900% Increase in Fact-Checks Around COVID-19 in 3 Months: Study
The study combine content-analysis of fact-checks regarding COVID-19, along with data about social media engagement.
A report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has found that there has been a 900 percent increase in English fact-checks published between January and March 2020, reaching a total of 1,253 in the full corpus of fact-checks gathered by First Draft News.
This shows a dramatic increase in the volume of fact-checks in the three-month period mentioned.
The study also mentions the steps taken by various social media platforms to tackle misinformation and adds that 59 percent of false posts on Twitter, 27 percent on YouTube and 24 percent on Facebook remain active without a direct warning label on them.
With a sample of 225 examples of misinformation rated false or misleading by fact-checkers, and published in English between the aforementioned period, the study does not claim to be exhaustive or comprehensive, but does provide a certain idea about the kind of misinformation being spread across the world of late.
Study Based on Corpus of Fact-Checks
The study attempts to combine content-analysis of fact-checks regarding the virus, along with data about the social media engagement and scale of such posts, studying and coding each fact-checked instance as per the type of misinformation, the source, claims as well as possible motivation. The social media engagement data of these posts were also studied.
These 225 posts are part of a corpus of English-language fact-checks put together by First Draft News, which is a project “to fight mis- and disinformation online” founded in 2015 by nine organisations, which were brought together by the Google News Lab.
These fact-checks are pieces done by fact-checkers who contribute to International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and Google Fact Checking Tools.
Fact Checks Boom, But so so Does Fake News
According to the study, fact-checks in English have gone up by 900 percent between January and March 2020. However, misinformation about coronavirus is growing at a much faster rate at the same time, keeping fact-checkers on their toes.
So what is this misinformation like?
According to the findings of the study, 59 percent of the posts in the sample were found to be reconfigurations of existing and sometimes factual, true information. This can be further separated into three sub-categories – misleading content, false context and manipulated content.
Misleading content, which consists of some true information but was “reformulated, selected and re-contextualised”, was found to be the most popular, making up 29 percent of the sample at hand.
The second most common type of this is false context (24 percent), which involves images or videos being labelled something they are not. Meanwhile, 6 percent of the sample turned out to be doctored images or videos.
Interestingly, despite growing chatter about Deepfakes, no examples of the same were found in the sample at hand.
Sources of Misinformation and Their Claims
The study found that while only 20 percent of the misinformation in the sample was produced or spread by high profile individuals such as politicians, celebrities etc, they attracted a large degree of social media engagement. This kind of top-down misinformation accounted for 69 percent of total social media engagement, not taking into account spread over TV, which was not measured.
However, just as important is misinformation spread by the broader public, who were the source of 80 percent of the content in the sample, though they accounted for only 31 percent of the total social media engagement.
The study also notes that a very low percentage appeared to be aimed at generating profit.
Now, if one were to look at the kind of claims made in this content, the study states that the most common ones were regarding actions taken or policies of public authorities regarding COVID-19. This could refer to governments, health authorities or international organisations such as World Health Organisation or United Nations. The study provides a reasoning for this, saying that this could perhaps be an indication of the failure of governments to provide clear, useful and enough information to the public about the virus, causing misinformation to bloom in order to fill the gaps.
The second most common was about the spread of coronavirus through communities, specifically content about geographical areas with the virus or blaming certain groups or communities for the spread of the virus.
Other types of claims include general medical claims (24 percent), conspiracy theories (17 percent), transmission of the virus (16 percent), origins of the virus (12 percent) and vaccine development (5 percent).
How Have Social Media Platforms Responded?
Amid this infodemic, many social media platforms have said that they have begun taking down posts spreading misinformation or fake news. Platforms like Facebook have long been attaching warning labels on posts rated false by fact-checkers.
However, the Reuters Institute study found that despite this, 59 percent of false posts on Twitter, 27 percent on YouTube and 24 percent on Facebook remain active without a direct warning label on them.
As an aside, the study also mentions that while there is no data available to back this, conversation with fact-checkers suggest that social media platforms are more likely to take down COVID-19 related fake news posts rather than other kinds, which is an indication of the dangerous nature of this kind of misinformation.
In conclusion, the study states that there is a wide variety of misinformation surrounding COVID-19, and there is no single root cause behind the spread of this. It suggests that different kinds of individuals/groups could be using coronavirus-related fake news to further their own motives. There is further, no ‘cure’ for this kind of infodemic, but will need the efforts of fact-checkers across the world to combat this particular fake news virus.
You can read all our fact-checked stories on coronavirus here.
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