The COVID-19 Infodemic

Self-proclaimed white supremacists have taken advantage of major social media platforms, such as Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, to perpetuate false and biased information about COVID-19.

With this global pandemic reaching all four corners of the Earth, everyone has developed some kind of opinion on the virus, including hate groups and racist social media influencers. In fact, these self-proclaimed white supremacists have taken advantage of major social media platforms, such as Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, to perpetuate false and biased information about COVID-19. They’ve managed to insert their propagandistic paranoia into the mainstream by spreading innumerable COVID-19 - related conspiracy theories, promoting the anti-immigrant rhetoric with scientifically racist ideologies and encouraging pre-existing fake cures - along with creating new ones. 

The antigovernment movement is highly recognized for its intense opposition to the “New World Order,” which some extremist groups believe to be the force behind COVID-19. They are under the impression that the virus was orchestrated by a secret team of totalitarian elites planning to form a one-world government. Freedom Watch, a far-right political group run by extremist Larry Klayman, has littered its Facebook page with absurd posts about COVID-19’s supposed facilitation of government dictatorship. A Facebook post from Scott Lively (known for his anti-LGBTQ extremism) backed up this conspiracy by stating that, “Their goal was to target small businesses because it is a cornerstone of American self-sufficiency and serves as a barrier to the complete Marxist takeover of our society.” 

“We’re going down the road that leads to tyranny, and that’s what this whole crisis is about.” - James “Johnny Infidel” Stachowiak (white nationalist), Facebook video

Other fake news outlets such as Infowars and WorldNetDaily (WND) have aggressively framed the coronavirus as a “globalist” conspiracy, an anti-immigrant euphemism they’ve often used to describe the pandemic. WND also used their Facebook platform to spread rumours of an alleged cure tested out by Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, a medical family doctor. Their article claimed that his three-drug cocktail of hydroxychloroquine (an anti-malarial treatment), the antibiotic azithromycin, and zinc had an “100% success rate” with 350 different COVID-19 patients. This “cure” was later proved false, seeing how Zelenko fabricated FDA approval. Some additional WND headlines are listed below.

WND Conspiracy Articles:

  1. “Coronavirus is being weaponized by Soros, others behind anti-Trump ads”
  2. “Clyburn: Democrats must use Chinese virus to restructure America to ‘fit our vision’” 
  3. “‘Cover-up’: Chinese researched bat virus near Wuhan market”
  4. “Newt gingrich’s question for Biden exposes Obama’s undeniable role in N95 mask shortage.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Vladimir Zelenko is not the only person advocating for these misleading methods of treatment. It seems that political figures have taken their medical opinions to social media as well. The following are tweets from, respectively, Fox host Laura Ingraham, presidential attorney Rudy Giuliani, and president Donald Trump promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID-19 (which resulted in a man’s death in Arizona). All except Trump's have since been removed due to their invalidity.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">NEW: Twitter has taken down <a href="">@IngrahamAngle</a>&#39;s tweet touting Hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the coronavirus. <a href=""></a><a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Zachary Petrizzo (@ZTPetrizzo) <a href="">March 30, 2020</a></blockquote><script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

Media reporter Zachary Petrizzo shares screenshots of Ingraham’s removed tweet

Screenshot of Giuliani’s removed tweet quoting conservative activist Charlie Kirk, published by Mediate & Business Insider  

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE &amp; AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine. The FDA has moved mountains - Thank You! Hopefully they will BOTH (H works better with A, International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents).....</p>&mdash; Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) <a href="">March 21, 2020</a></blockquote><script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

Donald Trump's original quote which has not yet been removed.

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has also publicly recommended on Twitter an alleged cure for COVID-19: a “natural brew” concocted by so-called “doctor” Sirio Quintero (who reportedly has no formal medical training, as stated by Venezuelan newspaper Tal Cual) consisting of honey, black pepper, elderberry, lemons, and ginger. The Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research deemed this concoction ineffective and published it as an erroneous claim. 

