Politicians, celebrities, and other prominent public figures are playing a major role in the spread of misinformation related to the COVID-19 crisis.
That’s according to a report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the Oxford Internet Institute, which included an analysis of 225 pieces of content rated false or misleading by fact-checkers.
Between January and the end of March, the researchers found that misinformation from prominent figures made up 20% of the claims in their sample, although it accounted for 69% of total social media engagement.
The researchers did find instances of misinformation from regular folks generating large reach, but these were the exception.
In order to unearth all the misinformation circulating in the digital ether, Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network database and Google’s Fact Check Explorer tool were used to sort through nearly 2,900 pieces of content.
Most of the misinformation that was analyzed (59%) involved various forms of reconfiguration, where existing and often true information had been “spun, twisted, recontextualised, or reworked,” in the words of the researchers.
Much less (38%) of the misinformation in the researchers’ sample was found to be entirely fabricated.
Also of note, the research found no instances of deep fakes in their sample.
Twitter and other networks have recently been taking more aggressive measures to combat deepfakes, which typically take the form of digital video or images, and feature someone’s face superimposed onto another person’s body.
Instead, the researchers found that much manipulated content includes what they are calling “cheap fakes,” which are produced by far simpler means.
Broadly speaking, the researchers credit social apps for removing (or attaching warnings to) posts determined to be false or misleading by fact-checkers.
However, some apps are policing their platforms better than others, they found.
On Twitter, for example, the researchers found that 59% of posts within their sample of false content went undetected by the popular platform.
On YouTube and Facebook, the figures were far less -- 27% and 24%, respectively.
Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled fake news on COVID-19 an “infodemic.”
In response, Facebook and other platforms have been working directly with the WHO, Centers for Disease Control, and local health and government organizations to slow the spread of false and misleading information.
In addition, top apps -- including Facebook, LinkedIn, reddit, Twitter and YouTube -- recently agreed to work together to suppress pandemic-related misinformation.
While applauding their efforts, analysts have suggested that these apps are fighting an uphill battle.
“Given the novelty of the disease and the fast-changing nature of related news, it’s safe to assume that a large portion was inaccurate or outdated,” Jasmine Enberg, a senior analyst of global trends and social media at eMarketer, recently said. “It also raises larger questions about social media’s ability to police platforms outside of a global health emergency.”