Federal agencies are also stepping up to help educate the public about false virus-related information online. A brief published by the Homeland Security Department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency last month outlines the types of disinformation social media users are encountering, including false narratives about China’s response, harmful supposed treatments, and conspiracy theories alleging that 5G wireless technology is spreading the virus.
“Information manipulation and fabrication about COVID-19’s origin, scale, government response, and/or prevention and treatment surged as creators leveraged people’s increased uncertainty,” CISA said.
Different platforms, different problems
Disinformation has posed a variety of problems for social media companies, each of which operates differently and faces unique challenges. For example, Twitter faces an onslaught of bots that experts say are designed to divide Americans based on whether they believe the economy is ready for “reopening” following the issuance of nationwide stay-at-home orders.
Since January, researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science have collected more than 200 million virus-related tweets and found that the most influential re-tweeters are overwhelmingly more likely to be bots than real people. More than 80 percent of the top 50 influential re-tweeters are bots, the university said, along with 62 percent of the top 1,000.
Kathleen Carley, a professor who runs the university’s Center for Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems, says the pandemic-related bot activity is up to two times more prevalent than what was measured in previous global events, including elections.