Conspiracy in the Time of Corona: Automatic detection of Covid-19 Conspiracy Theories in Social Media and the News

Shadi Shahsavari, Pavan Holur, Timothy R. Tangherlini, Vwani Roychowdhury

Rumors and conspiracy theories thrive in environments of low confidence and low trust. Consequently, it is not surprising that ones related to the Covid-19 pandemic are proliferating given the lack of any authoritative scientific consensus on the virus, its spread and containment, or on the long term social and economic ramifications of the pandemic. Among the stories currently circulating are ones suggesting that the 5G network activates the virus, that the pandemic is a hoax perpetrated by a global cabal, that the virus is a bio-weapon released deliberately by the Chinese, or that Bill Gates is using it as cover to launch a global surveillance regime. While some may be quick to dismiss these stories as having little impact on real-world behavior, recent events including the destruction of property, racially fueled attacks against Asian Americans, and demonstrations espousing resistance to public health orders countermand such conclusions. Inspired by narrative theory, we crawl social media sites and news reports and, through the application of automated machine-learning methods, discover the underlying narrative frameworks supporting the generation of these stories. We show how the various narrative frameworks fueling rumors and conspiracy theories rely on the alignment of otherwise disparate domains of knowledge, and consider how they attach to the broader reporting on the pandemic. These alignments and attachments, which can be monitored in near real-time, may be useful for identifying areas in the news that are particularly vulnerable to reinterpretation by conspiracy theorists. Understanding the dynamics of storytelling on social media and the narrative frameworks that provide the generative basis for these stories may also be helpful for devising methods to disrupt their spread.

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