Clusters of Twitter groups that back Trump and the QAnon conspiracy theory shared allegations that Beijing had created the virus as a bioweapon.
LONDON — Nearly 30 groups of Twitter users who identified themselves as supporters of President Donald Trump, the Republican Party or the conspiracy theory QAnon spread rumors that the coronavirus was a bioweapon created in China, according to new research.
An analysis of more than 2.6 million tweets over a 10-day period from late March found that 28 so-called Twitter clusters associated with conservative politicians or QAnon promoted the story about Covid-19's origins, according to academics from The Australia Institute’s Center for Responsible Technology, a progressive think tank. The clusters are groups of Twitter accounts, many of them automated, that frequently shared posts.
Since early January, rumors have exploded on social media that various governments, including the U.S., created the coronavirus as part of military experiments — reports that have been debunked by the World Health Organization and multiple fact-checking groups. U.S. intelligence and health officials have likewise rejected the idea that the pathogen was manmade or genetically modified.
The bioweapon rumor goes further than the frequent allegations by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the virus may have come from a research lab in Wuhan, China, a charge for which they have yet to offer any evidence. The two have also declined to say whether they thought the virus release would have been deliberate or an accident. "Whether they made a mistake or whether it started off as a mistake, and then they made another one or — did somebody do something on purpose?" Trump said during a White House appearance on April 30.
As of late March, the Australian researchers found that the conspiracy theory labeling Covid-19 a Chinese bioweapon had been shared on Twitter within these U.S. and QAnon groups almost 900 times. Those online messages were then retweeted 18,500 times, collectively garnering as many as 5 million views of the rumor across Twitter.
The academics could not determine who was behind the clusters. But they said the ability of these groups to promote coronavirus-related rumors on social media could have helped the reports gain traction with a wider audience online.
“The million dollar question is what impact will this activity have,” said Timothy Graham, a co-author of the report who is a senior lecturer at Queensland University of Technology, in an interview. “This problematic content sets a foundation where you can have a tipping point when it really takes off, being amplified by the mainstream media and celebrities."
To determine how the conspiracy theory was shared online, the researchers first collected more than 2.6 million tweets in the 10 days through April 9, analyzing the online messages associated with popular coronavirus-related hashtags like "#Covid-19."
They then determined which accounts were potentially associated by looking at which users had shared the same messages about Covid-19's alleged origins, often within seconds of each another. While not all users within these clusters on Twitter were automated, many had the hallmarks of so-called bots, or accounts that were remotely controlled, according to the research.
Finally, the academics reviewed all Twitter accounts, including profile descriptions and photos, connected to these online clusters to determine if they shared similar affiliations.
Almost all the clusters were associated with either Trump and his Make America Great Again movement, the Republican Party or QAnon, a conspiracy theory that portrays the president as doing battle with a federal "deep state," pedophile celebrities and other evildoers. The researchers found similar coordinated efforts from these groups in January aimed at promoting the same rumors that China had created the virus as a bioweapon.
The two clusters promoting this Covid-19 theory that were not associated with U.S. conservative politics were associated with either the Democratic Party or a separatist movement in Pakistan, based on Twitter data analysis.
“Celebrities and politicians can become the super spreaders of disinformation and conspiracy theories,” said Rod Campbell, research director of the Australia Institute and another co-author of the research. “It shows how a conspiracy theory can quickly go from obscurity to the Rose Garden."
Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/02/trump-supporters-on-twitter-spread-covid-19-rumors-about-china-296808