Like a virus: the coordinated spread of coronavirus disinformation

COVID-19 Pandemics Digital media Social media Fake news

The coronavirus pandemic has been paralleled by an ‘infodemic’ of mis- and disinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus. This study analysed 2.6 million tweets relating to coronavirus and their 25.5 million retweets over 10 days from late March 2020. Two different approaches were taken.

First, accounts that retweet identical coronavirus-related content repeatedly within one second of each other were identified. Such accounts are very likely to be highly-automated or ‘bot’ accounts, controlled by computers rather than humans. 5,752 accounts retweeted material in a coordinated way (co-retweet) 6,559 times.

The second part of the analysis identified co-ordinated efforts to promote a particular coronavirus conspiracy theory – that it was engineered as a bioweapon by China. With this narrower scope, the method to identify co-ordination was expanded from one second to one minute and so likely captures fully automated bot accounts as well as more hybrid automated-human accounts and perhaps some fully human accounts operating in close coordination. A co-retweet network of 2,903 accounts and 4,125 links or co-retweets between them was identified. Within this network, the top 30 clusters were analysed manually to identify group identities within each cluster.

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