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NewsGuard, a company that evaluates and rates news and information websites, recently analyzed Facebook Pages and Twitter accounts to identify what it calls “super-spreaders” of COVID-19 misinformation, Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Joseph Mercola, and the National Vaccine Information Center among them. (There are separate lists of Facebook and Twitter super-spreaders in Europe.)

To qualify as a super-spreader, a Facebook Page or Twitter account must have published or shared “clearly and egregiously false content about the virus”, have more than 100,000 page “likes” or followers, respectively, and have been active on the date NewsGuard published its data — that is, neither Facebook nor Twitter had acted as of that date to take down the misinformation.

NewGuard describes this as an ongoing project, one among several designed to out COVID-19 misinformation, and notes that the listed Pages and accounts may not be the most frequent offenders or have the largest audiences – they simply met the criteria for this particular data set. NewsGuard’s larger message, it seems, is that, despite promises by Facebook and Twitter to effectively police their products for COVID-19 misinformation, whatever they are doing isn’t working, a point we’ll return to in a moment.

But first, the lists.

Among the 31 Facebook super-spreaders, whose combined accounts reach over 21 million followers, the top spot goes to Global Informers (which I’d never heard of) with almost 5 million “likes”. Described as an “English-language page for a business with an address in Turkey and managed from Pakistan”, created in 2017, Global Informers posted a link to PressTV, an Iranian propaganda outlet, with the false claim that the novel coronavirus was created in a lab as a bioweapon, and to RT, the Russian propaganda outlet, claiming, without substantiation, that the U.S. military started the pandemic.

(In this post, I will not provide a link to the misinformation itself, although you can find it on the NewsGuard website.)

Coming in at #2 is Rush Limbaugh (over 2.3 million Facebook Page “likes”), upon whom Donald Trump recently bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, cited for his false claims that the novel coronavirus was created in a lab as a bioweapon and that it is similar to the common cold. Also speaking from the far right of the political spectrum, The Gateway Pundit (631,000 likes, but scoring 0 out of 100 on NewGuard’s rating scale) posted false claims that the drug hydroxychloroquine “has a 100% success rate in treating COVID-19”.

Not surprisingly, super-spreaders include websites shilling for unproven COVID-19 cure-alls we’ve covered here on SBM, like colloidal silver, Vitamin C, and the aforementioned hydroxychloroquine, as well promoting debunked claims that the virus is linked to 5-G technology and Bill Gates.

Two Facebook Pages affiliated with Ty Bollinger (whose promotion of cancer quackery has been called out in SBM posts), The Truth About Cancer (sadly, with almost 1.2 million “likes”) and Cancer Truth, are cited for their false claims that the virus was created in a lab as a bioweapon and that it is connected to 5G technology. NewsGuard’s evaluation of Bollinger’s The Truth About Cancer website correctly describes it as one that “has repeatedly promoted unproven and potentially dangerous cancer treatments.”

Another perennial SBM “favorite”, the National Vaccine Information Center (or, as we prefer, the National Vaccine Misinformation Center), accurately described as a publisher of “articles with false and unsubstantiated claims about vaccination”, is cited for its Facebook Page touting Vitamin C as prophylactic against COVID-19.

Twitter trust issues

NewsGuard identified 10 Twitter super-spreaders, who reach a combined following of over 3 million. The list again begins with someone I’ve never heard of: Femi Fani-Kayode, who takes the number 1 spot with almost a million Twitter followers. He’s identified as a former Nigerian politician (the Nigerian Prince, perhaps?) “who has repeatedly shared misinformation about vaccines and 5G technology”, including claims linking the latter to the pandemic.

Another unknown to me, David Icke, with over 310,000 followers, is a former British football player, “who has repeatedly promoted conspiracy theories, including the idea that the world is under the control of shape-shifting aliens”. He tweeted both that the coronavirus does not exist and, in what would seem to be a mutually-exclusive proposition, that 5G technology is connected to its spread.

Into this illustrious group who should fall but Dr. Joseph Mercola, “an osteopathic physician and alternative medicine advocate . . . who has published false claims about standard medical practices such as vaccinations”. (Not only that, he actually funds the anti-vaccination movement.) Mercola has made frequent appearances on SBM, going back at least to 2009, with the eponymous post 9 Reasons to Completely Ignore Joseph Mercola, all the way up to a few days ago, with a mention in a David Gorski post on COVID-19 and conspiracy theories.

