Public broad­cas­ter's contro­ver­sial coronavirus article spread disin­for­mation to millions

The public broadcaster NRK corrected the original article and published a follow-up. Nonetheless, the contents of their controversial story about the origins of the coronavirus reached millions of people online.

Illustration: Øystein Tronsli Drabløs/NIAID/screenshot

«Don’t read this if you’d like to sleep tonight», wrote Fredrik Solvang, a prolific NRK journalist and host of the popular debate show «Debatten», in a message to his 60 000 Twitter followers on Sunday evening.

Solvang shared an NRK article entitled «Norwegian researcher causes controversy around the origins of the virus: – The origins of this virus are not natural». The article quoted Birger Sørensen, a researcher and Chairman of the Board at Immunor, a vaccine producer, as claiming that research he had published with UK professor Angus Dalgleish showed that the coronavirus did not have a natural origin.

Several scientists were sharply critical of the claims in NRK's article, and Sørensen told both Faktisk.no and Dagbladet that the paper containing the alleged evidence for the virus' unnatural origins had not yet been published or peer-reviewed.

At the time of writing, the NRK article has received more than 29 000 shares, comments and reactions on Facebook, according to data from CrowdTangle, a social media analysis tool.

Less than 24 hours after it was published, NRK added a comprehensive correction to the original story, and expressed strong regret concerning the article. The correction and apology followed a wave of criticism against the original article and accusations that NRK contributed to the spread of conspiracy theories according to which the coronavirus is man-made.

Faktisk.no has analyzed traffic data from NRK and investigated how the original article spread on social media. In addition, we have mapped the spread of a Forbes.com article that repeated the content of the original NRK article.

Our investigations show that the content of NRK’s article reached millions of people. It was spread online by people and groups belonging to the radical right, the anti-vaccination movement, and conspiracy theorists.

Far fewer read follow-up

According to NRK traffic data, which the broadcaster shared with Faktisk.no, almost 626 000 users accessed the article on NRK.no between its publication Sunday evening and Tuesday afternoon.

Note that a user is not equivalent to a unique person. It can also be a single person accessing the article from different units or browsers.

Monday afternoon, NRK published a follow-up article entitled «Norwegian experts: – Unlikely that the virus originated in a lab».

By Tuesday afternoon, this story had been accessed by almost 127 000 users, slightly more than a fifth of the number achieved by the first article.

Eight times more readers before correction

17:34 Monday evening, NRK added a large correction to the first article. However, the corrected version reached far fewer readers than the original.

Based on NRK traffic data, Faktisk.no has calculated the approximate number of users that accessed the article before and after the correction was published.

While more than 550 000 users accessed the article before it was corrected, less than 70 000 did so after the correction was added on Tuesday afternoon.

The upshot is that about eight times as many users accessed the article before the correction was added than after.

Less engagement

The follow-up article also generated less engagement on social media compared to the original article. While the original garnered more than 29 000 shares, reactions and comments, the follow-up only garnered around 970.

CrowdTangle data indicates that engagement around the original article had subsided markedly before NRK added the correction. Most of the posts that shared the article were published on June 7th.

Most of the posts from Tuesday containing a link to the article were published before NRK published the correction.

The Progress Party and a Norwegian-Russian forum

The NRK article was shared by a number of disparate Facebook groups.

Apart from NRK's own Facebook page, Vestfold and Telemark Frp, a group run by a local fraction of the right-wing Progress Party, made the greatest contribution to the spread of the article. The group shared the article with their roughly 6000 followers accompanied by the text «Norwegian researcher -Covid-19 is man-made, which will make it harder to create a vaccine that isn't dangerous.....».

In comments on the post, several of the group's followers linked the coronavirus to China, while others connected it to biological warfare. Some expressed their disappointment that the local party had shared an article that nourishes conspiracy theories. Later, Vestfold and Telemark Frp posted NRK's follow-up article in the comments.

Other groups that have contributed significantly to the spread of the article include:

  • Норвегия на русском (Norway in Russian), a group affiliated with the website Russisk.org, a forum for Russians living in Norway.
  • Support doctors without sponsors («Støt Læger uden sponsor»), a Danish group that supports alternative medicine and claims to be opposed to «forced vaccinations».
  • Norwegians supporting Israel («Nordmenn som støtter Israel»).

On Twitter, NRK-host Fredrik Solvang made the greatest contribution to the spread of the article. His tweet containing a link to the article garnered 534 interactions. Solvang also shared the article on his private Facebook profile, where he later expressed regret at having contributed to its spread.

English version goes viral

The spread of the NRK article increased by several orders of magnitude when Forbes.com published an English article whose contents were based on NRK's story. The Forbes article has been substantially rewritten, but the original can be viewed in an archived version.

Foto: Skjermbilde fra Forbes.com.

The original Forbes title was «Norway Scientist Claims Report Proves Coronavirus Was Lab-Made». While Forbes wrote that the Norwegian researcher claims that his study shows that the coronavirus was created in a lab, far from everyone noticed that particular nuance.

A clear majority of those who shared and commented on the Forbes article took it to confirm what they already knew: That China is lying, and that the coronavirus was in fact created by scientists in a lab.

Forbes' story went viral on both Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook alone, the article has been shared more than 251 000 times, according to CrowdTangle data. Additionally, it has received more than 721 000 reactions and almost 264 000 comments.

That adds up to more than 1,2 million interactions on Facebook alone. On Twitter, the article was interacted with roughly 70 000 times.

Removed and revised

The Forbes article was written by David Nikel, a so-called «senior contributor» to Forbes.com. As a senior contributor, Nikel is not employed by Forbes, but creates content that he publishes directly on the website.

