It seems Americans are not on the same page about COVID-19. 25% of Americans still believe that the pandemic was planned and executed by powerful people. In this post I’ll look at how misinformation spread on Parler and correlate external domains to the conversation happening within the network.
This is part 3 of a multi-part series where I analyze data scraped from Parler before it was shut down by Amazon. In part 1, I analyzed the frequency of violent hashtags, and in part 2 I got distracted by the bizarre campaign finance records of Marjorie Taylor Greene and the quarter million in dark money that made its way into Parler over the course of a single month.
As of March 10th, anyone can search the full dataset and download my full dataset, with all archived pictures and videos from Parler’s CDN. Thank you to all the incredible people on the Internet who helped make this possible.
What is misinformation?
I occasionally browsed Parler while crawling it, and was fascinated by its “billionaire conspiracies”. In such a conspiracy, a billionaire is involved in some reprehensible secret activity, such as this video about Bill Gates shared over 72,000 times on Facebook. The spurious argument is that a multi-billionaire could apply his knowledge of computer viruses and their antivirus software toward creating human viruses and the corresponding vaccine. The comment section is a war zone between those who subscribe to the theory and those who find it ridiculous.
The video I linked to above was released in early April (the left-most red line above), and was barely noticed on Parler. Toward the end of June, a now-deleted Facebook video claimed Bill Gates was planning to use vaccines to depopulate the Earth (second red line). As the national discourse shifted toward vaccine development, a series of blatant lies (debunked here) were widely shared on Facebook and Parler, claiming the Gates Foundation paralyzed kids while distributing vaccines in third-world countries. By December, enough people had died of coronavirus in America that all but the most conspiratorial minds were forced to accept the fact that the disease is indeed out there. Just like the virus, the misinformation around the virus mutated into a rallying cry against public safety measures proposed by Bill Gates and a debate as to whether the benefits of opening the economy outweigh the deaths it would cause.
Misinformation is constantly adapting
This was a popular post on Parler from September 26th, 2020. As I mentioned in part 1, I will not be publishing any usernames or helping you find who wrote this.
We have the Medicines !!
We have the logistics/hospitals !!
We already are at #herdimmunity
#Mask =Sick, vulnerable or terrorist.
Ask #DrJudyAMikovits and about #FauciTheFraud !
#USA USA USA!
Dr. Atlas Breaks Down the REAL COVID-19 Numbers on The Ingraham Angle — Rebukes CDC Director Dr. Redfield on Scare Tactics (VIDEO)
While many of us got our information from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the rest of America was listening to Dr. Scott Atlas voice opinions on Fox News that masks and social distancing don’t work. These videos were viewed and reposted thousands of times on Parler.
Even after Dr. Scott Atlas resigned from the coronavirus task force on November 30th following a Tweet encouraging Michigan residents to “rise up” against newly announced COVID restrictions, the momentum of doubt cast upon lockdowns and masks was enough to keep growing without him.
I don’t want to say anything against Dr. Atlas as a person but I totally disagree with the stand he takes. I just do, period.
— Dr. Anthony Fauci, November 19th, 2020, NBC News
Misinformation videos that inspire violence
From anecdotal browsing experience, I would see a good amount of outrage in the comments associated with posts that had a video. I first filtered my dataset for posts linking to videos that contained violent hashtags, or whose average comment had a very negative sentiment when passed into AWS Comprehend. I have not evaluated the Comprehend piece thoroughly, but adding/removing it does not significantly change the results.
I weighted each hashtag by the impressions and comments on its associated posts, then picked the top 100 hashtags and the web domains they led to.
Misinformation videos that evoke a violent response (“hang the traitors”, “kill all of them”, etc) is primarily hosted by two sites — BitChute and Youtube. Keep in mind that Google, which owns Youtube, was the first to ban Parler from the Google Play store for inciting violence.
Only after doubling the threshold for hashtag frequency does another video site (Rumble) begin to appear.
A significant part of America does not know about these sites. Facebook is not suggesting them, Twitter is not recommending to follow them, and Google is not showing them in the first page of results.
The Pirate Bay
The popular file-sharing website ThePirateBay allows anyone on the Internet to download the plans for a 3D-printable single-shot handgun. Despite significant controversy and US government intervention, TPB defended their decision to host the information.
We don’t condone gun violence. We believe that the world needs less guns, not more of them. We believe however that these prints will stay on the internets regardless of blocks and censorship, since that’s how the internets works. If there’s a lunatic out there who wants to print guns to kill people, he or she will do it. With or without TPB. Better to have these prints out in the open internets (TPB) and up for peer review (the comment threads), than semi hidden in the darker parts of the internet.
As long as there is someone out there willing to blame Bill Gates for the pandemic or call George Soros a Nazi, there will be a place on the Internet that is willing to give a voice to their ideas. When these places shut down, the people on these platforms scatter to the next place on the Internet that will take them.
One question we should be asking is whether we should banish certain ideas to an echo chamber that others have no incentive to enter, or should we allow free expression of all ideas — no matter how repulsive — so some higher ideal for Internet discourse may have the opportunity to prevail.
You can follow me on Twitter where I exclusively post about data science topics. In part 4, I’ll use the complete scrape of Parler from the Internet Archive to follow its users to new corners of the Internet where they probably used the same username. Not going to be naming any names, just looking at the statistics and estimating based on that.
If you are a researcher or just a curious person, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org to request the data, which I would be more than happy to send to you. I have emailed many people just this week, and still think we need more eyes on this problem. The full scrape of Parler is 1/6th ready if you would like that as well.