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Description: Conspiracy theories in social networks are considered to have adverse effects on individuals' compliance with public health measures in the context of a pandemic situation. A deeper understanding of how conspiracy theories propagate through social networks is critical for the development of countermeasures. The present work focuses on a novel approach to characterize the propagation of conspiracy theories through social networks by applying epidemiological models to Twitter data. A Twitter dataset was searched for tweets containing hashtags indicating belief in the ``5GCoronavirus'' conspiracy theory, which states that the COVID-19 pandemic is a result of, or enhanced by, the enrollment of the 5G mobile network. Despite the absence of any scientific evidence, the ``5GCoronavirus'' conspiracy theory propagated rapidly through Twitter, beginning at the end of January, followed by a peak at the beginning of April, and ceasing/disappearing approximately at the end of June 2020. An epidemic SIR (Susceptible-Infected-Removed) model was fitted to this time series with acceptable model fit, indicating parallels between the propagation of conspiracy theories on social networks and infectious diseases. Extended SIR models were used to simulate the effects that two specific countermeasures, fact-checking and tweet-deletion, could have had on the propagation of the conspiracy theory. Our simulations indicate that fact-checking is an effective mechanism in an early stage of conspiracy theory diffusion, while tweet-deletion shows only moderate efficacy but is less time-sensitive. More generally, an early response is critical to gain control over the spread of conspiracy theories through social networks. We conclude that an early response combined with strong fact-checking and a moderate level of deletion of problematic posts is a promising strategy to fight conspiracy theories in social networks. Results are discussed with respect to their theoretical validity and generalizability.


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