It’s one of the major conspiracy theories to flourish during the global pandemic — that coronavirus is a biological weapon.
- The Responsible Technology report says conspiracy theories have been spread widely on social media
- Report author Timothy Graham says they believe bot-like accounts on Twitter are responsible
- The researchers also found coordinated retweeting of COVID-19 topics
Now, a new Australian report suggests that theory has been amplified on Twitter through the “coordinated” efforts of clusters of Pro-Trump, QAnon and Republican partisan accounts.
Building on the World Health Organisation’s warning in February that it was not only battling a health crisis but an “infodemic”, researchers from the Queensland University of Technology set out to uncover any evidence of a systematic spread of misinformation and disinformation.
The research team looked at 2.6 million tweets and 25.5 million retweets from a 10-day period that used coronavirus-related hashtags.
“What we were focused on was what kind of narratives and conspiracy theories are being magnified or amplified through the accounts retweeting them,” said Dr Timothy Graham, one of the authors of The Australian Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology report released today.
Applying political “astroturfing” detection methods, the researchers firstly analysed Twitter accounts that retweeted coronavirus topics either within one minute or one second of each other — the latter revealing suspected bot-like accounts.
The team’s analysis uncovered politically focused coordinated retweeting of coronavirus topics by both human and bot-like accounts.
For example, one bot-like network the team found promoted positive tweets about the Saudi Arabian Government and the Saudi Crown Prince.
“The whole idea of bots is really quite contentious at the moment, but there’s really no other conclusion that we can draw from this, other than some of these accounts are using some sort of automation,” Dr Graham said.
“They might be semi-controlled by humans but how they’re behaving in these networks, at least in some clusters, is text-book bot-like behaviour.
“We can’t know for sure but there’s overwhelming evidence based on this approach, where groups of accounts repeatedly retweet the same content within one second of each other.
Troll-like clusters analysed
Dr Graham said the team also separately zeroed in on tweets that specifically pushed the conspiracy theory that the virus had been manufactured as a “bioweapon” by the Chinese Government.
“The reason we wanted to look at that was because it was probably one of the biggest during this pandemic,” he said.
“It goes all the way from the bedrooms of trolls on their own pushing conspiracy theories in the dark, right through to the President of the United States of America.”
What the researchers discovered was that out of the 30 suspected troll-like clusters they manually analysed, 28 self-identified as pro-Trump, Make America Great Again (MAGA), or QAnon accounts.
A cluster of “broadly pro-Democrat” accounts and a cluster of “Baloch National Movement” accounts made up the other two, the report said.
“It could have been left-wing accounts, or accounts pretending to be Black Lives Matter activists, like how we saw in the 2016 presidential election; it could have been any group identity that emerges out of these clusters but we see it’s primarily pro-Trump, MAGA, QAnon accounts,” Dr Graham said.
Society losing battle to regulate social media
Peter Lewis, who is director of the Centre for Responsible Technology, said the data provided a snapshot of how a conspiracy theory was politicised and spread from the margins to the mainstream.
Dr Graham said the findings reinforced the need to look at ways to regulate social media platforms to combat misinformation — a battle he believed society was currently losing.
“What this study really highlights is Twitter, at the very least, has a major problem with orchestrated exploitation of the platform to push potentially damaging information that causes harm to society,” he said.
“It’s not just individuals working together, it’s not just public discussions between concerned but misinformed citizens; this coordinated behaviour and it’s going to take a lot of work to dismantle that to be able to combat it.
“The evidence in this report goes down the rabbit hole and shows how deeply rooted this problem is that we’re facing.”
He said when the research team scoured Twitter in January for posts linking 5G technology to coronavirus, there was just a “trickle”.
“Fast forward to now, and there’s a million tweets on it,” he said.
He said by the time the conspiracy theory reached the mainstream — boosted by celebrities, politicians, social media influencers or media — people could forget the origins of the source.
“It’s those super spreaders that take this from the fringe and then this explodes,” he said.
“There’s a long and storied history of this disinformation and, once it takes root, it’s really difficult to eliminate.”
Dr Graham said journalists had a duty of care not to report misinformation verbatim or unchallenged.
“There is a need to report but how can it be done with maximum duty of care towards not spreading false information any further?” he said.
“Journalists need to check the source before adding fuel to the fire.”