CONICET research team has refuted more than a hundred fake news on coronavirus

Led by researcher Soledad Gori, this research team began the task when the isolation period started.

Anti Fake News research team. Photo: courtesy Soledad Gori.

During the first days of social and preventive isolation, without her daily routine and in her one room flat, CONICET researcher Soledad Gori thought of an idea that then became a large project. Her family was really worried about the outbreak of coronavirus. As her work was linked to health and science, she was plagued by questions such as: “Can the ‘mate’ transmit the virus?”, “Can a hot drink cure it?”, “Has it all begun with a bat?” She answered them and began to work at home as she could not go to the “Inmunopharmacology Laboratory of the Institute for Biological Chemistry of the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences (IQUIBICEN, CONICET-UBA)”, where she studies the cause of miscarriages in pregnant women. Suddenly the questions took on a new dimension when she realized that the fake news were spreading through the media and social networks very quickly. The only possible way to tackle those questions was to research available scientific papers. 

“We have already refuted more than one hundred fake news, a lot more than I’ve imagined, ” says Gori, who had formed the team with other fifteen scientific colleagues  to deal with those questions as part of the project Science Anti Fake News in the first days of confinement. The members are all from the areas of Biological, Health, Exact and Natural Sciences. Some of them also work as volunteers analyzing daily coronavirus diagnostic samples. Everyone who joined felt committed to contribute as scientists to the pandemic and realized that with their knowledge of papers and research in health they could provide verified information from available scientific evidence. 

“When the pandemic began, we quickly organized ourselves and called our colleagues because we believe that science had to meet the needs of the population. We thought about providing our knowledge to the organism that unites us, CONICET, as a good way to collaborate,” says Belén Almejun, CONICET researcher at the “Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Endocrinology of the Institute of Physiology, Molecular Biology and Neurosciences IFIBYNE, CONICET-UBA), and the first one to be called by Gori. 

In just a few days, the team organized into three commissions: one to detect and rank fake news, another to check its veracity in papers and official websites, and the third one to turn the scientific information into simple explanations for everyone. Since then, they began to work on the verification of the false pieces of news that were shared in mobile phones, social networks, and the mass media. “We all think that science should not have an individualistic, secluded place locked in the laboratory without caring what happens around,” Gori comments. 


Verified information 

Through a coordinated work between CONICET -along with the Science Anti Fake News team- and the News Agency Télam, the platform ‘Confiar’ was developed. It is a site that was created soon after the isolation period began and that has already had more than 150 visits. The scientific content of the two founding and main sections of the site True/False and Fake News are constantly updated. In the former, the diverse habits and myths about the pandemic are explained and determined if they are true or false based on scientific information. For instance, that it is true that Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is linked to a worsening of the case due to COVID-19, as it was shown in most recent publications. The third category of that section is called “Apresurado,” [hastily] which is used for issues that are still being analyzed and that it is not right to affirm if they are true or false. One example is to hastily state that pregnant women are at greater risk of severe COVID-19 because there is not enough verified data to affirm it. The next section, Fake News, gathers false news of COVID-19 in the media, social networks and whatsapp. The members of Science Anti Fake News resort to evidence to support why they are false. 

The initiative Confiar has also worked with TV Pública [public channel] in the production of audiovisual content to communicate this verified information on COVID-19. So from Monday to Friday in TV Pública twenty two short productions are broadcasted during the commercial breaks of ‘Seguimos Educando.’ 

CONICET and the team of Science Anti Fake News have also worked on animated productions about “True or False news” to disseminate this information through social networks of CONICET (Twitter and Instagram) in July and August.

This initiative’s scientists participated in interviews in tv and radio programs. All the team provided their capacity to fight the information epidemic generated during this time, which was called as ‘infodemic’ by the WHO (OMS). 


Fighting fake news

“Although they’ve been present for several years, now have we really become aware of how dangerous fake news can be,” Gori states. She is convinced that disinformation is as dangerous as the new virus. “In pandemic, one pice of fake news is serious because it affects people’s health and the society’s actions to prevent the spread  of the virus. Today we have a mixture of non-intentional fake information and intentional fake news produced and shared by somebody,” she explains. 

Gori became interested in reading and analyzing fake news some time before the pandemic while she worked in her laboratory and took her first steps as a science and feminism journalist in radio “Feminacida.” It was there that she learnt that the word fake news has been chosen as the word of the year by Oxford dictionary in 2017. She also knew about the publication of some books about post-truth and scientists have begun to analyze fake news linked to politics. Considering the uncertainty about COVID-19, she observed how the limits of the concept were exceeded and soon fake news reached the science field. 

There is one article written by one CONICET scientist at the ‘Institute of Culture and Communication of the National University of Lanús (UNLa), Pablo Méndez, in which he explains that fake news has a well determined modus operandi. It consists in raising awareness, viralizing and conditioning. In the parts of the conditioning and awareness, these fake news aim at reinforcing something that you already thought, maybe it is based on prejudice. This means that the objective is not only to misinform but also to exacerbate previous awareness about a topic,” Gori stresses. 