The content created by members of Forbes' network of contributors is not subject to the same quality control before publication as articles produced by ordinary Forbes journalists. Hence, contributors can be compared to bloggers.

Faktisk.no reached out to Nikel, who forwarded our questions to Forbes, stating that doing so is in accordance with the terms of his contract with the company.

Among other things, we asked what kind of control content from Forbes contributors is subjected to, why the article underwent extensive revision, and whether it is correct that the article was taken down temporarily. Forbes only answered the last question:

– The original article was taken down so that the contributor could address inaccuracies and conduct additional reporting. The updated piece has now been re-published, a Forbes spokesperson wrote in an e-mail.

The superspreader

Faktisk.no has mapped the accounts that contributed the most to spreading the Forbes article on social media. On both Facebook and Twitter, the «superspreader» is Raheem Kassam, a controversial British figure. According to Kassam himself, his main claims to fame is having been editor of Breitbart London and the closest adviser to Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Kassam has been described as an «alt-right profile» by British media and academics. He once jockeyed for the position as leader of UKIP, a political party with connection to extreme nationalism and xenophobic right wing populism, according to Store norske leksikon, a Norwegian encyclopedia. Breitbart is affiliated with the US alt-right movement, and has received criticism for spreading racist content and conspiracy theories.

When Kassam shared the Forbes article with his almost 400 000 combined followers on Twitter and Facebook, he only wrote «Oh...». That resulted in 9600 interactions on Facebook and more than 15 700 interactions on Twitter.

These numbers place Kassam on the top of the list of those who have contributed the most to spreading the Forbes article on both Facebook and Twitter.

Texas politician

Our investigation shows that those who have been most successful in spreading the Forbes article, overwhelmingly belong to groups known for spreading disinformation. This is especially true with regard to Facebook, with Twitter presenting a more diverse picture.

On Facebook, the US politician Sid Miller garnered the most reactions, comments and shares, after Raheem Kassam.

Miller is the Texas Agriculture Commissioner. Accordiong to the New York Times, he has previously shared conspiratorial posts connecting the billionaire investor George Soros to the protests following the death of George Floyd. According to the Texas Tribune, Miller wrote, among other things, that Soros had paid the protestors to destroy the country.

Between them, the ten Facebook groups and pages that have contributed the most to the engagement around the Forbes article, have almost 3,7 million followers, according to CrowdTangle data.

Note that some of the followers of these groups and pages may overlap, which means that the actual number of people the article was shared with, may be somewhat lower:

Anti-vaxxers and Trump supporters

In addition to Kassam and Miller, a number of Facebook groups contributed to the spread of the Forbes article:

  • Reopen USA, a group for people opposed to the social distancing and lockdown measures that have been implemented in the US as a response to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • 4biddenknowledge, a group run by Billy Carson. Among other things, Carson is the author of the nonfiction book «Compendium of the Emerald Tablets», where he describes and interprets tablets claimed to be written by «an ancient being known as Thoth the Atlantean», according to the book's description on Amazon.
  • Collective Action Against Bill Gates. We Won't Be Vaccinated!, a group devoted to spreading conspiracy theories about Microsoft founder Bill Gates, as well as about vaccines.

In addition, the article generated substantial engagement among Trump supporters in groups like «Team Trump 2020» and «Elect Conservatives», as well as groups connected to the conspiratorial QAnon movement. Among other things, QAnon adherents believe that a global elite is attempting to undermine Trump, according to The Guardian, a British newspaper. Moreover, followers of QAnon believe that members of this elite engage in ritualistic child abuse, and that the coronavirus is part of a larger conspiracy.

In the group Coronavirus Emergency Response Bangladesh, the Forbes article was met with criticism before it was corrected, and several members argued that the content of the article ran contrary to established scientific knowledge.

YouTube celebrities and QAnon

As on Facebook, Raheem Kassam received the largest number of likes and retweets among those who shared the Forbes article:

In addition to Kassam, a diverse group of Twitter accounts have generated significant engagement around the article:

  • KEEM (@KEEMStar), who runs the YouTube channel DramaAlert, where he posts videos about fights and conflicts between social media celebrities. The channel has 5,5 million subscribers.
  • Mykie (@GlamandGore), who runs the YouTube make-up channel Glam&Gore. The channel has 3,94 million subscribers.
  • Jordan Sather (@Jordan_Sather), a YouTube personality who also appears to either sell or promote food supplements. His channel, «Destroying the Illusion», has 227 000 subscribers, and regularly uploads conspiratorial videoes about vaccines and the QAnon movement.
  • Avi Yemini (@OzraeliAvi) who allegedly has referred to himself as a spokesperson for the British anti-islam activist Tommy Robinson, who Faktisk.no has written about in the past. Yemini's YouTube channel, where he uploads videoes with titles like «TROLLING Climate Change Protesters», has 379 000 subscribers

Forbes refrained from answering Faktisk.no's questions about what they think of the fact that their article has contributed to spreading disinformation to such a large number of people.

Refrains from responding

NRK also refrained from answering this question, as well as a question about NRK's responsibility as a public broadcaster to avoid spreading conspiracy theories.

Instead, Marius Tetlie, the executive editor at NRK's News Departement, sent a general statement by e-mail:

– These figures make the importance of being conscious that we ought to be fact-based, balanced and quick to correct errors when there are sufficient grounds to do so. We began the process of correcting our story and writing a follow-up Monday morning. Our concern was to ensure that the follow-up article, where scientists and others criticized Sørensen's findings, was well exposed to readers. The article was one of the main stories on nrk.no for several hours.

– It was also important to us to add a clear correction at the beginning of the original article. Our routines for quality control are sound, but in this case we did not do our job well enough. As we have emphasized and said both through NRK and other media outlets, the article should have been more balanced.

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