Celebs are ‘super-spreaders’ of fake news
Celebrities like actor Woody Harrelson and rapper Wiz Khalifa are the "super- spreaders" of misinformation during times of crisis, experts say.
Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology's Digital Media Research Centre have been studying how conspiracy theories discussed on the fringes of the internet end up as front page news.
The kindling, Professor Axel Bruns says, is public figures who don't know when to keep their mouths shut or take their fingers off the keyboard.
"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."
"These are the super-spreaders. These are the people who are really making something go viral," he said during an online presentation on viral disinformation hosted by the Australia Institute on Thursday.
Prof Bruns and his research team looked into a range of COVID-19 related disinformation circulating online, and found that spikes in circulation nearly always correlated with celebrity or media endorsements.
One theory they looked at linked 5G cell phone towers with the spread of the virus, which was featured in mainstream media including The Australian, and reportedly resulted in arson attacks on communications facilities in the UK.
The data they studied revealed a spike in shares of that content occurred after American actor Woody Harrelson endorsed the theory, and American rapper Wiz Khalifa spoke about it in a video posted to his Facebook page, which is followed by almost 40 million people.
Spikes also occurred when UK tabloid the Daily Express wrote an article about it, when a Nigerian pastor's warning about the theory went viral, and when a UK boxer posted a similar video to a sports group with nearly 26 million members.
The result is a "payday" for disinformers - many of them pro-Trump, Q'Anon posters - trying to sway people to their world view, says fellow researcher Dr Timothy Graham.
"Now the public is genuinely confused, and genuinely divided. They're pointing fingers at China … and at each other.
"This is payday for disinformers. This is the best thing that could happen to them and the worst thing that could happen for democracy."
Fact-checking on social media is a part of the solution, Prof Bruns says, but has limited effect as it generally reaches a different audience to conspiracy theorists, and tends to convince them they're "onto something".
The most effective antidote would be convincing individual users to research and think critically before they post, he says.
"You have these celebrities, politicians and others with very large audiences, and getting them to not share something or not talk about something that they have no idea about - that may be very difficult to do, but it is a really important point where further transmission … can be stopped."
The theories QUT have studied include:
COVID-19 IS A CHINESE BIOWEAPON: Claims have circulated saying the coronavirus was being studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and either 'escaped' or was released as a bioweapon. Variations of this claim have been shared by Fox News media personalities and Republican Congressman Jim Banks and supported in a Washington Post opinion piece.
CORONAVIRUS IS CAUSED BY 5G: The rollout of 5G networks across the globe has been blamed for many things, but the latest is the spread of the coronavirus. Public figures including rapper Wiz Khalifa and actor Woody Harrelson have shared content supporting the theory.
BILL GATES MASTERMINDED THE PANDEMIC: A number of theories blaming Bill Gates for the spread of the virus have been circulating on social media since January. Among them are claims Gates engineered the virus to create an excuse for government surveillance, and that he created it to advocate for widespread vaccination.
The QUT team also investigated content claiming that Pope Francis had tested positive to the virus and that shaving off your beard helped prevent contracting it, as well as content purporting to reveal natural cures to the virus.