Alternative media and websites with links to the far-right have spread misleading and potentially dangerous information on the coronavirus outbreak, German research has found.
The websites, which lie outside the mainstream media, are motivated to publish these reports because of what experts identified as an "oppositional" editorial stance.
Their anti-establishment agenda which taps into sentiment that is critical of climate activism and migration, generally sows fear within the general population about Covid-19, researchers at the University of Munster in Germany said.
The most common conspiracy theory covered by the so-called alternative media claims the virus is a bio weapon engineered in a lab in Wuhan, China, where Covid-19 is widely believed to have originated from.
Elsewhere, sites have claimed the virus was accidentally let out of a lab in China while one outlet suggested billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates was behind the outbreak.
They analysed some 120,000 posts on Facebook by German media outlets from January to March. The spread of misinformation in relation to the coronavirus outbreak has been coined "pandemic populism".
“Alternative news media contribute to public confusion by their specific framing strategies and by constructing a contradictory, menacing, and distrusting worldview, which calls any official statement into question,” the researchers wrote.
“This may be dysfunctional for social coherence in an unprecedented time of crisis,” the report added.
Typically, alternative media outlets featured dubiously sourced stories that linked strongly with their existing worldview before the crisis, for instance opposition to climate activists, vaccinations and immigration.
Teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg, who has frequently suffered from wide-spread abuse from right-wing activists and climate deniers, was found to been a target of the alternative media.
Some sarcastically mention a “corona panic” to supplant the “climate panic,” the research found, while noting Miss Thunberg was strongly criticised for visiting the European Union parliament at the beginning of March.
Mr Gates, it was claimed, brought the virus into the population so he could make money from a vaccine.
In another conspiracy theory put forward that was seen as aligning with populists' disapproval of foreigners, China was accused of developing the weapon via tourists and immigrants to destroy the West.
Often alternative media sites didn’t engage in fabricated “fake news” per se, but gave their stories populist, anti-establishment spin likely to evoke strong emotions amongst the reader, the researchers said.
“As such, the alternative news media examined here used Covid-19-related information to foster their long-term narratives, namely a critical stance toward established politicians, refugees and immigration or, more recently, a tendency towards climate change conspiracies,” they wrote.
Sometimes the basic facts of their reports were true, but littered with speculation or unverified claims.
It was also found that alternative media sites’ coverage has often been shared and picked up elsewhere such as on the social media accounts of well-known conspiracy theorists.
The World Health Organisation, which itself has come under attack from the alternative media, has been forced to roll out a page dedicated to myth busting. Among its clarifications are that the 5G mobile network does not spread the virus and high temperatures do not prevent Covid-19 spreading.
Some politicians in Germany have called for legal action against “malicious disinformation” although the researchers warned this could make things worse.
“Some of the more radical political demands of limiting or censoring such debates seem to be unwarranted on the basis of our preliminary analysis; it is even likely that such legal action may indeed be counterproductive because it would further feed anti-systemic sentiments, potentially without having the intended short-term effects,” they said.