Analysis of 100 million tweets finds sources behind early pandemic fake news

An analysis of more than 100 million tweets published in the early months of the pandemic reveals the sources of misinformation and disinformation that have since plagued society and driven mistrust in the COVID-19 vaccines. Misguided medical professionals, conspiracy theorists, and fact-checking the wrong people were all cited as contributing factors.

The new study comes from the University of Cincinnati, where researchers investigated to determine the sources of major misinformation and disinformation that spread across social media early in the pandemic. One example of misinformation was the (now persistent) belief among some people that antimalarial drugs like chloroquine could protect against the virus.

Using funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the UC Office of Research Digital Futures Initiative, the researchers were able to analyze hundreds of millions of tweets specifically about COVID-19. These included likes on tweets, the tweets themselves, and retweets, according to the study, namely ones citing the antimalarial drugs.

"Science and politics were directly competing against each other," the team explained, noting that scientists were having to fight against opposing claims in an effort to spread correct information. As you'd expect, the Twitterverse's COVID-19 misinformation was heavily promoted by then-president Donald Trump, though the study notes that he didn't invent the claims he would boost.

The study's lead author Jeffrey Blevins explained:

We have to be aware that there are all sorts of actors on social media, and they are not all credible; just because something is trending or in the echo chamber, it tends to make it sound more credible. The sheer volume of the message or the fact that something goes viral doesn't necessarily make it true.

The researchers found that, for example, a "feedback loop" formed between Trump followers and Fox News regarding antimalarial drugs and COVID-19 after Trump tweeted about them. Some of the issues related to the spread of nonsense had to do with fact-checkers focusing on the wrong people, too, according to the study, such as spending more time fact-checking Trump's tweets than going after the sources of the claims he made.