Misinformation Monitor: May 2021

Welcome back to NewsGuard’s Misinformation Monitor, our newsletter tracking misinformation with exclusive data from five countries. Sign up to get the Misinformation Monitor in your inbox or download NewsGuard for your browser.

Written by Melissa Goldin, John Gregory, and Kendrick McDonald
Additional reporting by Chandler Kidd, Chine Labbé, Bron Maher, Virginia Padovese, and Marie Richter


How a well-meaning U.S. government database fuels dangerous vaccine misinformation

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

On April 30, 2021, the website Natural News — which NewsGuard has rated Red, meaning generally unreliable — published a story reporting the death of a 2-year-old who in late February had received the second dose of a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during the companies’ clinical trials for children. The only problem? Children under 5 did not begin receiving shots until April, according to a press release on the Pfizer website.

Natural News picked up the false claim from a familiar source of pandemic misinformation: Red-rated website Great Game India, which in January 2020 also spread a different falsehood that the COVID-19 virus was stolen from a Canadian lab.

The single source of evidence cited by both websites was the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, a database jointly run for 31 years by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Its purpose: to be “a national early warning system to detect possible safety problems in U.S.-licensed vaccines,” according to its website.

It is true that a report was submitted to VAERS on March 5, 2021, which stated that a two-year-old from Virginia received a COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 25, experienced the onset of side effects on March 1, and died two days later. The report also claimed that the toddler had been hospitalized for 17 days, which Great Game India interpreted to mean that “the baby was perhaps sick from the first shot. But someone administered the second shot anyway.”

Great Game India’s article also noted that Pfizer’s “own promotion says the vaccination trials were for children from age 5 to 11” and asked, “How come a 2 year old baby got vaccinated?”

The answer is that the incident never happened. CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund told USA Today, for an article fact-checking the Natural News story, that the adverse event report was “completely made up” and the CDC took the rare step of removing it from the VAERS system. 

This is far from the only time that anti-vaccine advocates have used VAERS data to claim, falsely, that COVID-19 vaccines can or have caused death, infertility, or other side effects. Using data from NewsWhip, a social media intelligence company, NewsGuard has found that Red-rated sources like Natural News and Great Game India account for over 80 percent of Facebook engagement on stories that prominently cite VAERS.

As explained below, VAERS was established in 1990 as part of federal legislation aimed at requiring health care providers to report incidents of adverse effects related to vaccines. Although the reports have never been vetted before being included in the VAERS database, the hope was that reports were rooted in reality or at least in good faith assumptions that an illness or other injury may have been related to a vaccine. But that was before the modern internet, which allows anyone to report anything to VAERS for instant public posting.

Screenshot via NewsGuard

 


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Noisy by Design: A Platform for Vaccine Information (and Misinformation)

VAERS is a noisy system by design. It collects unverified reports of any adverse health events reported to have happened following vaccination. The database includes reports based entirely on hearsay, or lacking a plausible link to a vaccine, such as someone dying in a car accident on their drive home from getting a vaccine. Although vaccine manufacturers are required to submit reports, anyone can submit a report to VAERS, without providing a name or contact information.

A system like VAERS with an abundance of information onto which everyone can project their concerns or agendas has all the potential benefits — and pitfalls — of a Facebook-like service for those focused on vaccines. And during the largest vaccination effort in history, it serves as an early warning system for real adverse effects, while to a small but vocal set of activists, it enables the sounding of a false alarm at a much louder volume.

The exploitation of VAERS by the anti-vaccine movement during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is not a surprise to Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee.

“The anti-vaccine people will always say, ‘Look at all these deaths, look at all the damage that these vaccines are doing, they’ll always do that, and there will always be a group of people who believe them, and the only way that’s going to change if we all get to move to a planet that’s dominated by reason and logic,” Offit said.

Nevertheless, Offit and other public health officials see the system’s vulnerability to manipulation as a necessary risk, and suggest that the scope and transparency of VAERS is a testament to how seriously the government takes vaccine safety and the potential risks.

A ‘Hypothesis Generator’: Accessibility Makes VAERS Effective, but Vulnerable to the ‘Incredible Hulk’

In the first six months of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the biggest single source of VAERS reports related to the COVID-19 vaccine has been the general public. For other vaccines, manufacturers have typically accounted for the majority of reports.

