Celebs are ‘super-spreaders’ who are making Covid-19 fake news and conspiracy theories go viral, says research
Celebrities are "super-spreaders" of fake news and conspiracy theories in times of crisis, including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to a new research.
A study conducted by researchers at Queensland University in Australia found prominent names such as Woody Harrelson and Whiz Khalifa were responsible for bringing far-fetched internet theories to front-page headlines, the New York Post reports.
Axel Bruns, a professor with the school’s Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre, called such people "super-spreaders" in an online presentation Thursday.
“These are the super-spreaders. These are the people who are really making something go viral,” he said.
According to him, loud-mouthed celebrities can fuel misinformation in droves just by discussing some theories on social media, even if they aren't pushing them.
“It’s one thing to post this from a conspiracy account that’s got a few hundred followers, but once you get major celebrities with literally millions of followers on Twitter or Facebook talking about this, even just dismissively, obviously it reaches a much, much larger audience,” said Bruns.
Spikes in the circulation of misinformation in terms of COVID-19 on social media were found to be almost always linked to celebrity or media endorsements, researchers concluded.
They cited the most recent example of fake news that 5G towers spread the coronavirus. It was found that the most "shares" about it happened after 'Zombieland' star Woody Harrelson discussed the conspiracy theory on Instagram and rapper Whiz Khalifa spoke about it on Facebook.
Harrelson, 58, told his more than 2 million followers on Instagram that he came across a report about “the negative effects of 5G” and its alleged role in the pandemic and found it "very interesting." He has since taken down the post.
According to the study, the theory became even more popular after UK tabloid the Daily Express wrote an article about it and a UK boxer shared a video on the subject to a sports group wth over 26 million members.
“Now the public is genuinely confused, and genuinely divided. They’re pointing fingers at China … and at each other,” said another researcher, Timothy Graham.
“This is payday for disinformers. This is the best thing that could happen to them and the worst thing that could happen for democracy,” he said, as quoted by the Brisbane Times.
Baseless conspiracy theories about 5G networks exacerbating the coronavirus pandemic were blamed for a series of attacks of cellphone towers in the UK.
UK officials said all the fires reported at 5G towers in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Belfast were linked to such conspiracy theories, which range from 5G signals causing the outbreak to the pathogen being started to cover up for health ailments caused by the networks.
The UK's national medical director Professor Stephen Powis described the theories as “outrageous” and “absolute and utter rubbish.”
“I’m absolutely outraged, absolutely disgusted, that people would be taking action against the very infrastructure that we need to respond to this health emergency," he told a press conference earlier this month. “It is absolute and utter rubbish.”
And speaking to the Evening Standard, Dr. Michael Head of the University of Southampton warned that such "ignorance" could prove dangerous in the long run.
“Conspiracy theorists are a public health danger who once read a Facebook page,” he told the Evening Standard. “The celebrities fanning the flames of these conspiracy theorists should be ashamed.”