New Delhi: Twitter discussions on the Covid vaccine made by AstraZeneca, a UK-based biopharmaceutical firm, in collaboration with the Oxford University, are filled with disinformation, a study by two Polish researchers has found.
According to the study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, the activity of media sites known for disinformation — activity with respect to the AstraZeneca vaccine — increased following reports about the shot causing blood clots in some recipients. Fear-mongering, the researchers said, could be the likely aim.
The sites named include GreatGameIndia, a Hyderabad-based portal that has been accused of perpetuating conspiracy theories, and the Russian-state-backed media organisation RT, which has been described as a propaganda tool.
The study has been conducted by Professor Dariusz Jemielniak, a professor at Poland’s Kozminski University and a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, and Yaroslav Krempovych, a PhD student under the former in Poland.
Titled ‘#AstraZeneca vaccine disinformation on Twitter’, it was uploaded on the preprint portal Medrxiv on 16 April 2021.
The researchers said the study seeks to look at how content about the AstraZeneca vaccine has spread on Twitter, especially through coordinated networks. The tweets analysed include those from the period before the blood clot reports, and after.
The study “found that the news most common in the frequently retweeted tweets abound in negative information, and in many cases come from media sources well-known for disinformation”.
However, one of the researchers told ThePrint on email that this does not automatically mean the sites were spreading fake news about AstraZeneca.
There was “also true information”, said Jemielniak. “But the activity of media sources often involved in misinformation hugely increased after news of blood clots. We are saying that there possibly were coordination efforts aimed at fear mongering,” he added.
Disinformation, seen as a subset of misinformation, conveys a deliberate attempt to spread fake news.
Reached for comment, GreatGameIndia questioned the methodology of the study and said the “derogatory accusations leveled” at it “are not just misleading but also malicious”.
‘Non-organic propagation of news’
The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is one of the two currently being administered in India, where it is manufactured by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII).
According to the researchers, they chose to look at tweets about AstraZeneca “due to its media coverage related to the allegedly lower comparative efficacy, tensions over EU-UK exports, as well as an alleged link to very rare cases of blood clots”.
The research focused on 50,080 English tweets with the hashtag “AstraZeneca” from 1 January to 22 March this year.
The research compared tweets from two periods — before and after 7 March 2021, when it was reported that Austria had suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine following the death of one recipient and illness in another, both linked to blood clotting.
“We were interested in observing (for) e.g. if there is a change in the media sources that are most retweeted,” Jemielniak said.
For both time periods, the study lists the top 10 media sources that are featured in tweets about AstraZeneca. This list was derived from a pool of tweets that had been retweeted more than 10 times.
The paper notes that GreatGameIndia.com, “known for disinformation, conspiracy theories, and in particular Covid-19 fake news”, was number five before 7 March, but rose to second position in the latter phase. This means that among tweets retweeted more than 10 times, GreatGameIndia made for the second-largest share.
RT, “well known for disinformation”, was the top media source in this regard before and after 7 March.
According to the study, “a non-organic propagation of news by an orchestrated group of professionals” may be the reason why RT content on AstraZeneca is most shared.
The researchers hypothesise that this activity could be linked to the fact that Russia has its own Covid vaccine, Sputnik-V.
“Given the fact that Russia has a heavy interest in promoting its own Sputnik-V vaccine, both for economic and political reasons, the activity of RT in posting often negative information about #AstraZeneca may be perceived as part of a larger campaign, potentially aimed at discrediting the vaccine,” the paper notes.
“Out of top 20 retweeted news from RT, 19 were negative about AstraZeneca,” Jemielniak told ThePrint.
Independent experts say the study, which employed algorithms, among other tools, requires deeper investigation before its findings can be trusted.
“The techniques used here for analysing the spread of this information are reasonable and have been used elsewhere. But without comparing the spread of this particular piece of news with that of others (including other real and fake stories), we cannot really be certain the results are accurate,” said Debayan Gupta, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Ashoka University.
“In addition one must take a closer look at the data, and code used to analyse the data — both to verify these claims, and to make sure the data used was valid and code used had no bugs or errors in it,” he added.
Meanwhile, in a statement attributed to co-founders Raja Sekhar & Shelley Kasli, GreatGameIndia said it would be “ridiculous and malicious to brand any news organisation as spreading incorrect information based on an increased number of retweets in a specific duration”.
The site said the study authors “referenced another news report” and “simply stated GreatGameIndia (is) spreading disinformation”.
The report in question dealt with an article carried by the site that claimed Chinese agents linked to the country’s biological warfare programme stole the coronavirus behind the current pandemic from a Canadian lab. The report blamed the initial Wuhan outbreak in China on a “suspected leak” from a lab.
“The referenced news report cited in the paper concluded within a short span that our story on Wuhan lab was disinformation, when even the official WHO investigation in the matter is still inconclusive,” GreatGameIndia said in its email response.
A team of international scientists that visited Wuhan to study the origin of Covid, at the WHO’s instance, submitted its report in March, saying a leak was the least likely hypothesis. However, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus subsequently said the possibility of a leak causing the pandemic requires further investigation. He said he’s ready to deploy additional missions involving specialist experts to investigate the same.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)