Amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and ensuing lockdowns, people isolated in their homes for months on end are increasingly turning to social media to source news and maintain connections. However, experts warn that the platforms are also increasingly being used to share health-related misinformation.
A new Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool has been tested by a team of scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in an effort to crack down on health-related misinformation online.
Tasked with identifying COVID-19 related conspiracy theories on social media spawned amid the ongoing pandemic, the machine learning tool can also predict how the schemes evolved over time, according to the study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research on 14 April.
Titled “Thought I’d Share First” and Other Conspiracy Theory Tweets from the COVID-19 Infodemic: Exploratory Study, the research seeks to help public health officials combat the onslaught of misinformation and offer protection to vulnerable social media users.
Four Main Unproven COVID-Related Theories
The study gathered and analysed anonymised Twitter data to come up with four predominant coronavirus conspiracy theory themes.
The first one warned that 5G cell towers spread the respiratory virus.
Different types of 4G, 5G and data radio relay antennas for mobile phone networks are pictured on a relay mast operated by Vodafone in Berlin, Germany April 8, 2019
The second one claimed that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation engineered the pandemic, or had “malicious intent” related to it.
The third theory doing the rounds on the internet insisted that COVID-19 had been “bioengineered” in a laboratory.
And last but not least, the fourth conspiracy theory stokes fears in netizens by warning of the inherent dangers of COVID-19 vaccines, which were still in development during the study period.
For the study, AI analysed over 1.8 million tweets that contained COVID-19 keywords.
Subsequently, the posts containing the words were classed by the research team as misinformation or without context for each of these conspiracy theories over the first five months of the pandemic.
He added that this approach allowed the team to observe how people discuss the conspiracy theories related to the health crisis on social media, observing the ensuing changes over time.
Evolution of Conspiracy Theories
As the conspiracy theories evolved, the study found that people tended to incorporate into them details from other unrelated theories, as well as from events occurring in the real world.
Therfore, the conspiracy theory that Bill Gates’ foundation had “malicious intent” related to COVID-19 was linked to a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session that the billionaire participated in last year.
At the time, the Microsoft founder touted research funded by his foundation to develop injectable invisible ink that could be used to record jabs.
A nurse prepares to use AstraZeneca coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine
Summing up the results of the research and its potential benefits for monitoring online conspiracy theories, the authors voiced hope that public health officials could use it to identify the ideas gaining particular traction on social media.
The team hope that successful pre-emptive efforts could be carried out to prevent the spread of falsehoods not specific to public health and valuable for characterising misinformation in general.