Claimed Sources of VAERS Reports from Dec. 14, 2020 to May 10, 2021

*According to information provided by a CDC spokesperson to NewsGuard via email

This trend toward crowd-sourcing is not all bad. Because anyone can report an incident to VAERS, the system can detect rare and serious adverse events quickly. Identifying the rare risk of blood clots with low platelets following the use of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine is one example where VAERS worked as intended, researchers said.

“The clinical trials were large, but they weren’t large enough to get a handle on an event that might be one-in-a-million,” said Susan Ellenberg, professor of biostatistics, medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “Once you start vaccinating multiple millions of people, you may start to see things, and that was unusual enough that it got the attention of the people monitoring these data.”

Having such a broad database allows VAERS to act as a “hypothesis generator,” Dr. Tom Shimabukuro, deputy director of the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office, told NewsGuard in a phone interview. Once an unexpected pattern or safety concern is picked up, government health agencies can test that hypothesis with the help of vaccine monitoring systems, such as the Vaccine Safety Datalink, where the CDC has access to the electronic health data of 12 million people from nine large health care organizations.

However, the accessibility and transparency of VAERS also makes the system vulnerable to fake reports, including through a large, coordinated effort by anti-vaccine organizations, if they chose to do so.

“If people did want to get together in an organized way and flood the system with reports, I mean, that could happen,” the CDC’s Shimabukuro said. “We think that’s rare…. We have to strike a balance between making the system accessible and making sure we’re not getting flat out fraudulent reports.”

Fake reports have been identified in the past. In one infamous example, anesthesiologist James Laidler demonstrated the potential for abuse of VAERS by submitting a report in 2004, claiming that the flu vaccine turned him into the Incredible Hulk. The report was removed from VAERS after the CDC contacted Laidler and asked for his permission to delete it.

The CDC says that it follows up on every death reported to VAERS by requesting medical records, autopsy reports, and death certificates. “It was during that process that CDC discovered that the report [about the two-year-old’s death] submitted to VAERS was false,” Nordlund said in an email to NewsGuard. She declined to explain exactly how the CDC determined the report in this case was false.

‘Meaningless to the General Public’: VAERS Discloses Limitations — But Alternative Platforms Hosting VAERS Data Do Not

On the VAERS website, there is no shortage of warnings about how data should not be interpreted. Pages titled About VAERS, A Guide to Interpreting VAERS Data, and VAERS Data all include clear statements that a report does not imply a vaccine caused the adverse event. A Frequently Asked Questions page lists the strengths and limitations of VAERS, explaining that VAERS data “cannot determine if the vaccine caused the reported adverse event” and acknowledging that this “has caused confusion in the publicly available data… specifically regarding the number of reported deaths.” The list of limitations also states that VAERS data “sometimes contains errors” and “cannot be used to determine rates of adverse events,” among other points.

And even for those who do not look at these pages, accessing VAERS data requires a reader at least to glance at a disclaimer explaining the limitations of the database and then to click a button labeled “I Agree” before searching individual reports.

With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the CDC has provided additional analysis of VAERS reports on its main website, stating, “A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines.”

However, alternative platforms exist where anyone can access VAERS data and bypass the CDC’s clear explanation of its many limitations. One, MedAlerts.org, is run by an anti-vaccine group called the National Vaccine Information Center, whose own website NewsGuard found to have repeatedly published false health claims.

Another, OpenVAERS.org, does not identify who is behind the site, although a site representative told NewsGuard in an April 2021 email that is owned by “a small group of parents with vaccine injured children.” The site lists raw numbers of deaths and hospitalizations attributed to COVID-19 vaccinations, without the caveat that those reports have not been verified to ascertain that the event that was reported actually happened, let alone that it was related to a vaccine.

Dr. Offit, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee, told NewsGuard that while the system can be helpful to medical practitioners and public health officials, he believes that its value to the general public is questionable. “I think VAERS is meaningless to the general public because people can’t look at that and make any comments about whether or not those associations are real,” he said.

