• Three former execs at UniLad – one of the biggest viral publishers on Facebook – have launched a new project working to combat misinformation around COVID-19. 
  • Fake news articles about COVID-19 are on the rise, with conspiracists blaming everything from 5G towers to Bill Gates.
  • The new venture, called Infotagion, is backed by Conservative politician Damian Collins, who led the UK’s “war on Facebook”, and “Surveillance Capitalism” author and Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff. 
  • The firm has launched a new “Isolate the Lies” campaign with major advertising player M&C Saatchi. 
  • Business Insider spoke to Infotagion cofounders Liam Harrington and John Quinlan. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Two years ago UniLad, a British social media startup known for pumping out news and viral videos to more than 40 million followers, was the fourth biggest publisher on Facebook. 

But the website’s parent company, Bentley Harrington, went bust after accruing debts worth more than $7 million, exposing the fragile financials behind a firm that had built a global brand solely through social media.

Eventually – and after years of intense competition – the firm was acquired by its main competitor LadBible for an undisclosed sum, making it the “largest social video publisher ever”, with a combined online audience of more than 120 million users.

Now former UniLad execs John Quinlan, Liam Harrington and Samuel Regan-Asante have reinvented themselves as CEO, chief brand officer and COO of Iconic Labs, a tech and media startup founded in 2019.

They have launched Infotagion, a fact-checking service designed to counter misinformation around COVID-19, backed by the likes of activist Damian Collins and Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff.  It’s a contrast to UniLad, which focused on highly shareable content rather than hard news.

Infotagion offers a free service, in which members of the public can submit links, screenshots or questions on its website. Those articles are then assessed by a team of internal fact-checkers, who then state whether a claim is true or false. The concept is similar to Snopes, the popular US fact-checking site.

Infotagion

Infotagion’s website labels claims as true or false.

Infotagion


“We were quite instrumental in encouraging some of the behavior you see now,” admits Harrington, referring to UniLad’s focus on viral content. “But the best thing you can do is learn from the past, and unfortunately a lot of publications still haven’t learned anything.”

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Both Harrington and Quinlan were in their early 20s when they took over UniLad from Alex Partridge, the site’s founder who was regularly accused of engaging in sexist stereotypes and trivializing rape in the name of “banter”. 

The pair make it clear they put a block on “that kind of content” upon taking over the firm, and explain how that experience informed their new project: “We spent two years trying to clean up a toxic brand, and now we’re sort of trying to do the same with COVID-19.” 

In recent weeks, fake news articles have gone viral claiming the novel coronavirus has unsettling connections with Bill Gates and 5G cell towers, while offering up bogus “miracle cures” such as vitamin C tablets and colloidal silver. 

Conspiracy theories around 5G towers are thought by telecoms execs to have led to arson attacks on 50 phone masts in the UK.

“We used to get people to share dog videos and celebrity gossip,” says Quinlan. “But the stuff being shared by mums in WhatsApp groups now is crazy.

“We just wanna help people check something out before they share it far and wide.” 

Within 12 hours of Harrington and Quinlan’s conversation with Business Insider, a clip of US President Donald Trump speculating on whether injections of disinfectant or exposure to UV light could cure COVID-19 is everywhere. 

The suggestion forced health agencies and others to issue urgent correctives, begging citizens not to drink bleach

“The point we’re trying to get across is simple,” Quinlan says. “Misinformation kills.” 

You can learn more about Infotagion here

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