ATLANTA (CBS46) – Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and all major internet platforms popular around the world are sharing one burden of international accessibility: misinformation.
Together, the social media giants promise they are working together to combat misinformation and fraud. But internet researchers are finding the internet itself is creating misinformation which could have dangerous consequences during the pandemic.
The proliferation of information through social media during the time of pandemic may have been exactly what the creators of the Internet hoped for, but it’s also bringing with it a dearth of misinformation and ugliness. It’s the latter issue that caught the attention of Georgia State professors.
The professors are looking at coronavirus tweets on Twitter, and the initial data is not pretty. Doctors Juan Banda, a mathematician, and Gerardo Chowell, an epidemiologist, teamed to analyze the ocean of tweets since the pandemic began. The source of data is Twitter itself, providing a random sample 1% of daily tweets.
The GSU professors collected tweets using key words, scrubbing them for bots and trolls, then analyzed where the tweets come from, their languages, and what they say. English, Spanish and French were the most popular languages they found, but they even include Tibetan Lao and Amharic. It does not include much from China as the Chinese government doesn’t make Twitter easily available to the people.
Since November, when base line data showed the terms coronavirus and Covid-19 did not appear; the use of those and other terms shot into the hundreds of millions. As the pandemic began, the twitter panics began. First, shortages of toilet paper and hand sanitizer; then tweets revealed apparent shortages of eggs and bacon. Even later, the breakfast cereal Lucky Charms briefly dominated tweets.
"We tracked down that trending phrase and found a Yahoo reference to Lucky Charms, which may explain it," says Juan Banda, Ph.D.
HOW PEOPLE REALLY FEEL
More troubling to him is the vivid polarization revealed in the tweets against particular groups of people more at risk of the virus than others.
"Let it clear out the older people" is one theme of many comments he noted. Other targets of derision include African Americans and undocumented workers.
The world of Twitter to many users means a posting of thoughts and emotions with no fear of repercussions. That freedom allows the researchers to conclude the tweets share a reality not found in other media. Thus, the negative divide is more clearly revealed.
Dividing the tweets into negative, neutral and positive, they found the tweets growing ten to fifteen percent more negative as the pandemic progressed.
MISINFORMATION SPREADS FAST
The early suggestion of hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment moved like lightning through the world of twitter. Slower to move were tweets warning of its use. Recent references to using disinfectant internally is another example of misinformation more eagerly tweeted than caution toward it.
In an unusual move for research scientists, the doctors are putting the raw data in front of the public before completing even initial studies. Calling this an open resource for the Global Research Community, Doctors Banda and Chowell update it for non-commercial research use on the GitHub platform.