Shining a light on super-spreaders of coronavirus misinformation

By | April 24, 2020

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Gary Schwitzer is the founder of HealthNewsReview.org and has been its publisher for 14 years. He tweets as @garyschwitzer or as @HealthNewsRevu.

NewsGuard calls itself “The Internet Trust Tool.”  And there may have never been a better time to help consumers learn whom to trust than the COVID-19 pandemic era. (You can read more about NewsGuard’s operating model on their site, or in an article one of their staffers published on STAT.)

NewsGuard is a browser extension that applies color-coded labels to web browser search results and social media posts to help readers know which  sites are reliable. You can also look up your online news source and see if it got a green (generally reliable) or red (generally unreliable) score for past performance.

Steven Brill, co-CEO of NewsGuard, says his team hadn’t set out to focus on health care misinformation.  But as they began analyzing which websites were getting red/unreliable scores, alarms went off.  “An enormous number of red websites were health care related,” Brill told me in a phone call. “We expected most of what we’d see would be political, but we were stunned to see so much on health care.”

Follow the money

That’s what journalists are taught.  Brill says some of the unreliable health care websites were politically or ideologically driven, for example on vaccine safety claims.  But he told me that more of these websites were simply about the money:

If they have a crazy headline about a cancer cure, that gets traffic and gets shared a lot. Well, then you see that the owner sells products like apricot pits for cancer.

So about three weeks ago, NewsGuard launched its Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center.  About three dozen journalists on staff work on the project. The tracker lists:

…all the news and information sites in the U.S., the U.K., France, Italy, and Germany that we have identified — 187 so far — as publishing materially false information about the virus. You’ll find websites that are notorious for publishing false health content, and political sites whose embrace of conspiracy theories extends well beyond politics. Among the hoaxes these sites publish are that swallowing bleach or colloidal silver will prevent the coronavirus — when in fact these “treatments” can be harmful. Troublingly, you’ll also see some sites that generally stick to the facts but in this case have published unvetted, poorly sourced stories that turned out to be false.

Overall, NewsGuard has graded 4,400 websites.  Brill says that 80% of the 187 sites identified in the coronavirus tracker had already been given a red/unreliable score for publishing misinformation in the past.  You may recognize some names on the list:

  • Mercola.com
  • RushLimbaugh.com
  • TheDonald.win
  • TheTruthAboutCancer.com
  • NaturalNews.com Network.

Stepping in where Facebook hasn’t

But this week, NewsGuard introduced an all-star team of 15 Facebook pages that are “super-spreaders” of COVID-19 misinformation, with large Facebook audiences of more than 100,000 page “likes.” Brill says there are more to be posted soon. (And, yes, Rush Limbaugh is on this list, too.)

One journalist Tweeted:

Brill says:

“We kept seeing announcements from Facebook that they were taking stuff down as fast they saw it and we knew that wasn’t happening.  If they’re doing fact-checking, by definition, that’s after the fact – after something’s already been published.  So some misinformation was seen by tens or hundreds of thousands of people before a Facebook warning went up.”

A NewsGuard staffer tweeted that after the “super-spreaders” went up on their site, troublesome pages started coming down from Facebook.

Brill says he is now negotiating with internet service providers who have a history of giving customers some type of content controls (e.g., parental controls over pornography), and Microsoft has licensed the NewsGuard tool. But not Facebook. Brill says Microsoft is 10 years ahead in terms of being grown up:

Facebook always thinks that no one but them can solve a problem.  It’s almost a religious devotion to the belief that any problem can be solved by technology.

Late-blooming interest in health care

It’s interesting that Brill wasn’t really following health care closely until 2011 or so when debates about Obamacare were unavoidable.  He says he “parachuted in” on health care as he has on a lot of things.  In 2013 he was on the cover of Time magazine for his article, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us.”  The fire was lit.  So he followed with a best-selling book in 2015, “America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System.”

Today he’s devoted to the health care – and specifically COVID-19 – misinformation mess.

This is really dangerous stuff. You can’t think of health care as a free, competitive market. It’s extremely complex and extremely personal and emotional. If you’re online searching for health care information, it’s complex, scary and personal. You’re totally susceptible to all varieties of fake news. There is no place where misinformation is more dangerous and more powerful  – especially with a strange virus that even our best experts don’t fully understand.

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