The Facebook Effect: Distorted VAERS Data on Social Media

Between Dec. 11, 2020, when the FDA first authorized a COVID-19 vaccine, and May 2021, articles that prominently mentioned VAERS (meaning VAERS was named in the headline or article summary, a metadata property of the story) received over 1.1 million interactions on Facebook — such as likes, comments, or shares — according to data from NewsWhip, a social media intelligence company.

Notably, about two-thirds of that engagement came from a single story mentioning VAERS, about a Utah woman who died in February after receiving the second vaccine dose. The story was published on the websites of at least 58 Sinclair Broadcast-owned local television stations. Many of the articles were later updated to note that the Utah Medical Examiner’s Office released a statement that “There is no evidence COVID-19 vaccines have caused any deaths in Utah.”

Excluding that story as an outlier, NewsGuard found that over 80 percent of Facebook engagement on VAERS-related stories came from Red-rated websites, including notable sources of vaccine misinformation such as Children’s Health Defense, a group run by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Some articles that distort VAERS data state, declaratively, that vaccines were the cause of the reported side effects. For example, personal trainer and life coach Christian Elliot stated on his Red-rated website DeconstructingConventional.com that “at the time of this writing VAERS reports over 2,200 deaths from the current covid vaccines, as well as close to 60,000 adverse reactions.” 

Many articles reviewed by NewsGuard do include some acknowledgement that VAERS publishes unconfirmed data, or are careful to report on deaths “following” a vaccine, rather than explicitly stating that they were “caused by” the vaccine. 

For example, Children’s Health Defense stated in a February 2021 article that “VAERS is the primary mechanism for reporting adverse vaccine reactions in the U.S. Reports submitted to VAERS require further investigation before confirmation can be made that an adverse event was linked to a vaccine.” 

However, these warnings, where they exist, are often overshadowed by misleading headlines, a long and detailed repetition of VAERS data, fearful or speculative questions about what it might mean, and advocacy against the well-documented safety and efficacy of vaccines.

For example, anti-vaccine advocates frequently claim that VAERS data is vastly underreported, and extrapolate to claim that far greater numbers of reactions are actually occurring. Joseph Mercola, who received a warning letter from the FDA in February about marketing false COVID-19 cures, stated in an article that month, “According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] study, fewer than 1% of vaccine adverse events are ever reported to VAERS.” He added that “there may, in reality, be over 1 MILLION COVID vaccine injuries, since 99% typically go unreported.”

It is true that a 2011 report by health insurance company Harvard Pilgrim Health Care that was submitted to HHS asserted that “fewer than 1% of vaccine adverse events are reported,” without citing a specific source for that figure. However, especially given the scope of the COVID vaccination effort and the attendant publicity, it is misleading to claim that all vaccine adverse events are equally underrepresented in VAERS, or that the 1 percent figure could be used to calculate the “real” number of adverse events.

“One potential explanation for low reporting of mild events might be that many are expected, and therefore people don’t feel the need to report them,” the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office told Agence France-Presse in December 2020. “As an example, sore arms are an expected event after certain vaccines so people may decide not to report this event to VAERS.”

Shaydanay Urbani, Partnerships and Programs Manager for First Draft News, a nonprofit that addresses mis- and disinformation, told NewsGuard that even if articles quote from the VAERS website to state that the data is unverified — which Children’s Health Defense does in its reporting — this disclosure does little to help readers looking to make an informed decision about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

“In my opinion, it’s not enough to quote the disclaimer, if you’re using the [VAERS] data, because at the end of the day, if what your article is doing is quoting data, drawing a conclusion from it, but then saying the data isn’t verified, then how is that reporting?” Urbani said. “How is that providing reliable information to the public? What role have you provided in helping people understand what’s going on with the vaccine?”

Liability, Accountability, Misrepresentation: The History of VAERS

VAERS was established in 1990 by the CDC and FDA in response to the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA), which among other provisions requires health care providers to report adverse effects that may have been caused by vaccines.

Prior to VAERS and the NCVIA, the number of lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers and health care providers rose dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s. This meant that manufacturers were forced to compensate individuals and families for alleged vaccine injuries, such as from the diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine, even if there was no scientific evidence to support the claims.