The Science Anti Fake news checks five to seven news items a week. One of the first pieces of fake news that they denied was the one that circulated on Whatsapp chains and affirmed that washing the nasal passages with physiological solution reduced the risk of contracting coronavirus. “There is no scientific evidence supporting that this practice prevents infections,” the scientists refuted in the section “True/False” of the Platform Confiar. “In that case we did not have sources where to verify it, it came from alternative medicine. Instead of checking nasal passages in papers, we visited the websites of official medical organizations,” Gori explains. 

Another widely installed fake news said that the coronavirus had been created in a laboratory. To refute this, the scientists managed to trace that the scientific evidence published in Nature indicates that it is highly improbable that this new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 arose from human manipulation. The coronavirus family can be traced back to a thousand years ago and, although the current one is a new strain, the characteristics of its genetic material support that it has a natural and not artificial origin (…) multiple studies (one of 2007 stands out) warned on the dangers of a coronavirus reservoir in bats and the consumption of exotic animals as ‘time bomb’ in China, reinforcing the idea of a natural origin of the virus.” That conclusion, which has had the greatest impact, is available on Platform Confiar. 


The harm of not checking 

There are certain exceptions among the news that the team receives to check or deny: some are so strange that there is no fair resolution. For instance, one person wrote an email asking if it was true that all the population was going to be infected with coronavirus at some point. “These are questions such as ‘is the world going to end?’ There is no paper that can answer that. It is beyond us. We do not know if that is going to happen. Now we are looking for an answer with the support from the ‘Argentine Society of Infectology’” says Almejun, who coordinates the commission that collects scientific evidence. 

Almejun comments that the group is concerned about the wide dissemination of news from “preliminary” scientific results. “Recently, one fake news item circulated about the possible detrimental effect that the use of antihypertensive drugs could have in patients with COVID-19. It was quickly denied by specialized scientific societies, which warned hypertensive patients not to stop taking the medication and even more so, a few days ago CONICET researchers informed that not only would the use of these drugs not be harmful but it could even be beneficial. It is a clear example of how to be cautious with preliminary works because they can make changes in behaviors and also distrust when the recommendations change with scientific evidence.” 

In the last month, new external and internal collaborators joined the research team. These new members who make contributions to the task of checking fake news: researchers from the biological area of the municipality of Esperanza, in Santa Fe, and of Chivilcoy, province of Buenos Aires: and communicators from Salta and Olavarria, who advise on scientific dissemination. “It’s a pleasure for me to collaborate with this team of CONICET researchers who in an altruistic way committed to do this task at this moment of so much health uncertainty,” says María Victoria Ennis, who holds a master in Journalism and joined the group from Olavarria, where she works as professor of Science Journalism in the ‘Faculty of Social Sciences of the Universidad Nacional del Centro (FACSO, UNICEN).’ She is also a researcher at the ‘Observatory of Media, Citizenship and Democracy, as well as a member of the group ‘Es Periodismo Científico (Specie). 

In the future, the plan is to reach the origin of the fake news the team analyzes: track where or who generated each fake piece. “We know that this would take us a long time, so we left it for a second stage,” says Gori. It is a time of greed for information, which leads to information being extracted from anywhere. The task now is very big. We do not think we are experts in coronavirus and considering the current uncertainty, we have the need to share with others what we are learning. Nobody can predict how this will end but I don’t think the fake news will finish when the coronavirus ends. I think it is a project that was born in a pandemic and has tremendous potential.” 


Science Anti Fake News Team (Tw / IG / Fb)
Coordinator: Dr. Soledad Gori (IQUIBICEN-CONICET, UBA)

Members of founding and/or current team:

Dr. Ayelén Milillo (IMEX, CONICET-ANM)

Dr. Florencia Sabbione (IMEX, CONICET-ANM)

Dr. Belén Almejun (IB3, FCEN, UBA)

Dr. Guillermina Calo (IQUIBICEN, CONICET-UBA)

Lic. Mercedes Pastorini (IMEX, CONICET-ANM)

Lic. Melanie Genoula (IMEX, CONICET-ANM)

Dr. Luciana Balboa (IMEX, CONICET-ANM)

Dr. Esteban Elías (IMEX, CONICET-ANM)

Dr. Esteban Grasso (IMEX, CONICET-ANM)

Lic. Florencia Bekier (INFIVE, CONICET-UNLP)

Dr. Joaquín Pellegrini (IQUIBICEN, CONICET-UBA)

Lic. Federico Fuchs Wightman (IFBYNE, CONICET-UBA)

Dr. Rocío Tognacca (IFBYNE, CONICET-UBA)

Lic. María Paula Morelli (IQUIBICEN, CONICET-UBA)

Lic. Julieta Alcain (IMEX, CONICET-ANM)



External reviewers:

Dr. Ezequiel Petrillo (IFBYNE, CONICET-UBA)


External collaborators:

Lic. Bárbara Farrando (FyM Chivilcoy, UTN)

Dr. Lucía Fargnoli (ICiVet, CONICET-UNL)

Mag. María Victoria Ennis (Observatorio de Medios, Ciudadanía y Democracia – FACSO UNICEN)

Lic. María Florencia Rodríguez (ICSOH, CONICET-UNSA)

Dr. Mariana Allievi (IQUIBICEN, CONICET-UBA)