A new report by The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology has identified coordinated networks of Pro-Trump and QAnon social media clusters at the centre of coordinated efforts to disseminate disinformation about COVID-19, particularly the conspiracy theory that China engineered the virus as a bioweapon.
The theory that COVID-19 was engineered by China has been embraced by the US President and elements of his administration.
The research, conducted by researchers from Queensland University of Technology (QUT), shows that the spread of the theory on Twitter resembled a coordinated astroturfing campaign, with networks of accounts retweeting identical content repeatedly and within very short timeframes.
The vast majority of coordinated accounts spreading the bioweapon theory identify themselves as Pro-Trump, QAnon and/or Republican partisan.
Politically-focused coordinated retweeting of coronavirus topics almost exclusively promotes the interests of far-right wing parties and governments, including Turkey’s President Erdogan and Saudi Arabia’s regime.
Only one out of thirty clusters of accounts coordinating on the bioweapon conspiracy theory was based on pro-Democrat and broadly left-wing accounts, while another promoted Baloch independence from Pakistan.
The QUT researchers analysed more than 25.5 million retweets of 2.6 million tweets over a 10 day period in March, focusing on accounts that retweet each other within one second or one minute, to track the systematic spread of disinformation about COVID-19.
“This deep data dive provides a real-time snapshot of how a conspiracy theory is politicised and spread from the margins to the mainstream,” said Peter Lewis, Director of the Centre for Responsible Technology.
“The QUT researchers are building incredibly valuable models that expose the vulnerability of social media networks to this type of coordinated disinformation.
“While this research won’t stop conspiracy theories being dreamed up and exploited for political gain, it does expose the coordinated hubs where disinformation gains momentum and potency.
“By identifying coordinated clusters of accounts, this research can help social media companies improve the standard of information on their platforms.
“Social media companies need to take greater responsibility for disinformation on their sites, particularly where coordinated and automated retweeting is promoting dangerous disinformation.
“While Twitter is starting to call out some of President Trump’s more egregious tweets, social media companies have a long way to go to stem the flow of divisive and dangerous disinformation on their platforms.”
The full report, Like a virus: The coordinated spread of coronavirus disinformation, from The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology can be downloaded here.