A Toxic ‘Infodemic’: The Viral Spread Of COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories

Despite promises from tech executives, potentially dangerous misinformation is flourishing on major online platforms.
Maksim Tkachenko via Getty Images

Dr. Rashid Buttar has spent the past two weeks spewing coronavirus conspiracy theories to anyone who will listen. In a series of viral videos, he sits alone in a dimly lit room and surmises that a U.S.-funded doctor from Wuhan, China, engineered the virus as a state-sanctioned bioweapon — alongside a litany of other glaring falsehoods.

After warning that corrupt government leaders will seize on the crisis to enact authoritarian rule, Buttar — a widely discredited osteopath — directs viewers to his website, where he sells information packages that cost up to $450. Only there, he claims, can he share the “real truth” in its entirety.

As the COVID-19 emergency rages on, tech giants including Facebook and YouTube have pledged to crack down on harmful virus-related misinformation that threatens to undermine the urgent work health officials are doing to keep people reliably informed.

Yet Buttar, who has long been accused of exploiting and endangering his patients, has reached an enormous audience on those platforms — contributing to what experts are calling an “infodemic” running parallel to the worst public health crisis in a century.

Viral Health Misinformation

In times of crisis, people’s appetite for information can be insatiable. Those desperate for answers are especially vulnerable to manipulation by hucksters and conspiracy theorists, who fearmonger for profit on unregulated platforms that serve as digital megaphones.

Buttar, a practitioner of “alternative” medicine, had relatively limited online influence — until he started video blogging about coronavirus conspiracy theories a couple weeks ago. His videos blew up before his eyes.

“The first four parts [of the video series] ... have gotten 1.4 million views, or something ridiculous like that, in less than a week,” Buttar marveled in a recent livestream, after admitting his shock that his various social media accounts hadn’t already been terminated for content violations. “My YouTube channel was only 1,400 [subscribers]. I think it just crossed 10,000.”

His YouTube following has since ballooned to more than 43,000 subscribers, and his COVID-19 videos — in which he contends the outbreak is a “false flag” orchestrated to strip people of their rights, and discourages viewers from getting a vaccine when it becomes available — have been watched hundreds of thousands of times. Another YouTube account that shared one of his clips rapidly pulled in close to a million views.

QAnon, the conspiracy theory movement that believes a cabal of “deep state” pedophiles is trying to sabotage Donald Trump’s presidency, has also taken a keen interest in Buttar’s claims. A popular QAnon Instagram page reposted one of his videos with the caption “Coronavirus Was Man-Made.” It has 150,000 views.

But Buttar’s series has had its greatest traction on Facebook, where thousands of people have shared the videos with messages such as, “SUPER URGENT & IMPORTANT WATCH FOR EVERYONE!!!” Many viewers seem to be angry, terrified or both: “It’s crystal clear this [virus] is the biggest hoax in history,” wrote one commenter. “Tell us what we can do to protect our homes ... What about our bodies...?” pleaded another.

In rapidly changing crises and times of information overload, fear and desperation abound. This can shake people’s confidence in authoritative sources, which is acutely dangerous when the public’s access to trustworthy information is potentially a matter of life or death.

“Our knowledge about this virus is changing almost on a daily basis,” said Claire Wardle, co-founder of fact-checking nonprofit First Draft. “Everything is shifting, and that leads to people losing trust in reliable sources.”

Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories

Grifters capitalize on mass panic by validating people’s fear and affirming or planting suspicion of mainstream narratives. Buttar, who did not respond to an emailed list of questions from HuffPost, does this well. To his new followers, he likely seems like a credible source: He speaks with confidence and is a doctor, after all.

What his audience may not know is that he has been formally reprimanded by the North Carolina Medical Board for unethical conduct, including giving cancer patients treatments that were “wholly unproven and wholly ineffective,” and ordering tests that “were never adequately justified” but were used to “drive up costs.” The Food and Drug Administration once sent him a warning letter for deceptively advertising his supplements as drugs. A former patient also sued him for fraud, alleging that Buttar recommended a costly and ultimately ineffective cancer therapy.

