“These are the super-spreaders. These are the people who are really making something go viral,” he said during an online presentation on viral disinformation hosted by the Australia Institute on Thursday.
Professor Bruns and his research team looked into a range of COVID-19-related disinformation circulating online, and found that spikes in circulation nearly always correlated with celebrity or media endorsements.
One theory they looked at linked 5G cell phone towers with the spread of the virus, which was featured in mainstream media including the Australian, and reportedly resulted in arson attacks on communications facilities in the UK.
The data they studied revealed a spike in shares of that content occurred after American actor Woody Harrelson endorsed the theory, and American rapper Whiz Khalifa spoke about it in a video posted to his Facebook page, which is followed by almost 40 million people.
Spikes also occurred when UK tabloid the Daily Express wrote an article about it, when a Nigerian pastor’s warning about the theory went viral, and when a UK boxer posted a similar video to a sports group with nearly 26 million members.
The result of is “payday” for disinformers – many of them pro-Trump, Q’Anon posters – trying to sway people to their world view, says fellow researcher Dr Timothy Graham.
“Now the public is genuinely confused, and genuinely divided. They’re pointing fingers at China… and at each other.
“This is payday for disinformers. This is the best thing that could happen to them and the worst thing that could happen for democracy.”
Fact-checking on social media is a part of the solution, Prof Bruns says, but has limited effect as it generally reaches a different audience to conspiracy theorists, and tends to convince them they’re “onto something”.
The most effective antidote would be convincing individual users to research and think critically before they post, he says.
“You have these celebrities, politicians and others with very large audiences, and getting them to not share something or not talk about something that they have no idea about – that may be very difficult to do, but it is a really important point where further transmission … can be stopped.”