Celebrities like actor Woody Harrelson and rapper Whiz Khalifa are the “super-spreaders” of misinformation during times of crisis, experts say.
Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre have been studying how conspiracy theories discussed on the fringes of the internet end up as front page news.
The kindling, Professor Axel Bruns says, is public figures who don’t know when to keep their mouths shut or take their fingers off the keyboard.
“It’s one thing to post this from a conspiracy account that’s got a few hundred followers, but once you get major celebrities with literally millions of followers on Twitter or Facebook talking about this, even just dismissively, obviously it reaches a much much larger audience.”
“These are the super-spreaders. These are the people who are really making something go viral,” he said during an online presentation on viral disinformation hosted by the Australia Institute on Thursday.
One theory they looked at linked 5G cell phone towers with the spread of the virus, which was featured in mainstream media including the Australian, and reportedly resulted in arson attacks on communications facilities in the UK.
The data revealed a spike in shares of the 5G theory after Harrelson endorsed it and Khalifa spoke about it in a video posted to his Facebook page, which is followed by almost 40 million people.
Spikes also occurred when UK tabloid the Daily Express wrote an article about it, when a Nigerian pastor’s warning about the theory went viral, and when a UK boxer posted a similar video to a sports group with nearly 26 million members.
The research team also looked into the spread of conspiracy theories claiming that COVID-19 was a Chinese lab-engineered bio weapon, that Bill Gates was ‘sponsoring’ the pandemic, that Pope Francis tested positive and that shaving off your beard prevented you from catching the virus.
But the research team provided no examples of celebrities spreading the theories, other than Republican Congressman Jim Banks who they say shared the bio weapon claim.
Fact-checking on social media is a part of the solution, Prof Bruns says, but has limited effect as it generally reaches a different audience to conspiracy theorists, and tends to convince them they’re “onto something”.
The most effective antidote would be convincing individual users to research and think critically before they post, he says.
“You have these celebrities, politicians and others with very large audiences, and getting them to not share something or not talk about something that they have no idea about – that may be very difficult to do, but it is a really important point where further transmission … can be stopped.”