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'I was speaking to my friend who is a guard...': How Covid-19 misinformation exploded in Ireland

The story of coronavirus in Ireland can’t be told without also talking about the amount of misinformation that was shared about it.

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ON FRIDAY 13 March, just after 1.30pm, TheJournal.ie‘s recently bought mobile phone beeped and lit up with its first WhatsApp message containing a false news story from a reader. 

Seconds later, another one arrived.

Then another.

And another. 

Readers were sharing the messages they were getting from their friends and families about coronavirus, looking for some confirmation about whether what they were reading was really true. 

Ireland was wading into the pandemic at the time. There had been 43 cases and the first death had been confirmed two days before. Then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had made his dramatic speech in Washington just over 24 hours before that, closing schools, universities and creches and telling people to work from home.

But while all that was happening, another story of coronavirus was playing out under the surface, almost entirely in WhatsApp messages.

“The infodemic, as the WHO termed it, is kind of like a shadow which is following the pandemic around the world,” says Alastair Reid, managing editor at First Draft, an organisation which tracks and fights misinformation. 

“As events and new developments unfold, misinformation follows them because people are so hungry for information about this.”

The story of coronavirus in Ireland can’t be told without also talking about the amount of misinformation that was shared about it, especially in the first six weeks of the pandemic, and the damage that this did. 

Ireland had, up until then, low levels of misinformation compared with other countries, with very few bad faith actors sharing it, either in the mainstream or more niche outlets.

But coronavirus changed all that. Even before the first case was confirmed on 29 February, large volumes of false stories were being shared by friends, families and in groups.

Messages claimed that a full lockdown was about to start, that the Army was going to patrol the streets, that the HSE was advising people to stockpile food. Others made claims about dodgy cures and preventative measures – no, drinking hot water won’t stop you from getting coronavirus – and 5G’s (untrue) connection to the illness, potentially causing harm to people who took the messages on board. 

This is “pretty much unequivocally” the biggest example ever seen of misinformation on one topic, says Reid. 

The big question about the huge volumes of misinformation spread about coronavirus in the past few months is whether Ireland can go back to its previous low levels of false news -  or if it’s now here to stay. 

The first wave: anxiety 

The first wave of misinformation began spreading on WhatsApp in late February and lasted until April, warning of secret cases in hospitals around the country and of authorities keeping secrets from the public. 

“I get texts on a regular basis saying ‘X hospital is in lockdown. The coronavirus is here’. Not true,” then-Minister for Health Simon Harris told RTÉ Radio One on 28 February, a day before Ireland’s first confirmed case. 

These messages all had one thing in common: they preyed on people’s anxieties. 

“There were a lot of things that we didn’t know,” says Jules Darmanin, a researcher who worked with the International Fact-Checking Network to collect factchecks about coronavirus as part of a worldwide alliance which sprung up in late January.  

“We didn’t know how lethal the disease was. We didn’t know, and we still don’t know, how to cure it. And so this creates an information void – and rumours and false information help fill in that void.” 

One of the most popular messages, which was sent to TheJournal.ie almost 100 times in one day, purported to have information from a garda who was a friend of the original sender. 

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It hit many of the tropes of this wave: it mentioned an authoritative-sounding source. It contained information that it said was being held from the public. It warned of extreme measures being introduced. 

Another variant read: “Just got from Guard friend. Hotel in Dublin just gone on lockdown. Cases in Mater, Vincents, Beaumont… current media blackout… gonna break soon… From my brother.” 

The intent behind most of these messages was unlikely to have been malicious.

“For a lot of people, the thinking is ‘what harm can it cause to share this piece of information’,” says Darmanin. 

Darmanin points out that many families use WhatsApp as a way to stay in touch, which led to messages being shared within them because “people wanted the people they love to know about this information”. 

Other messages sent around warned about a pending lockdown, with the army set to patrol the streets to ensure compliance. 