Consequently, many pharmaceutical companies ceased producing vaccines as potential liability, legal fees, and compensation costs mounted. For example, only one U.S. company manufactured the DPT vaccine by the end of 1984. The U.S. Congress responded by passing the NCVIA, in an effort to reduce potential liability and address public health concerns.

Anyone can anonymously report an adverse event allegedly caused by a vaccine to VAERS using the online form above. (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

Besides VAERS’ role in identifying the rare risk of blood clots that can occur following the use of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, the system has helped scientists identify risks associated with other vaccines.

In October 1999, the vaccine RotaShield, which prevents rotavirus gastroenteritis (severe diarrhea and dehydration) was voluntarily taken off the U.S. market by its manufacturer following reports of adverse events on VAERS. The move came a little more than a year following its U.S. approval in August 1998, after some infants developed intussusception, a rare type of bowel obstruction, after receiving the vaccine.

“I will never forget, I was director of the United States immunization program when we broke out our first rotavirus vaccine,” Dr. Walter Orenstein, associate director of Emory Vaccine Center and professor of infectious diseases at Emory School of Medicine, told NewsGuard. “The head of my immunization services division came up to me and said, there’s a cluster of valve blockage called intussusception, about a week afterwards. And that led to a signal — hey, is this real or not?”

However, adverse events have always been vulnerable to misrepresentation, such as in the case of LYMErix, a vaccine that prevents Lyme disease. 

The vaccine was approved by the FDA in December 1998 and recommended by the U.S. Advisory Health Committee (ACIP) in 1999 for people living in areas with a high-risk of Lyme disease or who engaged in activities where they were frequently exposed to ticks. LYMErix received considerable media coverage, little of which discussed the vaccine’s potential risks.

However, reports of adverse reactions allegedly caused by LYMErix began appearing on VAERS about a year after it was licensed by the FDA. These reports received wide media coverage, and people claiming to have been injured by the vaccine were branded as “vaccine victims.” In December 1999, the Philadelphia law firm Sheller, Ludwig & Bailey filed a class action lawsuit against LYMErix’s manufacturer.

Although subsequent studies done by the FDA and the vaccine’s manufacturer did not find any evidence that the vaccine was causing harm, scientists did discover that some people may be genetically predisposed to having a greater risk of developing chronic, treatment-resistant arthritis after receiving LYMErix.

The FDA formed an advisory panel on LYMErix in January 2001, amid pending lawsuits and concern from the public and the media. The panel concluded that the benefits of LYMErix outweighed the risks. Nevertheless, while the vaccine remained available for public use, sales fell dramatically.

In February 2002, LYMErix’s manufacturer voluntarily withdrew the vaccine from the U.S. market. The company also settled several class action suits, stating that while it still believed that LYMErix was safe, the company settled due to economic concerns. The FDA did not revoke LYMErix’s license, but there is currently no Lyme disease vaccine available to the public.

Checks and Balances: European Systems Provide Different Safeguards

As the global vaccine rollout continues, or in some cases gets underway, other countries are likewise relying on their own adverse event monitoring systems, with some similarities and some differences to VAERS.

Like VAERS, adverse event reports in France, Italy, Germany, and the U.K. can be submitted by anyone. However, of those countries, only Germany accepts anonymous reports. (The Paul-Ehrlich-Institut, Germany’s federal institute for vaccines and biomedicines, nevertheless urges people to provide all available information.)

The U.K. system, called the Yellow Card Scheme, was established in 1964 in the wake of the thalidomide scandal, a drug prescribed to pregnant women that resulted in thousands of birth defects. For COVID-19 vaccines, the U.K. has published summaries of Yellow Card reports, rather than raw data.

The same is true of systems in France, Italy, and Germany, in contrast to the searchable data tables displayed in VAERS.

In a phone interview with NewsGuard, Mehdi Benkebil, deputy director of the surveillance direction at ANSM, France’s National Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products, said, “We did not choose to publish the raw data, but to instead publish analyzed information, from a scientific and medical standpoint.”

Anna Rosa Marra, Director of the Pharmacovigilance at Italy’s Medicines Agency (AIFA), expressed a similar sentiment, telling NewsGuard, “The policy adopted by AIFA is a policy of transparency supported by scientific data. In order to provide data to the public, both general and specialist, we have chosen to publish monthly reports with analysis of the data relating to the vaccines in use in our territory, giving the possibility to access information in an aggregate manner, but without hiding anything.”