Mercola, who has had frequent run-ins with regulatory authorities, made the Twitter super-spreaders list by “suggesting that high heat, including from a sauna or steam bath, can treat the coronavirus” and “promoting unproven herbal remedies for COVID-19” to his almost 300,000 followers.

NewsGuard uses these super-spreader lists as a cudgel to beat Facebook and Twitter over the head for not doing enough to remove this sort of misinformation from social media, a legitimate criticism, along with a bit of self-promotion.

Despite Facebook’s announced efforts to stop the spread of this type of misinformation, these pages continue to be allowed to use Facebook to publish blatant misinformation about COVID-19 — seemingly in violation of the platform’s content policies. In some cases . . . we found evidence of what appears to be “coordinated inauthentic behavior“, which violates Facebook’s policies. We also found that in a majority of the false posts we reviewed, Facebook did not provide any warning, fact-checking language, or links to more credible sources — despite the platform’s recent promises to do so. Of the posts we have identified so far publishing COVID-19 misinformation, 63% did not have any warning or fact-check link attached to the post . . .Whether or not a fact check was shown appeared to be random. Even for the posts that did have fact-checker warnings, those warnings would only have appeared after the hoax had been published. That lapse is exacerbated by Facebook’s policy of not providing information to its users that Facebook Pages like these have been known to publish misinformation or hoaxes in the past. This prior bad conduct is especially true of purveyors of COVID-19 hoaxes . . .

[Quotation reformatted for easier reading.]

NewsGuard aims similar criticisms at Twitter.

On the other hand,

NewsGuard has found that 80% of the 174 COVID-19 misinformation sites we have now identified had already been rated Red by NewsGuard for publishing misinformation in the past.

In other words, don’t trust Facebook or Twitter; check it out on NewsGuard.

“Rated Red” is a reference to NewsGuard’s rating system, which “employs a team of trained journalists and experienced editors to review and rate news and information websites based on nine journalistic criteria” assessing credibility and transparency and assigning each a red or green rating indicating its credibility. When NewsGuard is downloaded, these red and green (also, yellow for satire and grey for not rated) icons appear next to news links on search engines and social media feeds. Hovering over the icon will give you some information on the rating, while clicking on the rating will take you to a “Nutrition Label” for a more complete assessment of the site.

Altogether, NewsGuard has issued detailed ratings of more than 4,000 websites which it claims account for 95% of online engagement with the news. Specific to the pandemic, the company, in addition to its super-spreader lists, debunks the most popular COVID-19 myths, such as

Bill Gates plans to use COVID-19 to implement a mandatory vaccine program with microchips to surveil people.

It also created a Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center, including a list of websites known to be posting false coronavirus information. The list includes 56 domains of the NaturalNews.com Network, another SBM frequent flyer, as well as WestonAPrice.org, whose “appalling legacy” Harriet Hall discussed, and “natural health expert” Sayer Ji’s GreenMedInfo.com. Links are provided to “Nutrition Labels” for these sites. (I’ve provided them here as well.)

I downloaded NewsGuard (normally $2.95/month, but available free until July 1 “with no strings attached”), mainly because I wanted to support its efforts to combat misinformation on the internet, especially medical misinformation. According to a 2019 STAT News article written by a former health news reporter and now NewsGuard analyst,

Americans consume an unhealthy diet of health misinformation. Of the sites analyzed by NewsGuard, 11% provide misinformation about health; in other words, more than 1 in 10 news websites accessed by Americans includes bad information about health.

Of all the sites with red ratings, 37% publish false or unfounded health claims.

These sites accounted for more than 49 million engagements (shares, likes, comments, etc.) on social media in the past 90 days — more than major news websites such as NPR, Business Insider, or Forbes. In a recent search on Facebook for “vaccines and CDC,” several of the top-page results were from NewsGuard red-rated websites.

NewsGuard has come in handy when replying to emails from certain friends of the family who are spreading COVID-19 nonsense or just dubious political “news” in general. Even if you don’t subscribe, nosing around the website is interesting and, if you wish, you can suggest a site for review. I’m certainly going to.

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Posted by Jann Bellamy

Jann J. Bellamy is a Florida attorney and lives in Tallahassee. She is one of the founders and Board members of the Society for Science-Based Medicine (SfSBM) dedicated to providing accurate information about CAM and advocating for state and federal laws that incorporate a science-based standard for all health care practitioners. She tracks state and federal bills that would allow pseudoscience in health care for the SfSBM website.  Her posts are archived here.