The second-most popular message at the time, according to an analysis of the hundreds of messages sent to TheJournal.ie‘s WhatsApp number, was an audio message shared on WhatsApp. 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

In the 60-second clip, a man uses terms which sound realistic to a lay listener, but which flagged the message as being a fake to people in the military. 

“Right lads, I’ve just got the message there, we’ve to be in the barracks for 0600 on Monday morning,” the message, which was shared widely over the weekend of 14 and 15 March, said. 

“An Taoiseach will make the announcement at 0800 that the country is in a Status Red emergency… so from 0800 we’ll be patrolling out around Dublin, making sure people is [sic] on lockdown, making sure there’s nobody out.”

The Defence Forces used its popular social media platforms to correct the record and get the truth out through official sources. It also used a members-only area of military.ie to let enlisted staff know what was happening. 

“We had to stop a vacuum from being filled with misinformation,” a Defence Forces spokesperson told TheJournal.

“We used our social media platforms as a source of truth for people to go to.”

Getting the correct information out there was far more difficult than spreading the false information, however. 

Facebook had been seen as the home for false stories in Ireland – but one of the biggest changes about this was the scale of false messages being shared on WhatsApp, which has no central way to disseminate accurate information. 

“When you look at more conspiratorial misinformation and disinformation, Facebook groups are much more prevalent because that’s where you talk to and engage with people you don’t know but have shared opinions with,” says Darmanin.

“Whereas for health advice, for example, the place for families to be has been on WhatsApp.” 

WhatsApp makes it impossible to keep track of how often a message has been shared or seen, but to give an idea of scale: TheJournal.ie set up a phone number on 13 March for people to forward on dodgy messages that they had been sent so that we could factcheck them.

Over the course of that first weekend alone, we got over 800 messages.

Since the start of the pandemic, WhatsApp has brought in some new ways to stop false information from spreading. Viral messages can only be forwarded on to one contact at a time, for example, making it slightly slower and less easy for a message to be shared. 

It can be seen as something of an exercise in damage limitation, however. And by allowing people to think that things were being intentionally hidden from them, this set the stage for the next wave of misinformation. 

The second wave: distrust of authorities 

The second wave of misinformation, which was based on distrust of institutions and authorities, began in April and is still ongoing. 

“As we found out more about coronavirus, and the more it was clear that this was a pandemic affecting virtually every country, then [we began to see] more conspiratorial posts around stuff that was already out there like 5G or anti-vaccination,” says Darmanin. 

He says that some people felt “that they were being lied to”. 

“It’s more about distrust in the information that is given to you than about anxiety around the disease. Of course, anxiety plays a role in that, but if you don’t trust what the media is telling you or what the government is telling you, you might be more prone to believe unfounded theories like 5G.”

This misinformation moved from WhatsApp to Facebook where it found a home in some cases in the pages and groups that had sprung up to share helpful information about the pandemic. Anecdotally, the volume of false messages being shared on WhatsApp – and sent to TheJournal.ie‘s phone – dropped massively. 

Instead, the topics on Facebook broadened out to include the local (5G theories, the government trying to make a – non-existent – Covid-19 vaccine mandatory) and the international: Bill Gates being brought before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity was shared widely on Facebook in Ireland and other European countries. 

These posts speak about distrust in governments, billionaires, financial institutions and health authorities, and often manage to blame them for their role in the pandemic. 

The hugely shared video Plandemic claimed that vaccines are a money-making exercise before it was taken down, as was an interview with UCD academic Dolores Cahill in which she claimed that lockdown was not needed to stop the spread of the virus. 

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This post, widely shared across Ireland and several other countries in May, contains a mish-mash of these theories.

It claims that the WHO had a ‘law’ which stopped Italy from carrying out autopsies, but that covert ones had found that “covid is not a virus, but a bacterium”. It says that aspirin and a coagulant are effective treatments, and that ventilators and ICU units were not necessary to treat the deadly illness. 

