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Bending the Curve of Fake Pandemic News

Since 2016, a global community of fact checkers has taken shape to fight fake news and misinformation online, much of which is generated by authoritarian regimes. Now that we are in the grips of a deadly pandemic, these efforts must be celebrated and strengthened.

OXFORD – Would you believe that the coronavirus was developed by a government to weaken its foreign rivals? Or that “patriots” created it to foment a revolution against “big government” and the “deep state”? Sadly, far too many people who have encountered such disinformation online have shared it with their friends and family.

Nonetheless, we are learning more about who produces fake pandemic news, and how to stop its circulation. In addition to the health-care workers risking their own lives and the scientists working on treatments and a vaccine, another branch of the COVID-19 response also deserves recognition. Over the past few years, the world’s fact checkers have developed a capacity to spot and label lies circulating in the public sphere. Now, they have turned their attention to junk news about the COVID-19 crisis, helping social-media platforms move more quickly to dispel and discourage rumors, misinformation, and conspiracy theories.

At the Oxford Internet Institute, we are tracking the large-scale, multi-platform flood of COVID-19 misinformation produced by authoritarian regimes. State-backed news outlets in China, Iran, Russia, and Turkey have substantial global audiences, and theoretically could reach one billion social-media accounts with English-language content. Although some of these accounts are fake, the content is being shared across networks of tens of millions of real users.