Do Not Cover This Easy Story: Corona Virus Conspiracy Theories are Almost All Robots

Corona virus news is everywhere. Yet, it is less of a problem than influenza. In many ways the reaction to the virus is more problematic than the virus itself, linking the hypertrophied sense of skepticism of the hoax with ostensibly scientific rationality. Racist ideas appear rational during the time of the outbreak. Ed Yong has framed this in compelling terms in The Atlantic. The end game is that protectionist measures that would ban travel or racialize the response to a medical situation destroy the bonds that make effective responses possible:

Bans can also break the fragile bonds of international trust that are necessary for controlling diseases, which is why the WHO advised against them when it declared a PHEIC. If countries know that they’ll be cut off during an epidemic, with all the economic repercussions that entails, they may be less likely to report future outbreaks, leading to costly delays.

So if one were to amplify nationalist and protectionist responses against a disease they could effectively magnify the impact of that disease. Who would want that?

The answer is relatively clear: if you instigate social actions that cause the response to a disease to fail, you will have proven that the structures of governance that were not worth supporting in the first place. An important element of the response of the Chinese government is reestablishing credibility on this front. It would be entirely possible to attack a country by tricking the public into supporting measures that would amplify a disease, proving that the state was not effective in the first place. Even more than in the case of vaccination conspiracy theories, which are designed to amplify both sides to liquidate common ground, the results of a well-placed conspiracy during a time of outbreak could even more intense.

On the less coordinated side, hucksters are waiting to sell you gadgets, subscriptions, and more conspiracy theories. At best, your local conspiracy hustler is a small timer, at worst a foreign intelligence agency trying to trick you into making yourself sick.

In this flash study, our team working in Cultural Analytics and Social Media in the New Media program at Oregon State, undertook an analysis of the full corpus of information related to a specific conspiracy theory as of Friday, January 31: the theory that a western actor had patented the Corona virus. The reasons for this patent would include: use as a bioweapon, creating general terror, and eugenic population control. The primary agent of the conspiracy according to the theory: Bill Gates.

Journalists would love to cover this story, especially if an overlap between the Corona virus and regular vaccine conspiracy theories could be found. This would amplify the signal of the conspiracy and make the discourse stronger. Even if you can find one seemingly legitimate person who believes this, please read our results before you write your article.

Astroturfing the Theory

Our first step, after data collection, was to extract a social network of all @ mentions in the network, for this we used our own custom function based in our research. Our underlying collection tool was Kearney’s rTweet. The network is shaped like this:

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Pay attention to that big cluster.

For those of you who don’t regularly look at plots like these, the circles are accounts sending tweets, the lines indicate that the tweets were addressed to a particular user. This graph demonstrates pendanting, meaning that lots of users are attached in clumps to those cores.

Using a Prestige calculation from Butt’s SNA package for R, we found the nodes that would have the highest impact on the information flow in this system. We isolated all nodes with elevated prestige, which would suggest importance and used Kearney’s tweetbotornot to get a reading of the likelihood that the core nodes were bots, of those seven, four were over 80% likely bots, two were likely not bots, and when we read their activity manually, it was clear their work was to spread the conspiracy theory. Our reading of those Twitter users also suggests that they are involved in other strategic communication operations. Those are beyond the point of this posting. We can reasonably conclude that the core of this network is an artificial effort to spread a conspiracy theory.

Cross checking this result against high degree, low centrality users, these too are bots, except for Donald Trump himself, who is likely being used as a carrier by these actors. This is not to say that Trump has a part in this theory, but that people are addressing it around him to facilitate uptake.

By randomly sampling roughly five percent of the network and securing botornot scores, we can see that most users in the network are likely bots, retweeting a single message during the night.

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Most activity is over 50% likely to be bots and is retweet activity.

Of the nine nodes less than ten percent likely to be bots, all were sending Corona virus conspiracies. Among the non-retweets, most are conspiracies, or a partial retweets that were not caught by the API. It seems reasonable to conclude that the audience for this conspiracy theory is also comprised of bots.

Conclusion

It should be obvious that credible reporting that cuts through the various motives of different public and private actors is critical during a crisis. Furthermore, there are clear reasons why different bad actors would deploy these hoaxes. In this case, the target is the global NGO the Gates Foundation and likely regional public health actors. The big target: the legitimacy of the state itself.

What should you do: don’t report on this story except to note that it is an astroturf conspiracy theory. From what we can tell, there is no natural constituency for this conspiracy theory. If you report on this as a real theory you have done their job for them. If you find one actual person who believes it, congrats: you have found the man who bit a dog. An ethical journalist likely ignores this unless it is a very slow news day, and even then, not about an important issue. You might feel a sense of superiority, it might feel good to write the story that “the antivaxxers are at it again,” but the story itself damages society, and your ego trip isn’t worth it. Don’t write it, go to a city council meeting, read a 10-k from a major corporation, do something journalistic.

Our team, clockwise around the table:

Ranan, Le, Downey, Hutton, Samano, Rosenbaum, Daarstad, Platt

Associate Professor of Social Media. Oregon State University. Read my book: Selling Social Media (Bloomsbury Academic), 2018.

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