The latest figures show there are now 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that the virus is likely to spread and suggests Americans prepare for that scenario. This has a lot of Americans worried that they might get infected, and this concern has been compounded by the fact there hasn't been a lot of information released regarding how lethal the virus is, how easily it infects people and more.
Health experts have warned that misinformation about the coronavirus has been spreading and that this misinformation presents a very real danger. Based on a social media analysis, Inverse has discovered that a lot of the misinformation that's being spread online is coming from bots.
Christopher Bouzy, the founder of Bot Sentinel, did a Twitter analysis for Inverse and found these bots and trollbots are making an array of false claims. These bots are claiming China intentionally created the virus, that it's a biological weapon, that Democrats are overstating the threat to hurt Donald Trump and more. While we can't confirm the origin of these bots, they are decidedly pro-Trump.
Here are some of the many examples we found of this bot and trollbot activity:
"The two main themes are the coronavirus is a deep state/Democrat hoax, and it is nothing to be concerned about," Bouzy tells Inverse. "The other is stoking fears about immigration and how Trump’s wall will protect us. We are also seeing how the coronavirus is a Chinese biological weapon."
Bouzy says it's common for bots to "prey on people’s worst fears to easily spread disinformation," so it's not surprising this is happening while people are freaked out about the coronavirus. He says it's also common for them to use xenophobia to turn people against each other at times like this.
"Disinformation and misinformation spread quickly, especially if it is related to a major news event because people are actively searching for information, and too often they are unknowingly sharing false information," Bouzy says. "We can use technology to help slow it down, but it really boils down to educating people on how to spot it. I believe this should be taught as soon as possible in schools, because critical thinking is extremely important to fight disinformation and misinformation."
It shouldn't be surprising that bots have latched onto the idea that the Chinese government created the coronavirus and that Democrats are overhyping the threat to hurt Trump considering Rush Limbaugh recently made this claim on his radio show.
The stock market has been tumbling for days due to coronavirus-related news, and it's been reported that the Trump administration is trying to downplay the threat due to a fear that this virus outbreak harming the economy could also harm Trump's chance of getting reelected in November.
See also: A coronavirus vaccine is 18 months away
Brooke Binkowski, managing editor at the fact-checking site Truth or Fiction and a disinformation expert, tells Inverse that disinformation like this could cause mass panics.
"What I’m concerned about most of all at the moment is that this will be leveraged almost certainly to blame immigrants, particularly immigrants of color," Binkowski says. "It’s the oldest fucking trick in the book. Every time there’s some sort of pandemic the outsiders, whoever they might be, are blamed."
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has already used coronavirus panic to make an argument against immigration and diversity. Binkowski says everyone needs to be careful about what information they share so they don't contribute to the misinformation problem.
"It is more important than ever, since social media is not doing its own due diligence and is, in fact, contributing to the problem, to be as careful as possible about spreading bad information," Binkowski says. "And bad actors are going to think it’s very funny and useful to contribute to the general air of panic that is almost inevitable. But we don’t have to let it happen. We have to be careful, we have to rely on vetted sources, we have to not let emotion rule the day. Be aware, don’t panic, but be prepared."
Bots posting disinformation isn't new, but we're dealing with a public health crisis, so that makes this kind of disinformation especially dangerous. If social media companies are going to allow it to spread, then we have to fight it ourselves and make sure we're not contributing to the problem.