May 7, 2020

On March 17, Luiza Bandeira, a research assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, found a set of Facebook pages and profiles that were oddly similar. All of them were created in South Africa within days of each other. All included scary coronavirus content. And they were all selling masks.

Luiza and her team at the Atlantic Council investigated the relationship between those pages and profiles and concluded that there were even more connections among them.

They shared the same managers and some of them were connected to newly created fake profiles.  All were spreading COVID-19 misinformation to thousands of Facebook users across the world.

The logic behind those 33 pages — created by one digital marketing firm — was quite simple and based on psychology.

Facebook users who were already extremely concerned and frightened about the new coronavirus would easily join those pages to share their anxieties. In a few hours or days, they would receive links with information like: “Two Wuhan Funeral Homes Cremating 300+ Bodies a Day;” “Creator of US BioWeapons Act Says Coronavirus Is Biological Warfare Weapon;,” and  “Hubei Doctors Warn Of Even-Deadlier Coronavirus Reinfection Causing Sudden Heart Attacks.” All were designed to escalate their panic.

After alarming their followers, the South African-based pages and profiles would then offer a miracle: a set of masks for 179 South African rands, or $10.

“What are you doing today to protect yourself and your family?” said the message, at the right moment.

I know. It hurts to realize that there are people in this world who are willing to take advantage of despair just to make money. But there is no worse blind than those who do not want to see. So let’s be prepared for those digital leeches.

Investigations such as the  Atlantic Council’s are more needed than ever. They complement fact-checkers’ work. In fact, they should be fully coordinated. The fact-checker points out a hoax. Investigators try to understand how it was born. At the end of this line, there should be a social media platform taking action. In the South African case, it was Facebook.

“We removed these pages and groups for misleading people about their purpose and attempting to evade our prohibition on the sale of medical equipment,” a Facebook company spokesperson said in a statement sent to the Atlantic Council.

But, according to Luiza, the problem continues. Financial motives drive the distribution of falsehoods.

A few days ago, Luiza found Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups in Brazil with similar characteristics. Again, misinformation about COVID-19 was being used to raise panic and encourage users to buy an … ozone generator! Oh. Yes.

“I am selling ozone generators. Those who are interested, please send me messages in private. Ozone fights the virus both in the environment and inside the body,” wrote, in Portuguese, a member of a WhatsApp group called “Urgent Corona virus.”

Just like fact-checkers, Luiza and the researchers at the Atlantic Council chase these pandemic hoaxes around the globe. And no, ozone does not cure COVID-19.

Read this article in Spanish at Univision.

* Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.

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Cristina Tardáguila is the International Fact-Checking Network’s Associate Director. She was born in May 1980, in Brazil, and has lived in Rio de Janeiro for…
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