More than 500 websites have promoted disinformation about the coronavirus – including debunked vaccine claims, according to a company that rates the websites’ credibility.
NewsGuard announced wednesday that of the more than 6,700 websites it scanned, 519 published false information about COVID-19. Some of the sites publish questionable health information or political conspiracy theories, while others have been “created specifically to spread disinformation about COVID-19,” the company says on its website.
“It has become virtually impossible for people to tell the difference between a generally reliable site and an untrustworthy site,” Gordon Crovitz, co-founder of NewsGuard, told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview. “And that is why there is such a big undertaking in publishing this information.”
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Results come as new infections, hospitalizations and daily deaths from COVID-19 remain high in much of the country. About 53% of Americans have been fully vaccinated against the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Launched in spring 2018, NewsGuard employs experienced journalists assess the credibility and transparency of the most popular news and information websites in the US, UK, Germany, France and Italy. The company publishes “nutritional labels” that tell users whether a source meets or violates journalistic standards.
“We don’t believe in blocking things out and not letting people see things,” said Steven Brill, co-founder of NewsGuard. “What we believe in is giving people information about what they are about to see so that they can make their own decision.”
In Wednesday’s statement, NewsGuard also identified 50 of the top COVID-19 vaccine myths spreading online. They include debunked claims that vaccines altering people’s DNA, induce infertility Where create new variants of the virus.
“These are all hoaxes that have gained traction, and we know that because we see them spreading from site to site,” said Matt Skibinski, CEO of NewsGuard.
Of the sites on NewsGuard’s list, 339 have a predominantly US-based audience. Several of them, including InfoWars and Mercola.com, have a history of promote conspiracy theories and questionable health claims. Others try to fool people by using domain names close to those of credible media, such as WashingtonPosted.news and Ussanews.com, mimicking Washingtonpost.com and USNews.com.
Some of the websites identified by NewsGuard have become more popular online as reliable sources of COVID-19 information.
For example, the vaccine advocacy group Children’s Health Defense has received more engagement in the past 90 days than the CDC and the National Institutes of Health, according to NewsGuard. The site, which is run by an anti-vaccine advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., sought to cast doubt on COVID-19 vaccine safety and promoted conspiracy theories on 5G technology.
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NewsGuard uses NewsWhip, a social media analytics company, to measure engagement, which includes social media interactions and website traffic. Crovitz cautioned against underestimating the danger of websites that posted false information about COVID-19 simply because they are a relatively small portion of the content.
“We evaluated all the news and information sources that make up 97% of engagement in the United States. Of those, 7% publish COVID disinformation,” Crovitz said. “It’s like 7% of all cereal boxes have strychnine in it and the grain companies are like, ‘Well that’s only 7%. “”
NewsGuard’s findings are the latest attempt to quantify misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.
A March report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a London-based nonprofit, found that a dozen accounts were responsible for 65% of the anti-vaccine misinformation spread on Facebook and Twitter. NewsGuard also identified COVID-19 vaccine disinformation “super-diffusers”.
These kinds of reports have made waves in Washington, where lawmakers presented legislation aimed at holding social media companies accountable for health misinformation.
In July, White House press secretary Jen Psaki quoted the figure of 65% to criticize social media platforms’ handling of disinformation about COVID-19. President Joe Biden said Facebook is “killing people” for letting false information about vaccines spread, a statement he then softened. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said of the misinformation “still spreads like wildfire in our country, helped and encouraged by technological platforms. “
Biden went back on his statement, and Facebook challenged the findings of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
“To focus on these 12 individuals is to miss the forest for the trees,” wrote Monika Bickert, vice president of content policy at Facebook. in a press release in August. “Since the start of the pandemic across our platform, we have deleted over 3,000 accounts, pages and groups for repeatedly breaking our rules against the spread of COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation and removed over 20 million pieces of content for breaking these rules. “
Yet websites that publish false claims about COVID-19 – partially funded by advertisers who may not be familiar with the nature of the site they are connected to – continue to gain traction online. And public health officials say it could have an effect on vaccine deployment.
“What we’ve seen over the past 20 months is an erosion of trust, an erosion of science and an erosion of truth,” said Andy Pattison, team leader for digital channels at the Department. of digital health and innovation from the World Health Organization, which has partnered with NewsGuard since last year. “And I think it’s really scary.”