But having a massive following on major social media networks can come with its own implicit air of legitimacy, and Buttar has wielded that influence to spread his conspiracy theories as widely as possible.

Like others exploiting the pandemic, he has promoted unproven (and disproven) COVID-19 remedies, discredited public health officials and sowed doubt about the safety of a future coronavirus vaccine — the key thing experts say will save countless lives. He has also propagated already debunked falsehoods about the effect of 5G technology on the immune system, and disparaged Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, who has been so inundated with threats that he now requires an enhanced security detail.

“I worry that unsubstantiated online rumors could soon spark offline violence,” Wardle said. “I think things are about to get pretty dark in this country.”

We’ve already seen signs of this abroad. Widespread concern about 5G started in New Zealand several months ago, when a woman who saw a Facebook post suggesting the technology was dangerous proceeded to launch a petition calling for it to be banned in her community. Baseless rumors about the supposed health risks associated with 5G and its link to the coronavirus have swirled again in recent weeks amid the crisis, with prominent figures including American actor Woody Harrelson and “Britain’s Got Talent” judge Amanda Holden amplifying the nonsense. (Verizon, the parent company of Verizon Media Group, which owns HuffPost, is a major developer of 5G technology.)

Over the weekend, residents in the U.K. torched several 5G cell towers. British officials are investigating the incidents as arson, and are summoning major tech platforms to answer for their apparent role in spreading the misinformation that incited the blazes.

“We have received several reports of criminal damage to phone masts and abuse of telecoms engineers apparently inspired by crackpot conspiracy theories circulating online,” Britain’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport told the BBC. “We must also see social media companies acting responsibly and taking much swifter action to stop nonsense spreading on their platforms which encourages such acts.”

An Endless Game Of Whack-A-Mole

In this unprecedented moment, Silicon Valley executives appear to grasp the critical importance of promoting authoritative sources on their websites while suppressing hoaxes and fake news, and have committed to drawing a hard line when it comes to moderating virus-related content.

“When you’re dealing with a pandemic, a lot of the stuff we’re seeing just crossed the threshold,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told The New York Times. Instagram chief Adam Mosseri relayed that message to CNN: “Given the reach our platform has, and given how intense this crisis is, and how serious it is ... we wanted to take the opportunity to point more people toward good information,” he said. “These are extreme circumstances.” Likewise, at YouTube, company leaders “understand the importance of helping people find authoritative sources of news and information” as the outbreak continues, CEO Susan Wojcicki wrote in a blog post.

Yet delivering on those promises and stifling the spread of misinformation has proven to be an insurmountable challenge, as actors as brazen as Buttar spread blatant conspiracy theories largely unabated. It was not until HuffPost flagged a handful of his already viral videos to Facebook and YouTube that the companies removed them.

“We have clear policies against COVID-19 misinformation and we quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us. We have manually reviewed and removed thousands of videos related to misleading and dangerous coronavirus content,” a YouTube spokesperson said. “We’re also committed to providing helpful information at this critical time, including raising authoritative content, reducing the spread of harmful misinformation and showing information panels, using [World Health Organization] data, to help combat misinformation.”

Like other businesses impacted by the crisis, social media companies’ daily operations have also been upended by social distancing protocols. With content reviewers working from home, platforms are relying far more heavily on artificial intelligence technologies to flag and remove problematic content, which has already resulted in a wave of erroneous enforcement actions.

Another part of the problem seems to be a lack of high-level coordination, said Wardle, as certain virus-related posts have been banned on some platforms but permitted on others.

“It’s a whack-a-mole approach,” she said, “and it’s nowhere near enough.”

Facebook and YouTube were not even consistent in their removals of Buttar’s content; Facebook declined to take down a video that YouTube deleted, in which Buttar warns of a virus-related “agenda” involving “massive, massive collusion and corruption.”

As for Buttar, having a few of his videos taken offline has hardly deterred him ― his channels are still up and running without penalty.

In a newly uploaded YouTube video, after complaining about having his content censored, he proceeds to promote a disproven virus remedy, warn against vaccines and label COVID-19 a “man-made virus.” On Facebook hours later, Buttar railed against 5G and plugged his website.

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