US President Donald Trump has been the world's biggest driver of Covid-19 misinformation during the pandemic, a study from Cornell University said Thursday.
A team from the Cornell Alliance for Science evaluated 38 million articles published by English-language, traditional media worldwide between January 1 and May 26 of this year.
They found that his false statements calling coronavirus a 'hoax,' lab-made or originating from 'bat soup' and even attacking health officials like Dr Fauci echoed across hundreds of thousands of articles and reposts around the world.
In total, they identified 522,472 news articles that reproduced or amplified misinformation related to the coronavirus pandemic, or what the World Health Organization (WHO) has called the 'infodemic.'
These were categorized into 11 main sub-topics, ranging from conspiracy theories to attacks on top scientist Anthony Fauci to the idea that the virus is a bioweapon unleashed by China.
But the most popular topic by far was what the study authors termed 'miracle cures,' which appeared in 295,351 articles -- more than the other 10 topics combined.
US President Donald Trump's advocacy of unproven coronavirus cures has been linked by researchers to spikes in misinformation carried by global English-language media
The authors found that comments by President Trump drove major spikes in the 'miracle cures' topic, led by his April 24 press briefing where he mused on the possibility of using disinfectants inside the body to cure the coronavirus.
Similar spikes were seen when he promoted unproven treatments like hydroxychloroquine.
'We conclude therefore that the president of the United States was likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation "infodemic,''' the team wrote.
Sara Evanega, who led the study and is director of the Cornell Alliance for Science, said: 'If people are misled by unscientific and unsubstantiated claims about the disease, they may be less likely to observe official guidance and thus risk spreading the virus.'
When President Trump announced that wearing masks in public had become official Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, he said he would likely not wear one.
Today, there are still anti-mask protests across the US - and the world - despite numerous studies that have shown their effectiveness at reducing the spread of coronavirus.
During the Tuesday night presidential debate, Trump blamed Dr Fauci and other health experts for advising against masks.
'Dr Fauci said the opposite, he very strongly said masks aren't good and then he changed his mind, he said masks are good,' Trump said.
Amid Trump's many false claims, this one has some merit.
Fauci, the CDC and the WHO all reiterated in the early days of the pandemic that masks were not effective ways to slow the spread of coronavirus.
But they changed course as research began to suggest that asymptomatic people were significant drivers of transmission.
Miracle cures' topped the list of Trump's most talked-about falsehoods, driven in part by his frequent promotion of hydroxychloroquine (left). Trump's attacks on scientists like Dr Fauci (right) were the source of the fifth most-common type of information the Cornell team found he spread
'So the feeling was that people who were wanting to have masks in the community, namely just people out in the street, might be hoarding masks and making the shortage of masks even greater. In that context, we said that we did not recommend masks,' said Dr Fauci.
Although Dr Fauci quickly became a household name, his words simply didn't travel as far or as fast as President Trump's.
As Dr Fauci was pleading with the American public to wear masks, Trump continued to toss them aside, and many of his constituents followed suit.
'One of the more interesting aspects of the data collection process was discovering the staggering amount of misinformation coverage directly linked to the public comments of a small number of individuals,' Co-author Jordan Adams, a data analyst at Cision Insights, which provided the database, added.
The database they used aggregates coverage from countries such as the US, Britain, India, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and other African and Asian nations.
After miracle cures, the second-most prevalent misinformation topic was that the pandemic was created to advance a 'new world order.'
Next came the claim that the pandemic was a hoax for political gain by the US Democratic Party, followed by conspiracies alleging the virus was a bioweapon released by a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
Conspiracy theories linking the pandemic to philanthropist Bill Gates came next, then the hoax that Covid-19 symptoms are caused by 5G phone networks, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and the notion that the virus is a form of population control.
Attacks on US government scientist Fauci, references to the debunked 'Plandemic' video, and blaming the virus on Chinese people consuming bat soup rounded off the list.
The study authors also tracked how the stories were shared on social media, finding that the posts elicited 36 million engagements, three-quarters of them on Facebook.
The research was partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.