Content moderation is already a big headache for social networks.
As protests against racial injustice erupted amid the coronavirus pandemic, conspiracy theorists quickly took to Facebook and Twitter to try to link the two events.
On Facebook , social media users spread a false conspiracy theory that the protests over the police killing of George Floyd were meant to "start a race war to impose further lockdown restrictions" because people were starting to see through the coronavirus "hoax." Others falsely said the "elite" created both the pandemic and protests to control citizens.
Twitter users also turned to conspiracy theories. Some wrongly pointed to images of protesters packed tightly together as proof the pandemic was a government hoax because there wasn't an immediate spike in COVID-19 cases. Others pushed misinformation that Black people were immune to the virus or that social distancing had ended.
A pandemic, societal protests and a contentious election have created an especially challenging environment for Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Content moderators and fact-checkers are struggling to prevent the spread of obvious misinformation while giving users space to voice their opinions.
The problem has gotten knottier for the online platforms as false claims about both the health crisis and Floyd's killing collide, making content moderation decisions -- taxing in the best of situations -- even tougher. The social networks have said they'll remove coronavirus misinformation that promote dangerous behaviors such as drinking bleach to cure the disease or that offer unproven remedies.
"It really is like a perfect storm of events that have brought us here," said Eugene Kiely, director of the fact-checking website FactCheck.org, which partners with Facebook. "I can't remember a time where we had so many things going on at the same time that invited these conspiratorial patterns."
From May 28 to June 26, there have been 116,101 mentions that refer to both the coronavirus and the protests as a hoax, according to media intelligence company Zignal Labs, which analyzes data from social media and news outlets. Most of these mentions came from Twitter, but the conspiracy theories also popped up on Reddit. CNET also found dozens of posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that include false claims about both the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests.
A Facebook spokeswoman said the social network's efforts to fight such misinformation include automated detection systems, fact-checking and reducing content distribution. She also said Facebook is removing content that violates its rules. The company said it pulled down hundreds of thousands of posts that contain harmful coronavirus misinformation, but that data doesn't include posts about the Floyd protests.
Twitter adds a label to tweets containing coronavirus misinformation, including a widespread conspiracy theory that 5G causes the coronavirus. Clicking on the label directs users to authoritative sources. (The company relies heavily on automated technology, which has mistakenly applied the label to factually accurate content.) "Our team is currently reviewing other types of content and will label additional tweets soon," a Twitter spokeswoman said.
On April 1, Twitter said it had removed more than 1,100 misleading and potentially harmful tweets since the company rolled out new guidance on March 18 that barred content that could increase the spread of the coronavirus. Twitter hasn't released any new numbers since the protests began.
Confusing -- and sometimes contradictory -- statements by authorities have fueled online chatter about conspiracies. Some health experts and politicians have encouraged citizens to protest racial injustice, saying bigotry also constitutes a health threat. At the same time, they've asked protesters to wear masks and practice social distancing. Conservatives who faced criticism for objecting to lockdown measures because the economic toll could weigh on mental health have called this a double standard.
Similarly, mixed messages about the effectiveness of masks for preventing the spread of the coronavirus have helped spur rumors. Early in the health crisis, as frontline health workers faced a shortage of protective gear, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization said people didn't need to wear masks unless they were sick or caring for someone ill. Now both organizations encourage the general public to wear face coverings when going out.
The word "hoax" has also been amplified by President Donald Trump, though there's been confusion about whether he's called the coronavirus itself a hoax. Fact-checking site Snopes said Trump used the term to refer to the Democrats' criticism about his administration's response to the coronavirus.
Online coronavirus conspiracy theories have the potential to affect health in the real world. A University of Oxford study found that people in England who believe coronavirus conspiracy theories are less likely to follow government guidance such as staying at home, wearing a mask or keeping six feet apart.
Joseph Uscinski, an associate political science professor at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories, said some people have a worldview in which events and circumstances are the product of conspiracies. It's hard to get those people to change their minds.
"In my experience, it seems to be the case that if something's coming from their worldview and it's close to their heart, they're not going to give up easily," Uscinski said.
The overlap of social unrest and a global health crisis has created fertile grounds for conspiracy theories. Social media posts linking the two events warn of a dark plot to control society, a common trope in conspiracy theories. In late May, thousands of Facebook users shared a 1,000-word post that claimed Floyd's killing was "staged" to incite "racial tensions." The post asked if it was "mere coincidence" that the killing happened during the outbreak. Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, told FactCheck.org that nothing was staged.
Fact-checkers have also debunked false claims that Floyd's death was recorded before the pandemic. Another false Facebook post claimed that former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted there was a conspiratorial "pattern" in the pandemic and protests, as well as other events. The tweet came from a fake Sanders account on Twitter.
Facebook and Twitter have rules against posting coronavirus content that could cause harm, such as encouraging people to ignore social distancing. Both companies are generally reluctant to remove posts that contain misinformation, but the merging of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and the protests gives them more leeway to take down problematic content because of the potential for harm.
Facebook appears to be taking a tougher stance than Twitter when it comes to coronavirus conspiracy theories. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said decisions about coronavirus misinformation are closer to "black and white" than they are for political misinformation.
To get an idea of where Facebook draws the line, CNET showed the social network several posts that called both the coronavirus pandemic and the protests a hoax. The posts appeared on Facebook and on the Facebook-owned Instagram photo-sharing service. On Instagram, one user posted a photo of a protester wearing a mask and holding up a sign that says "I can't breathe." Below that image was a picture of Star Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard doing a facepalm, above the caption "Take off the mask." The post included the hashtag #coronavirushoax, which was enough to get it yanked.
Facebook also removed two other posts that claimed the coronavirus and Floyd's death were hoaxes. The social network said it took the posts down because they could lead to imminent physical harm by discouraging people from getting treatment or from taking precautions against the virus.
On Twitter, simply tweeting that the coronavirus virus is a hoax isn't enough for the company to pull down the content. Twitter said it considers the content "strong commentary and conspiratorial content" that doesn't meet its bar for removal. Twitter's guidance states that to be removed, claims such as "coronavirus is a fraud" must include a "call to action," such as encouraging people to stop washing their hands.
Twitter has left up tweets that say the coronavirus is a government hoax or that question whether the coronavirus impacts Black people. CNET showed Twitter a tweet posted in early June that said Floyd's death exposed the "bullshit & hoax of the coronavirus" because there wasn't an immediate spike in COVID-19 infections. Twitter left up the post.
The company, though, removed a tweet about the protests that included the false claim that Black people are immune to the virus. It also pulled down a tweet that encouraged people to take off their masks because protests have shown that "social distancing is over."
Conspiracy theories that are spread online can have consequences in the real world. In 2016, a North Carolina man fired a rifle in a Washington, DC, pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong while investigating a debunked conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate. Conspiracy theorists speculated that Hillary Clinton, who was a presidential candidate that year, was linked to a child-sex-trafficking ring run from the restaurant.
The QAnon conspiracy theory, which involves an alleged "deep state" plot against Trump, has bled into the real world. QAnon proponents have shown up at the president's rallies and an armed man staged a blockade at the Hoover Dam in an effort to get documents QAnon followers believe will expose the deep state. Trump has also retweeted a QAnon hashtag to his 82.4 million followers.
Kathryn Olmsted, a history professor at the University of California, Davis, who teaches classes on conspiracy theories, said humans often look for patterns and want to see connections. Amid a pandemic and protests for racial justice, people might find it easier to make up conspiracy theories than to face reality.
"One way that social psychologists say that people look for connections is through conspiracy theories and that it can be more comforting to find a pattern then to confirm the world as it is today," Olmsted said.