waters, the Russian propaganda outlets that first crafted these 5G hoaxes are now sitting this one out. Confusingly, RT has recently begun posting stories saying 5G is not dangerous. (However, the old conspiracy theories remain on RT.com.)
    • The first 5G conspiracy linking the technology to COVID-19 appeared in a January 20 article on the French hoax site LesMoutonsEnrages.fr, which began to spread when it was posted to Facebook, First Draft found. First Draft News also told NewsGuard that the Facebook group Stop 5G UK, an early anti-5G group created in 2017, has seen its membership nearly double, to 58,000, in the past month.First Draft's data shows that at least seven other U.K.-based anti-5G Facebook groups have recently doubled in size.
      • Soon after, several unreliable sites claimed that Wuhan — where the coronavirus first emerged late last year — was also where 5G technology was first rolled out, suggesting that the 5G rollout in the Chinese city may have had something to do with the outbreak. In fact, Wuhan was just one of several Chinese cities where 5G was rolled out.
    • Why we should care: The U.K.'s stay-at-home order requires people to limit trips outside to keep coronavirus from spreading. But dozens of British citizens left their homes to damage crucial communications infrastructure and harass essential workers, all to voice an opinion that has no grounding in reality. 5G conspiracy theorists aren't the only ones with legions of followers, so don't expect this to be the last protest fueled by misinformation.

Conspiracy theorists are fueling coronavirus misinformation by exploiting preliminary scientific studies

Before scientific research is published, it goes through an extensive review process that can last months. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, some people favor making data more readily accessible in the name of public health. But this has led to the exploitation of some studies that have not yet been reviewed — and in some cases, turn out to be wrong.

  • The websites MedRxiv and BioRxiv allow researchers to quickly receive feedback on studies that have not yet been published or peer-reviewed. "Caution: Preprints are preliminary reports of work that have not been certified by peer review," warns the MedRxiv.org home page. They "should not be reported in news media as established information." NewsGuard has rated both websites as platforms, signaling that their content has not been vetted.

On January 31, a study that had not undergone any formal review was posted on BioRxiv and brought "unprecedented numbers of readers to the site," according to co-founder John Inglis.

  • A group of Indian scientists submitted the paper, which said they had discovered similarities in protein sequences between the new strain of coronavirus and HIV that were unlikely to have occurred naturally. But the authors overlooked how these same sequences can be found in many other viruses, not just HIV, according to health fact-checking site HealthFeedback.org. The study was withdrawn two days after it was posted.
  • The quick withdrawal of the paper did not stop misinformation sites, such as Infowars.com and NoSignalFound.fr, from citing the research to promote the false claim that the virus was man-made or engineered.
  • Inglis believed much of the attention "was driven by partisan websites and influencers, not professional journalists of standing."

British tabloid the Daily Mail's Mail Online was the most popular site to turn to these platforms for unvetted coronavirus content. The Mail Online receives more engagement — meaning likes, shares, and comments on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest — than any other news site in the U.K., according to data NewsGuard gathered from social-media analytics firm NewsWhip.

  • The Mail Online reported on Feb. 10 that a "study reveals" the virus's incubation period could be "24 DAYS instead of previously thought two weeks." This news, based on a Chinese study posted on MedRxiv, would pose a major challenge to existing knowledge on the coronavirus. But it turned out to be incorrect, and its authors later revised the paper's figures.
  • The final version of the study, published on Feb. 28 in the esteemed New England Journal of Medicine, found that the incubation period for COVID-19 was actually between two and seven days.
  • The Mail Online noted in its story that the study was not yet peer-reviewed. But it never updated its original story or reported on the finished study. A Mail Online spokesperson did not respond to two emails and a phone call from NewsGuard requesting comment.

"The more sensational a result appears to be in a preprint, the more checking they need to do and the more caution they need to express," Inglis said.


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