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      COVID-19 and the 5G Conspiracy Theory: Social Network Analysis of Twitter Data

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          Abstract

          Background

          Since the beginning of December 2019, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has spread rapidly around the world, which has led to increased discussions across online platforms. These conversations have also included various conspiracies shared by social media users. Amongst them, a popular theory has linked 5G to the spread of COVID-19, leading to misinformation and the burning of 5G towers in the United Kingdom. The understanding of the drivers of fake news and quick policies oriented to isolate and rebate misinformation are keys to combating it.

          Objective

          The aim of this study is to develop an understanding of the drivers of the 5G COVID-19 conspiracy theory and strategies to deal with such misinformation.

          Methods

          This paper performs a social network analysis and content analysis of Twitter data from a 7-day period (Friday, March 27, 2020, to Saturday, April 4, 2020) in which the #5GCoronavirus hashtag was trending on Twitter in the United Kingdom. Influential users were analyzed through social network graph clusters. The size of the nodes were ranked by their betweenness centrality score, and the graph’s vertices were grouped by cluster using the Clauset-Newman-Moore algorithm. The topics and web sources used were also examined.

          Results

          Social network analysis identified that the two largest network structures consisted of an isolates group and a broadcast group. The analysis also revealed that there was a lack of an authority figure who was actively combating such misinformation. Content analysis revealed that, of 233 sample tweets, 34.8% (n=81) contained views that 5G and COVID-19 were linked, 32.2% (n=75) denounced the conspiracy theory, and 33.0% (n=77) were general tweets not expressing any personal views or opinions. Thus, 65.2% (n=152) of tweets derived from nonconspiracy theory supporters, which suggests that, although the topic attracted high volume, only a handful of users genuinely believed the conspiracy. This paper also shows that fake news websites were the most popular web source shared by users; although, YouTube videos were also shared. The study also identified an account whose sole aim was to spread the conspiracy theory on Twitter.

          Conclusions

          The combination of quick and targeted interventions oriented to delegitimize the sources of fake information is key to reducing their impact. Those users voicing their views against the conspiracy theory, link baiting, or sharing humorous tweets inadvertently raised the profile of the topic, suggesting that policymakers should insist in the efforts of isolating opinions that are based on fake news. Many social media platforms provide users with the ability to report inappropriate content, which should be used. This study is the first to analyze the 5G conspiracy theory in the context of COVID-19 on Twitter offering practical guidance to health authorities in how, in the context of a pandemic, rumors may be combated in the future.

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          Most cited references 10

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          Next Generation 5G Wireless Networks: A Comprehensive Survey

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            Data Mining and Content Analysis of the Chinese Social Media Platform Weibo During the Early COVID-19 Outbreak: Retrospective Observational Infoveillance Study

            Background The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which began in Wuhan, China in December 2019, is rapidly spreading worldwide with over 1.9 million cases as of mid-April 2020. Infoveillance approaches using social media can help characterize disease distribution and public knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors critical to the early stages of an outbreak. Objective The aim of this study is to conduct a quantitative and qualitative assessment of Chinese social media posts originating in Wuhan City on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Methods Chinese-language messages from Wuhan were collected for 39 days between December 23, 2019, and January 30, 2020, on Weibo. For quantitative analysis, the total daily cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan were obtained from the Chinese National Health Commission, and a linear regression model was used to determine if Weibo COVID-19 posts were predictive of the number of cases reported. Qualitative content analysis and an inductive manual coding approach were used to identify parent classifications of news and user-generated COVID-19 topics. Results A total of 115,299 Weibo posts were collected during the study time frame consisting of an average of 2956 posts per day (minimum 0, maximum 13,587). Quantitative analysis found a positive correlation between the number of Weibo posts and the number of reported cases from Wuhan, with approximately 10 more COVID-19 cases per 40 social media posts (P<.001). This effect size was also larger than what was observed for the rest of China excluding Hubei Province (where Wuhan is the capital city) and held when comparing the number of Weibo posts to the incidence proportion of cases in Hubei Province. Qualitative analysis of 11,893 posts during the first 21 days of the study period with COVID-19-related posts uncovered four parent classifications including Weibo discussions about the causative agent of the disease, changing epidemiological characteristics of the outbreak, public reaction to outbreak control and response measures, and other topics. Generally, these themes also exhibited public uncertainty and changing knowledge and attitudes about COVID-19, including posts exhibiting both protective and higher-risk behaviors. Conclusions The results of this study provide initial insight into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak based on quantitative and qualitative analysis of Chinese social media data at the initial epicenter in Wuhan City. Future studies should continue to explore the utility of social media data to predict COVID-19 disease severity, measure public reaction and behavior, and evaluate effectiveness of outbreak communication.
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              Social Media and the Arab Spring

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                Author and article information

                Contributors
                Journal
                J Med Internet Res
                J. Med. Internet Res
                JMIR
                Journal of Medical Internet Research
                JMIR Publications (Toronto, Canada )
                1439-4456
                1438-8871
                May 2020
                6 May 2020
                6 May 2020
                : 22
                : 5
                Affiliations
                [1 ] Newcastle University Newcastle upon Tyne United Kingdom
                [2 ] Health Promotion in Rural Areas Research Group Gerència Territorial de la Catalunya Central Institut Català de la Salut Sant Fruitós de Bages Spain
                [3 ] Unitat de Suport a la Recerca de la Catalunya Central Fundació Institut Universitari per a la Recerca a l'Atenció Primària de Salut Jordi Gol i Gurina Sant Fruitós de Bages Spain
                [4 ] London School of Economics European Institute London United Kingdom
                [5 ] TIC Salut Social Generalitat de Catalunya Barcelona Spain
                [6 ] CRES & CEXS Universitat Pompeu Fabra Barcelona Spain
                Author notes
                Corresponding Author: Wasim Ahmed Wasim.Ahmed@ 123456Newcastle.ac.uk
                Article
                v22i5e19458
                10.2196/19458
                7205032
                32352383
                ©Wasim Ahmed, Josep Vidal-Alaball, Joseph Downing, Francesc López Seguí. Originally published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (http://www.jmir.org), 06.05.2020.

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work, first published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, is properly cited. The complete bibliographic information, a link to the original publication on http://www.jmir.org/, as well as this copyright and license information must be included.

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