Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Coronavirus misinformation spreading fast: Fake news on COVID-19 shared far more than CDC, WHO reports

Content engagement on false and misleading news about the COVID-19 virus illness is over 142 times that of legitimate and expert sources such as the CDC and WHO, according to NewsGuard.

Most shared posts about coronavirus come from fake news sites

The vast majority of coronavirus information shared across social media comes from fake news sites, according to Newsguard, a service that rates the credibility and transparency of web news content. Meanwhile, official sources like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) receive only a tiny fraction of the social engagement concerning COVID-19.

The NewsGuard subscription service recently launched a  Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center that lists websites reporting misleading and outright false information about the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19 respiratory illness.

Since launch, its list of websites with false and misleading content related to COVID-19 has grown from 31 sites to over 106 in the US and Europe. 

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New additions to the list include 54 websites in the NaturalNews.com network -- a group of sites that consists of the deceptive domains FactCheck.news and Pandemic.news -- which publishes medical and non-medical conspiracy theories since 2003 -- as well as French and German sites from Sputnik News, the Russian state-owned news agency.

Here is what should be of primary concern: Content engagement, in the form of social media likes, shares, and comments, from the 75 US-based sites on that list is many times higher than overall engagement on the official advisories and content released by the CDC and the WHO. 

The scientific and medical community views these two health organizations as the definitive sources of information and about the virus outbreak itself.

Over the last 90 days, posts from the websites of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization received 364,483 "engagements," or likes, shares, and comments on social media. In that same period, the 76 US sites that NewsGuard found to have published coronavirus misinformation received a combined 52,053,542 engagements -- more than 142 times the engagement of the two major public health institutions providing information about the outbreak.

At first glance, these numbers for the CDC and WHO content engagements seem extremely and alarmingly low -- but that is because readers tend to get their news about COVID-19 from major news outlets using those two health organizations as a source, not the originating organizations themselves. To compute these numbers, NewsGuard used a social media analytics platform, NewsWhip. Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest likes, shares, and comments on the content from CDC and WHO sites were tracked by this platform and compared against the others sharing false information. 

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A site flagged as "red" by NewsGuard that is engaging in misleading and false information about COVID-19.

(Image: Jason Perlow)

"We see a remarkable degree of consistency. Sites that are already notorious for publishing misinformation about a wide range of topics are now also jumping on the coronavirus bandwagon," said Gabby Deutch, NewsGuard's Washington correspondent and a co-leader of the Tracking Center. "Misinformation and disinformation related to health care pose the greatest immediate threat to those who read if it is not flagged for what it is -- which is what we do."

All but one of the sites in the Tracking Center are rated "red" by NewsGuard, meaning they fail to meet basic standards of credibility and transparency. Among all generally unreliable websites in the US, 31.3% have published inaccurate health information. Even before the Coronavirus outbreak, these websites peddled hoaxes such as that vaccines cause autism, 5G causes cancer, and fruit pits cure cancer.

NewsGuard is a desktop Chrome extension that displays credibility and transparency content scoring and is available by subscription. It launched in February 2020 and costs $2.95 per month for a desktop user and is free to use if you are a Microsoft Edge user on iOS or Android. Readers who have come across a potentially false story about the COVID-19 virus illness and the novel coronavirus can use this page to submit a site for review by NewsGuard's staff, or by clicking on "Submit this site for review by NewsGuard" within the browser extension.