“The coronavirus is a biological weapon in the form of an intracellular parasite that comes from a strain of HIV-AIDS larvae, crossed with Helminth larvae from Fasciola Hepatica. It was created using segments of human DNA from embryonic growth and cultured in a laboratory with amniotic fluid from pregnant women.” - Sirio Quintero, so-called “doctor”

In the quote above, Quintero appears to believe that the virus was a “bioweapon” intentionally engineered for transmission and lethal purposes. White nationalist Youtuber, Stefan Molyneux, also shares that conspiratorial view  of the virus’ origin, and has used his channel to propagate the conspiracy. “COVID-19 is kind of like the perfect virus from a weaponization standpoint, and if it was related to eating bats, it’s not like people in China started eating bats last October,” he said in a podcast on January 25. Roughly two months later, on March 27, Molyneux continued discussing that possibility with Dr. Paul Cottrell (Ph.D. in finance from Walden University) on a Youtube livestream, where Cottrell agreed with him that COVID-19 “most likely” escaped from a lab near Wuhan. 

“Now think of a country the size of China… and think of its multi-thousand-year habit of eating some very strange creatures - basically a zoo is a menu in China, it seems. What are the odds that coronavirus just happened to emerge within a stone’s throw - in a giant country - of its only level four bioweapons lab?” - Stefan Molyneux, Video clip on Twitter

Molyneux is notorious for his racism against immigrants, even insensitively tweeting, “Open borders guy reaps fruit of open borders” after the head of Italy’s Democratic Party fell ill with the virus. In 2018, he tried to justify his anti-immigrant rhetoric with scientific racism (IQ measurements in terms of geography) to push back “Third World immigration.” And now in 2020, he is still incorporating similar racist and fictitious mantras into his videos. In a podcast, Molyneux went as far as accusing the Chinese people of murder, demanding that China be held accountable for this “homocide” (refering to the spread of the virus). He also released a video accusing the media of “covering-up their crimes” and not paying attention to “their mass infiltration of academia, of media, of Hollywood, and of real estate by Chinese citizens, often with illicit money from the criminal actions of the Chinese government.” Not only is Molyneux trivializing the importance of Chinese cultural influence, but he is also wrongfully dehumanizing a whole nation of people. So now the real question is: what are social media companies actively doing to prevent these acts of hate, and are they really working? 

Some of the world’s largest tech companies have been working with representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Change the Terms (a civil rights coalition) to combat this massive infodemic. Both organizations are pushing for social media companies to restrict hateful activity by establishing more effective standards of regulation, but moderating this infodemic has proved more difficult than it seems. According to a “Year in Hate” report found in 2019 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Social media and the internet more generally have helped extremists extend the reach of racist ideologies and conspiracy theories. White supremacists, in fact, are increasingly congregating online… networking, raising funds, recruiting and spreading propaganda that radicalizes young people and stokes violence against nonwhite immigrants and other minority groups... companies still struggle to prioritize public safety over the freedom of their users to post extremist content.” 

These companies have even admitted to their own inability to follow their own implemented guidelines, due to outdated social media policies that are susceptible to virtual loopholes. For instance, American Renaissance - a white nationalist hate group - has been essentially banned from Facebook and Twitter for years, but their xenophobic hate speech still prevails on Youtube. Along with American Renaissance, VDARE (a white-nationalist site) also found a way to evade Twitter bans, but not through Youtube escapes. Instead, VDARE said they created a “special archive” on Twitter to continue advertising their racist agenda. On March 22, VDARE tweeted, “575,000+ Chinese call NYC home,” along with linking to their post an article entitled, “Is NYC Coronavirus Ground Zero Because Massive ‘Be Strong Wuhan’ Feb 9th Chinese New Year’s Parade Helped Spread the Chinese Virus?” 

“They [hate groups] fit the patterns of platforms’ inability to deal with these specific kinds of attack and disinformation content. The historical reticence of these companies to promote evidence-based or expert information above other kinds of information has come back to bite them now, as we’ve seen. These platforms themselves acknowledged that their policies aren’t up to scratch in a crisis like this.” 

- Chloe Colliver, Director of the Digital Policy & Strategy Department at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD)

This wide-scale infodemic has also been encouraging physical hate crimes against the Asian community, and hashtags like #WashTheHate, #RacismIsAVirus, and #IAmNotCovid19 have risen in response. The two-faced nature of social media has never been more prominent: it can empower marginalized groups  to build solidarity and protest atrocities, but it can also be home to the circulation of manipulative, hateful theories, exemplified by this current infodemic. The internet will continue to be a dangerous place if we fail to navigate and regulate it with care. 

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