Trump is likely the single largest driver of misinformation during coronavirus pandemic, claims study

Mentions of the US president comprise 37.9% of the overall misinformation conversation, well ahead of any other topic

                            Trump is likely the single largest driver of misinformation during coronavirus pandemic, claims study
(Getty Images)

The Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded alongside what the World Health Organization (WHO) has termed an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation. This has undermined efforts to combat the pandemic, experts have repeatedly warned. A research team now concludes that US President Donald Trump was likely the largest driver of the Covid-19 misinformation infodemic. Mentions of Trump comprised 37.9% of the overall infodemic, well ahead of "miracle cures", which comprised 26.4%. However, a substantial proportion — possibly even the majority — of the "miracle cures" topic was also driven by the president’s comments, so a significant overlap can be expected between these topics, the analysis suggests.

The results come from a sample of 38M articles published in English-language media around the world. According to the authors from Cornell University, the findings are of significant concern because if people are misled by unscientific and unsubstantiated claims about the disease, they may attempt harmful cures or be less likely to observe official guidance and thus risk spreading the virus.

"One major finding is that media mentions of President Trump within the context of different misinformation topics made up 37.9% of the overall 'misinformation conversation', much more than any other single topic. We conclude that the President of the US was likely the largest driver of the Covid-19 misinformation infodemic," they write. They add, "In contrast only 16% of media mentions of misinformation were explicitly 'fact-checking' in nature, suggesting that a substantial quantity of misinformation reaches media consumers without being challenged or accompanied by factually accurate information."

The study was performed using Cision Media’s Next Generation Communications Cloud platform, which aggregates content from 7M-plus sources globally. This database was queried with an English-language search string for misinformation topics in the context of Covid-19, using an iterative cycle of different keywords. The study evaluated over 38M pieces of content published by English-language, traditional media worldwide between January 1 and May 26, 2020. It analyzed engagement with traditional media stories on social channels.

What did the researchers find?

The report identified over 1.1M news articles (2.9% of the whole Covid-19 conversation) that disseminated, amplified or reported on misinformation related to the pandemic. The authors found five categories of misinformation: misinformation/conspiracies sub-topics, Trump mentions, infodemic coverage, fact-checking and Trump-only mentions. "While the misinformation portion comprised only 2.9% of the whole Covid-19 conversation, the 1.1 million articles identified as covering, fact-checking, or repeating misinformation represent a large volume of information that is likely to have significantly affected public perceptions of the pandemic," they caution.

Five categories of misinformation were identified by the research team (Cornell University)

The experts also identified 11 different conspiracy theory themes or misinformation sub-topics in the Covid-19 infodemic and quantified the frequency of their appearance between January 1 and May 26. According to the investigators, these conspiracy/misinformation topics confirm the analysis that Trump was likely the major driver of the infodemic. He drove massive spikes in the miracle cures misinformation topic, led by his April 24 musing about the possibility of using disinfectants internally to cure the coronavirus. Trump’s advocacy of hydroxychloroquine and admission that he was using the drug also prompted major spikes in the miracle cures misinformation topic, explain researchers. 

"The miracle cures sub-topic accounts for more misinformation coverage than the other 10 sub-topics combined. It is dominated by a peak on April 24 corresponding with President Trump’s press conference statements about the potential of using bleach or other disinfectants internally as a cure for coronavirus infection. This peak, along with others in the miracle cures topic — in particular the president’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine — makes this sub-topic the second-largest contributor to the misinformation conversation after President Trump himself," write authors. 

The report says that mentions of conspiracies linked to alleged secret "new world orders" or "deep state" government bodies existed throughout the period and were referenced in passing in conversations that mentioned or listed widespread conspiracies. "Indeed, President Trump joked about the US State Department being a 'deep state' department during a White House Covid-19 press conference in March," the findings state. 

11 separate sub-topics of misinformation emerged from the analysis (Cornell University)

A conspiracy theory also emerged in January that suggested the coronavirus pandemic was intentional and manufactured to coincide with Trump’s impeachment trial. The most prominent public advocate of this idea has been Trump’s son Eric Trump, says the analysis. According to the investigators, among other conspiracy theories were those surrounding the Wuhan Institute of Virology that emerged early in Covid-19 misinformation coverage, including theories that it was a secret bioweapons facility and that it was the origin point for a deliberate or accidental release of the coronavirus. 

Misinformation is a serious threat to global public health

The research team warns that if people are misled by unsubstantiated claims about the nature and treatment of the disease, they are less likely to observe official health advice and may thus contribute to the spread of the pandemic and pose a danger to themselves and others. Health protection strategies such as hygiene, sanitation, social distancing, mask-wearing, lockdowns and other measures will be less effective if distrust of public health authorities becomes sufficiently widespread to substantially affect public behavior, they add. Specifically, misinformation about treatments for Covid-19 can prompt people to attempt cures that might harm them, while fears and distrust about a possible vaccine could undermine the uptake of any vaccination campaign aiming to immunize the public at a later date, explains experts.

"In previous pandemics, such as the HIV/AIDS outbreak, misinformation and its effect on the policy was estimated to have led to an additional 300,000 deaths in South Africa alone. If similar or worse outcomes are to be avoided in the present Covid-19 pandemic, greater efforts will need to be made to combat the infodemic that is already substantially polluting the wider media discourse," the team concludes. 

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