By the time false information appears in your social media feed, you probably aren’t seeing the original post. Instead, the untruth is often first published by an obscure website posing as a legitimate news site, then several and sometimes dozens of other unreliable sites republish the same story, often verbatim or with just a few words changed.
Picture an internet-wide game of telephone, except the players aren’t children at a schoolyard but tech-savvy peddlers of dangerous misinformation during a global pandemic. It’s easy to track who said what in a circle of five children. Online, tracing a false claim back to its source can be nearly impossible. But we at NewsGuard were able to track one such toxic claim relating to Covid-19 back to its source, showing how easy it is for misinformation to travel the globe.
Gabby Deutch is the Washington correspondent for NewsGuard, a New York–based nonpartisan organization that reviews news sites to combat misinformation.
Since coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, China, my colleagues at NewsGuard—which rates the credibility of news and information sites—have been tracking all the websites in the US, UK, Italy, Germany, and France that have spread verifiably false claims about the coronavirus. We have so far identified 132 such sites, and the single most popular topic of misinformation has been about the virus’ origin. Sites have inaccurately tied the disease to 5G wireless technology, Bill Gates, and African migrants to Italy.
Until January, GreatGameIndia.com—an Indian website that bills itself as a “Journal on Geopolitics and International Relations”—was a microscopic blip on the internet, reaching just 30,000 to 50,000 visitors a month. It published numerous conspiracy theories about anything from Indian politics to the 2014 crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine. In contrast, CNN.com has more than 500 million page views a month, and a local newspaper such as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has more than 4 million monthly page views, according to web analytics firm SimilarWeb.
That changed on January 26, when Great Game India published an article about the origins of the novel coronavirus. The article was called “Coronavirus Bioweapon–How China Stole Coronavirus From Canada And Weaponized It.” The article claimed that two Chinese spies smuggled the virus from a lab in Winnipeg to a military lab in Wuhan, where the virus “leaked” out and began infecting people. (Great Game India did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
According to NewsWhip, a social media analytics platform, that first article in what would become a misinformation bandwagon received only 1,600 likes, shares, or comments on social media. But later that day, ZeroHedge reposted the article, word-for-word, adding a hint of speculation in the headline: “Did China Steal Coronavirus From Canada And Weaponize It?” The true answer, of course, is no, but the provocative headline begs readers to click and read—and share—the lengthy conspiracy theory, which reaches the conclusion that Chinese spies did steal the virus from the Canadian lab.
ZeroHedge started as a financial blog in 2009, created by a Bulgarian hedge fund analyst who was barred from the U.S. financial industry in 2008 for insider trading. The site is now best known for its pro-Kremlin commentary and false stories about Hunter Biden that spurred waves of right-wing misinformation during the impeachment hearings last fall. ZeroHedge currently ranks in the top 900 sites in the US, and its article about the Canada-China coronavirus myth garnered more than 24,500 social media engagements, more than 15 times what the original post on Great Game India received.
Also that day, ZeroHedge’s post caught the eye of someone at RedStateWatcher.com, which immediately reposted ZeroHedge’s story. The anonymously operated conservative site regularly reposts false content from other unreliable right-leaning sites.
Red State Watcher is among the 140 most popular sites in the US. Its Facebook page— @DonaldTrump4President—has more than four million followers (though NewsGuard did not find the coronavirus hoax article shared on this Facebook page). Because of cooperation between some of the internet’s most egregious misinformation sites, Great Game India’s post had reached exponentially more readers than any story on that site could do on its own.
The falsehood had gone viral before Canadian authorities became aware of it and were able to disprove it. While two Chinese scientists were in fact escorted from the Winnipeg lab last July, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada later told the CBC that they were asked to leave due to an “administrative manner,” described by Canadian police as a “policy breach” that posed no danger to public safety. The spokesperson made clear that any claim that the Chinese scientists were spies—or that their work had to do with coronavirus—is “misinformation.”
Soon the false story that originated on an obscure website in India began to appear on platforms such as Reddit and on many Facebook and Twitter feeds. Now, weeks after the original post, this story has appeared in the social media feeds of countless Americans. So long as social media platforms continue to fail to warn their users about the nature of sites promoting misinformation, it will remain easy for even a small group of unreliable sites to hijack social media to amplify misinformation.