Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories: Tracing Misinformation Trajectories from the Fringes to the Mainstream

This book chapter examines COVID-19 misinformation:

The outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by what the World Health Organization has described as an ‘infodemic’: the rapid and uncontrolled dissemination of misinformation and disinformation relating to the virus across online and offline social networks and media outlets. Focusing particularly on the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus outbreak was somehow linked to the rollout of 5G telephony technology, which circulated since late January 2020 and culminated in arson attacks on mobile phone towers in the United Kingdom and other countries in early April, this chapter traces the trajectory of this conspiracy theory across social, fringe, and mainstream media. Drawing on data from Facebook and the global media database GDELT, we show how early claims of a link between COVID-19 and 5G that originated with far-right and alternative health groups and outlets circulated among fringe networks before receiving substantial amplification as minor and major celebrities, as well as tabloid and entertainment media outlets, began to share such stories. This detailed case study is illustrative of the dissemination dynamics for misinformation and disinformation well beyond the COVID-19/5G case itself; it also points to the key inflection points at which the spread of such misinformation may be reduced.

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