An analysis of Twitter data suggests that conservatives are the top spreaders of fake news about the COVID-19 crisis. The findings were published in the Journal of Computational Social Science.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a deep political divide when it comes to the handling of the crisis. A wide variety of ideas and opinions circulate on social media, including a multitude of pandemic-related conspiracy theories. As study author Nicholas Francis Harvey of UCLA says, belief in these conspiracy theories is linked to reduced adherence to COVID-19 safety measures, and it is important to consider who is most susceptible to spreading such misinformation.
“My research focuses on how social media influences political polarization and vice-versa, particularly for students,” Harvey told PsyPost.
“I pursued this study as a result of my ongoing qualitative, on-the-ground (though now via Zoom) work with politically engaged college students, which has consistently revealed a rejection of science and public health recommendations as being a method of governmental control.
“I was primarily concerned, as the pandemic was in its infancy, that this sort of stance might negatively impact both students and the greater public by facilitating the rejection of public health recommendations like wearing masks and social distancing,” Harvey said.
Twitter is a hotspot for false information, Harvey wrote in his study, calling the platform an “echo chamber” where users typically encounter one-sided views and little back and forth between opposing ideologies. By analyzing Twitter data, the researcher hoped to gain insight into how ideology relates to the sharing of false information about COVID-19.
Harvey focused on six different misinformation topics: hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, bleach as a defense against COVID-19, Bill Gates having purposefully introduced the virus, 5G causing the virus, the Chinese Communist Party having created the virus, and the Deep State having created the virus.
By searching for specific keywords, Harvey accessed the latest tweets related to these subjects stemming from April 23 to April 30, 2020 — the final data set consisted of 4101 tweets. The researcher then estimated each of the Twitter users’ political standing, based on their association with politically elite Twitter accounts (e.g., Barack Obama, Glenn Beck).
The analysis showed that in every topic except for bleach as a defense against the virus, conservatives were dominating the discussion on Twitter. A closer look at individual tweets shed light on the nature of these discussions. As Harvey reported, conservatives “openly criticized both their liberal counterparts and the ‘mainstream media’ for criticizing the president’s response to the pandemic and not seeing the true cause of the virus: Bill Gates, the Deep State, China, or 5G, depending on whose tweet you read.”
Using something called sentiment analysis, Harvey was able to analyze whether the tweets conveyed positive, neutral, or negative emotion. “Sentiment analysis is centered on two things: opinion extraction and sentiment classification,” he explained.
While conservatives were more predominant in the discussion of hydroxychloroquine than liberals, the evidence did not suggest they were more likely to support the use of the drug in the treatment of COVID-19 — the main sentiments behind hydroxychloroquine tweets were neutral and informative. But the fact that conservatives were more involved in the conversation suggests that they were ready to spread such misinformation.
“The key takeaways from this study is that the COVID-19 conspiracy theories I identified are being discussed, supported, and amplified by conservatives to a much greater degree than by liberals, whose conversation mostly revolves around sarcasm, critique, and attempts to debunk the conspiracy theories presented,” Harvey told PsyPost.
“This is a direct threat for public health, as states with conservative leadership continue to face less stringent regulations and restrictions against the public health threat COVID-19 presents and individual conservatives tend to comply with public health recommendations, when available, to a lesser extent than their liberal peers.”
According to the researcher, social media tends to strengthen belief in conspiracy theories while squandering belief in public health information. To counter this, Harvey suggests that platforms like Twitter take action. Twitter could act by either suspending accounts deemed to spread such false information or by removing certain topics from discussion. On a broader level, Harvey suggests that the public would benefit from education on how to differentiate between trusted information and “#FakeNews.”
But Harvey noted that sentiment analysis includes some limitations. “While the method facilitates analysis of more massive sets of data (such as tweets), it does not perfectly align with qualitative approaches that may be better suited to detect sarcasm or more accurately parse the sentiment of a tweet,” he explained.
“While I performed qualitative / manual validity checks, the data presented may actually be even more skewed than it already seems, as a large amount of the ‘neutral’ data was purely informative (and could thus be argued to be critical of the conspiracy theories) and much of the liberal discussion was sarcastic or satirical.
“Future research should also consider the information flows and spread of topics like these, as my analyses did not pursue how information like conspiracy theories spread and whether that spread was as participation as the initial discussion appears,” Harvey added.
“While conservatives may be more vocal with respect to rejecting public health recommendations, this does not mean that they are the sole perpetrators of disobeying public health guidelines to the detriment of the general community. Everyone needs to be vigilant and work together to reduce infections and deaths.”
The study, “Partisan public health: how does political ideology influence support for COVID‑19 related misinformation?”, was authored by Nicholas Francis Harvey.