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When viruses go viral

INFODEMIC / A study of the corona virus, conspiracy theories and fake news in the disinformation ecosystem.

Co-author: Patrik Szicherle

In the wake of coronavirusthe pandemic is flourishing a number of conspiracy theories. These are not only presented in so-called clickbaitwebsites with misleading and exaggerated articles, but also provided by authoritarian regimes and people who exploit pandemic fear for political purposes.

Conspiracy theories and rumors often spread like wildfire when something dramatic happens, especially if something new has happened that we know little about. This is precisely the case with the coronavirus.

As fear spreads around the world, disinformation campaigns become all the more effective. In addition to clickbait websites that are looking to monetize the fear by spreading false and sensational information about the virus, geopolitical actors interested in creating information chaos have signed up for the disinformation race. To quote WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: "It is an 'infodemia', at least as harmful as the virus itself, that spreads faster and easier [than the virus] and does great damage."

Trivialization and exaggeration

Misinformation can be life-threatening and create unrest in the population. There are two dangerous methods used to spread misinformation about the coronavirus: trivialization / denial and exaggeration / panic. In South Korea, we saw a frightening example of the first: a closed sect with 200 members first denied the existence of the virus and thought the whole thing was a conspiracy that the authorities had devised. This attitude, and the sect's collections, greatly contributed to the spread of the virus and resulted in several deaths.

In Ukraine, a fake letter apparently signed the "Ministry of Health" was distributed shortly after the outbreak of the virus in China, claiming that the virus had already arrived in the country. The bluff created both protests and panic among the population, even violent clashes where Ukrainian protesters stormed a bus coming from China.

Disinformation can be fatal and cause unrest in the population.

Russian sources have spread many false, contradictory stories about the corona virus denying the existence of the virus while also telling stories that the virus is a biological weapon from the West. US diplomat Philip Reeker claimed that "malicious Russian actors" were behind fake accounts i Social Media which disseminates information about the virus. The Russian Foreign Minister dismissed this prompt as "false claims".

"The virus is a biological weapon."

Other authoritarian regimes, such as China, also spread untrue stories. From the start, pieces of disinformation were spread by Russia and China, who wanted to label the US responsible for the outbreak: Americans should have created the virus as a biological weapon. This claim has been repeated by senior officials in China, including Lijian Zhao of the country's foreign ministry, as of March 12 doubted that the United States is the source of the virus, that "American soldiers may have brought the epidemic to Wuhan" and that he "demands an explanation" from the Americans.

In Iran, it was almost decided to deny the virus's existence before the parliamentary elections.

Such stories and allegations are intended to divert attention away from the Chinese Communist Party, a political actor who must take his share of the responsibility for the global spread of the virus. As was well known, it was a long time from the first case of infection in China to the outside world just got about the coronavirus.

I Iran they almost chose to deny the existence of the virus in advance of the parliamentary elections. The intention was to increase turnout, and public propaganda machinery claimed as Americans dramatized news of the virus to suppress turnout in the country. At the same time, disinformation was spread supporting this. [Director and pro-regime activist Hamad Jalali Kashani tweeted just before the election that the virus outbreak was a feat to scare people away from the polls. He was infected himself and died in February. Iran is severely affected by the virus: On March 30, there were 2757 deaths of covid-19 in Iran, according to Worldomet is, ed.nm.]


"There's a cure!"

What kind of fake news is spreading?

In Hungary, we observed two main groups as sources of disinformation: clickbait websites that abused freedom of speech and questioned all public information, but also the media – controlled by the government or the media that supported the official line. The last group showed similarities to the state-sponsored disinformation as mentioned above.

The main players who have to take on the responsibility for spreading disinformation about the virus in the beginning are websites that wanted to profit financially from the pandemic. Their main source of revenue is advertising. We therefore selected 12 influential websites in Hungary with 1 million followers in total and monitored the content and distribution of their posts on them using the software Feel the One*.

In 200 articles published on these pages, we found 21 interactions, 000 comments and 3700 shares at the end of February. The high number of shares is particularly worrying, as it helps the fake stories reach an even higher number of users on social media.

"The virus is a biological weapon"

We found four main categories, or groups, of fake news and virus information:

1. Theories of genocide. Such news claimed that someone is spreading the virus on purpose, preferably to achieve a specific goal. The most typical story is about a global elite behind them, including Bill Gates, whose goal is to decimate the Earth's population.

