The Covid-19 outbreak has created a spike in racially linked incitements of violence, hate speech and the rebirth of old conspiracy theories, according to Moonshot, a technology company that monitors and disrupts violent extremism online.
By monitoring the use of hashtags on Twitter and Instagram during the coronavirus pandemic, and comparing it with data from the past five years, Moonshot has concluded that the outbreak has led to a significant rise in anti-Chinese sentiment, and that conspiracy theories around coronavirus have also been used as a “vehicle for anti-Semitism”. Of the more than 600 million tweets analysed, nearly 200,000 contained hate speech or conspiracy theories.
The majority have been anti-Chinese, using popular hashtags such as #CCPVirus, #ChinaLiedPeopleDied and #DeepstateVirus. These hashtags, the company says, “act as an umbrella under which we found a multiplicity of varied and often conflicting theories”, which include “speculations on the origin of the virus, from the consumption of bat soup, or the accidental release of a bio-weapon from a laboratory, to theories that China deliberately developed and spread the virus… to stories that China is exploiting global turmoil, including [by] blackmailing countries to accept Chinese 5G in exchange for medical supplies”.
Moonshot says it recorded a 300 per cent increase in the use of “hashtags that support or encourage violence against China and Chinese people” in a single week in March. These incitements to violence “typically also — or stemmed from posts which contained — references to anti-Chinese conspiracy theories”.
The company has also identified a “clear” spike in anti-Semitic hashtags used in relation to the outbreak. These included #SorosVirus, #IsraelVirus and #NWOVirus, and were typically linked to longstanding racist tropes about Jewish-led world governments and the virus being used to kill off portions of the population.
Moonshot also found that conspiracy theories surroung the rollout of 5G mobile networks have rapidly become popular. Twitter hashtags promoting this theory increased by 366 per cent in the first three months of 2020, and by 1,749 per cent between February and March.
Conspiracy theories around 5G have been a prominent feature of the misinformation promoted during the pandemic. Amplified by high-profile celebrities, these false notions were even given a platform by Eamonn Holmes on This Morning.
Moonshot says the people spreading this misinformation are using popular distrust of 5G “as a gateway into their world more generally, exposing users to other, potentially more harmful worldviews”. Analysis of more than 100,000 unique words and phrases by the company showed a strong link to another popular conspiracy, which wrongly claims that vaccinations cause disease or harm.
“The ideological underpinnings of these worldviews are often explicitly anti-government and sometimes anti-Semitic in their belief that the world is controlled by a covert network of elites who work against the population’s interest,” the report concludes. “Fears related to the Covid-19 epidemic have not only brought fringe 5G conspiracies to a broader audience, but along with them comes the additional risk of exposing users to a broader network of problematic conspiracy theories about science, medicine and systems of governance.”
Twitter recently announced that it would delete “unverified claims” during the pandemic, while Instagram has announced a range of measures that include “adding stickers to promote accurate information“. But Moonshot’s research shows that, to a great extent, the damage from this misinformation has already been done.