Understanding how different online communities engage with COVID-19 misinformation is critical for public health response. For example, misinformation confined to a small, isolated community of users poses a different public health risk than misinformation being consumed by a large population spanning many diverse communities. Here we take a longitudinal approach that leverages tools from network science to study COVID-19 misinformation on Twitter. Our approach provides a means to examine the breadth of misinformation engagement using modest data needs and computational resources. We identify a subset of accounts from different Twitter communities discussing COVID-19, and follow these ‘sentinel nodes’ longitudinally from July 2020 to January 2021. We characterize sentinel nodes in terms of a linked domain preference score, and use a standardized similarity score to examine alignment of tweets within and between communities. We find that media preference is strongly correlated with the amount of misinformation propagated by sentinel nodes. Engagement with sensationalist misinformation topics is largely confined to a cluster of sentinel nodes that includes influential conspiracy theorist accounts. By contrast, misinformation relating to COVID-19 severity generated widespread engagement across multiple communities. Our findings indicate that misinformation downplaying COVID-19 severity is of particular concern for public health response. We conclude that the sentinel node approach can be an effective way to assess breadth and depth of online misinformation penetration.
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