2. Theories of biological weapons. A typical example of this group is that the Americans use the virus as a biological weapon against China. This is to "force the Chinese economy to its knees" or to start "World War III". Such a theory fits perfectly with Russia and China's well-known geopolitical narrative that the United States acts with evil intent on all its rivals and adversaries, despite violating international conventions.

3.Theories of the apocalypse. These are "downfalls" scenarios whose purpose is to spread panic. One example is that civil war broke out in Wuhan, where hundreds of "infected" entrenched themselves at the borders, and that millions of people had already left the area, thus spreading the virus to the rest of the world.

4. Theories of healing and medicine. "There's a cure!" – Sensational articles about medicines that cure virus-affected, that Chinese traditional medicine can "block" the virus and similar wishful thinking.

"US soldiers brought the virus to Wuhan"

Hungarian authorities have launched investigations into several such websites that have spread false information about the coronavirus. Several websites have been removed and editors have been indicted.

The authorities' monitoring of these sites is encouraging, and the restrictive measures also seem justified, as panic in the current situation can cost lives.

Graphics based on data from political capital, By Attila Batorfy / Atlo
Graphics based on data from political capital, By Attila Batorfy / Atlo

Speculative articles about the virus and covid-19 have increased traffic to such sites and helped to disseminate fake health news about ineffective cures.

When the state spreads disinformation

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán confidently stated that Hungary's largest The challenge is immigration, not the coronavirus. At that time (February 28) there were no confirmed virus infections in Hungary.

The underestimation of the importance of the virus paved the way for propaganda that linked the Hungarian government's favorite theme – illegal immigration – to the virus. Prime Minister's Security Advisor György Bakondi said in early March that there was "some connection between the corona virus and illegal immigrants". He added that most migrants come from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran, ergo they come from, or have traveled through, severe epidemic-hit areas. Thus, all migrants who tried to cross the border in the south began to be rejected. This was the first signal that it was taking advantage of the epidemic for its own political gain.

"Hungary's biggest challenge is immigration, not the coronavirus." Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

Prime Minister Orbán embraced Bakondi's plot and delivered a similar message both nationally and internationally.

The first publicly known cases of virus infections in Hungary were Iranians. Hungarian authorities loudly blamed them for their "lack of cooperation" during the quarantine – a statement that strengthened the link between the virus and Muslim immigrants. But the Iranians who tested positive were not illegal migrants, but students with state-sponsored scholarships.

But beyond that, how can illegal migrants be blamed for an epidemic that spreads as the world's elites flee from country to country, and hits people like Francis Suarez (Mayor of Miami), Justin Trudeaus wife, actors like Tom Hanks and Kristofer Hivju and various athletes?


Distribution of guilt and symbolism

"It is first and foremost a country with migration that is affected," said supporters of the Hungarian government, who claimed that the virus spreads faster in «such countries»And blamed Western Europe. And at the same time, of course, George Soros and his theory of an open society. But nobody blamed China for where the virus originated – they probably wanted to defend their political and economic links to the country.

"A global elite is behind"

After a period of denial and slow response to the epidemic danger, the Hungarian government finally came up with several important suggestions and measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Orbán's regime is terrified of political repercussions, and the regime's guilt distribution and disinformation campaign was therefore directed at others. Orbán is used to escape by using political communication and symbolic politics, and he has previously been able to rely on a centralized media empire. The first few weeks of fighting the pandemic show that such tactics will be extremely difficult to use this time.

* The profiles of the web sites vary from clickbait pages to vaccine opponents. SentiOne found 8478 articles between January 11 and February 11, most published by regular media. The 12 selected sites were responsible for 200 of these. The sites' interest in the virus began to increase around January 26 and dropped when the research was completed on February 11. Then news of the deteriorating situation in Italy and South Korea came in late February, interest increased again.

The article is reproduced with permission from Eurozine.
© Péter Krekó and Patrik Szicherle / Eurozine 2020
The authors are researchers at the Political Capital Institute in Hungary and have done a study on which this article is based. The original study (in Hungarian) can be found at
The article is somewhat abbreviated.
Translated and edited by Iril Kolle.

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