(In TheJournal.ie‘s factcheck of this claim, TCD virologist Dr Kim Roberts said: “It is a virus. We have seen it, we have sequenced it [and] we have looked at it under microscopes.”)

These kind of conspiracies, with starring roles for Jeffrey Epstein, Anthony Fauci, Bill and Melinda Gates, George Soros and the WHO, would normally be shared by a tiny number of people on Irish Facebook pages. The pandemic has changed that, however, and the volume of posts – and the reaction to them – has surged. 

An analysis of Facebook shows that there were 76,302 interactions – either reactions, comments or shares – on posts about Bill Gates on Irish Facebook pages between March and now, according to social metrics site CrowdTangle. 

For the same period last year, there were just over 10,000 – and a post that accounted for almost exactly half of those interactions was a joke giving exam advice to Leaving Cert students. 

The intentions behind these posts are more malign than in the first wave. “[With] 5G, that was being pushed quite a lot from what we can gather by Russia in particular, or by elements within Russia,” MEP Billy Kelleher told a webinar organised by TheJournal.ie and the European Parliament recently.

And of course, this is just to slow the potential rollout of 5G, which gives an economy greater advantages over those that don’t have 5G.

“It’s also been used as a ploy to delay economies from coming back out of the Covid crisis and undermining confidence in governments in particular.”

If the first wave of stories are tricky but do-able to factcheck, this second wave is almost impossible. Being able to factcheck stories has helped stem the tide with some stories. In one that hit close to home, a message shared on WhatsApp and Twitter on 14 May said that TheJournal.ie was closing down.

The message was factchecked, published, and the spread of the message stopped almost immediately. 

But for factcheckers, conspiracy theories are different: how do you debunk a claim that Bill Gates is secretly running a paedophile ring and created the pandemic to distract the police from closing in on him?  

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Will it stick around?  

The question for Ireland is whether the country will go back to its previous low levels of misinformation, or whether the pandemic has marked a turning point and false news stories are now something we should expect to have to wade through on social media and messaging apps. 

“Misinformation follows the news cycles,” says Darmanin.

“Today, there are less falsehoods circulating widely around Covid-19, even though the pandemic hasn’t really stopped.

“But in many countries the news cycle has shifted for various reasons. In western Europe, it’s because there are definitely less cases. In the US, it’s because the protests and the Black Lives Matter Movement has taken more airtime, basically.”

He warns about the continued spread of conspiracy theories, though. Some Facebook pages set up to share information about coronavirus have begun sharing misinformation about other topics, such as 5G or how a vaccine would work.

In recent weeks, there have been a significant number of Facebook posts on some of these pages which have focused on how the pandemic is being used to eliminate cash in society, forcing people to use cards and phones to pay for things – which means that they can be easily tracked by banks and the government. 

It has also been suggested that as people got so much of their news from social media giants during the pandemic, this may have created the expectation that they will get ‘true’ news from these unverified sources in future.

“It’s always hard to gauge how many people are buying into conspiracy theories or turning into propagators of it,” says Darmanin. 

“But you know, there was a significant anti-vaccine movement in some countries before Covid-19 and depending on how the discovery of the vaccine goes, there might be more anti-vaccine sentiment. I doubt that there would be less. 

“My fear is that the resistance movement against vaccines is going to be greater than it already was.”

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Through 2016, deep fakes, Brexit and Trump, Ireland did not see misinformation in the same way or at the same level as other jurisdictions.

But since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed, TheJournal.ie FactCheck has debunked or examined 75 claims about the coronavirus. Through that work, we have been able to track the pandemic’s impact on Ireland’s susceptibility to and relationship with fake news.  

In this series, we will investigate some of the more notorious stories – who started them, and what effect they had on the population? We interrogate the atmosphere and tools that allowed the messages to spread – their R number as scary as Covid-19’s.

This new coronavirus may not be with us forever, but misinformation could be one of its deadly after-effects. 

So now we ask: Is Ireland changed forever? See the full series here.

About the author:

Christine Bohan

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