Dozens of popular Facebook pages are publishing, repeating and sharing false stories about the new coronavirus across Europe, a new report has found.
NewsGuard, an analytics firm which tracks misinformation, investigated 36 Facebook pages, which it describes as "super-spreaders" of false information.
The offending pages each had more than 40,000 likes on Facebook and had a combined following of more than 13 million users.
NewsGuard found that the hoax social media pages have been targeting audiences in English, French, German, and Italian.
The findings were released despite Facebook's recent efforts to curb misinformation on the platform.
Conspiracy theories and false cures
In its report, NewsGuard highlighted examples of misinformation that were still available on Facebook on May 4, from fake cures for the virus and conspiracy theories about its spread and transmission.
In all four languages, Facebook pages were found to have shared myths that the novel coronavirus had been created in a lab, or engineered as a bioweapon, despite no evidence supporting the theory.
The French Facebook page of the conservative website Epoch Times, which has nearly 1.3 million likes, shared one article, which contained this false claim. The post from February, which suggests COVID-19 was artificially created, has been shared more than 1,200 times.
In another video in French, a Congolese pastor is filmed describing the coronavirus as a “man-made poison”. On May 6, the video had been viewed more than 856,000 times and shared by more than 28,000 users.
Meanwhile in Germany, the same "man-made" conspiracy theory was shared by the Facebook page for Compact, a magazine which has published content of the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.
The World Health Organization says most other viruses in the coronavirus family have their origins in animals.
The possible animal source of COVID-19 has not yet been confirmed but research is ongoing.
Another German-language page associated with Austrian author and naturopathic doctor Ruediger Dahlke, which has more than 176,000 likes, published the false claim that the flu vaccine is “dangerous because it promotes coronavirus infection".
Health experts at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have further debunked this claim by explaining that flu vaccines are derived from influenza viruses, a different family of virus to COVID-19.
In Italy, NewsGuard found that multiple Facebook pages had shared the same debunked rumour that lemon and hot water were a possible cure for COVID-19.
An article, first published by FanMagazine.it, was 61 times across nine of the 10 Facebook pages seen in the image below.
Virologists have told Euronews that this claimed cure is false, given how the coronavirus reacts under different acidic conditions.
And in the UK, NewsGuard found a Facebook Page associated with the website EnergyTherapy.biz, which had shared the conspiracy theory that 5G technology is linked to the spread of COVID-19.
The WHO has also released a "mythbuster" debunking the rumour that viruses can travel on radio waves or mobile networks.
While the Facebook pages had used different tactics to reach online audiences, NewsGuard did not find evidence of coordinated activity between the groups.
Facebook defends 'warning labels'
Social media platforms like Facebook have been under intense pressure to monitor and curb misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But NewsGuard says that only three of the twenty false posts in French in their report carried a Facebook warning that the information was false and had been fact-checked.
Moreover, the analytics firm says that only one German post and none of the Italian posts in the data set had been flagged.
Facebook says they are pursuing efforts to inform users if they have viewed or engaged with online misinformation on their platform.
“We’ve removed hundreds of thousands of pieces of harmful misinformation and applied warning labels from independent fact-checkers to 40 million posts in the month of March alone," a Facebook company spokesperson told Euronews.
The social media giant also said it is distributing health information across its applications, including Instagram and WhatsApp.
"So far we’ve directed over 2 billion people to resources from health authorities through our COVID-19 Information Center — with over 350 million people clicking through to learn more,” the spokesperson added.
Facebook has also invested $100 million (€92.5 million) in the news industry, in addition to supporting fact-checking organisations.
The company has also created an online hub, for external groups, which is dedicated to debunking coronavirus misinformation.
A number of the English and French posts and pages cited by NewsGuard have since been removed by Facebook.