In France, all adverse event reports are reviewed at a drug safety center, either by a doctor or pharmacist, and patients are contacted in cases of serious events. The raw data is not made public by ANSM. Benkebil said that while he has not heard of any cases of false reports related to COVID-19 vaccines, ANSM would be prepared for them. “Typically, it’s something we would easily identify… That’s what our experts are for,” he said.

Marra said that she has not worried about false reports in Italy in part because “There is an increase in reports from health professionals with COVID vaccines compared to other vaccines or other drugs according to the usual trends.” About 81 percent of the COVID-19 AIFA reports have come from health professionals, she told NewsGuard. AIFA reports cannot be anonymous.

This is the opposite trend seen in VAERS reports, where patients make up a greater portion of submitted reports than normal.

Local reports from European Union countries like France, Germany, and Italy are fed to EudraVigilance, an E.U. database managed by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which does have raw data for users to search through. The homepage, though, includes three bullet points of “Key Information,” including a statement that “Information on suspected side effects should not be interpreted as meaning that the medicine or the active substance causes the observed effect or is unsafe to use.” Individuals cannot make reports directly to EudraVigilance; they must go through their country’s medical agency, such as ANSM or AIFA. 

Marra told NewsGuard the system is like a pyramid, with EudraVigilance at the top and local medical professionals taking the first steps to investigate reports at the bottom.

“The Italian national pharmacovigilance network is coordinated by AIFA and AIFA in turn coordinates the regional pharmacovigilance centers,” she said. “In each health facility there is a local pharmacovigilance manager. The local pharmacovigilance managers, who are all registered and authorized by AIFA, are the ones who validate the reports.”

Of course, the populations in these countries, and therefore the number of adverse event reports, is much smaller than in the U.S. In addition to differences in the presentation of data, this may be another reason why, according to NewsGuard’s research, European Red-rated sites spreading vaccine misinformation reference local adverse event reporting systems less frequently than they reference VAERS.

Indeed, many Red-rated European websites with vaccine misinformation often cite VAERS data — a foreign source —  thus raising fears and doubts about vaccine safety in their own countries.

For example, in April 2021, French Red-rated site Planetes360.fr published an article based on VAERS data that claimed that: “736 persons died within 48 hours after receiving the COVID vaccine.”

A January 2021 article on Russian propaganda site De.News-Front.info claimed in German: “According to the U.S. federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System database, 55 people died within days of vaccination. It is worth noting that patients who had already died were injected with both the notorious Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna drug.”

Also in January 2021, Italian Red-rated site Renovatio21.com published an article, headlined “Vaccine, 55 deaths in the US (according to official document),” that claimed: “Fifty-five people died in the United States following the administration of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine. This was revealed by the latest report on drug vigilance produced by VAERS.”

This is not to say that there is no vaccine misinformation referencing other adverse event reporting systems. Summaries from the U.K.’s Yellow Card Scheme have been cited by NewsGuard Red-rated sites that frequently treat Yellow Card reports as statements of fact. Moreover, those that acknowledge that Yellow Cards are user-submitted may nonetheless argue that reports of adverse events following vaccination indicate a trend.
For example, a March 2021 article, published by Red-rated site VernonColeman.com, stated: “According to the latest yellow card reports from the MHRA in the UK, a total of 20 women have now had miscarriages and lost their unborn babies after having one of the mRNA vaccines. You might argue that some or all of those women would have lost their babies without the vaccine. But you don’t know that. No one knows.”

‘Those of Us Who Work in Science Can Tear Our Hair Out’

VAERS has been used by scientists as an investigative tool to help their research and by anti-vaccine organizations to further their agenda by using unverified reports that often lead to misinformation. Both groups, despite the differences in how they apply VAERS to their work, tend to agree that the benefits of VAERS are worth the trade-offs and that there is value in the system’s transparency.

Ellenberg, the University of Pennsylvania professor, believes that a transparent system that has the potential to be misused is better than leaving people in the dark.

“With public access, there’s going to be misinterpretation of the data there,” she said. “But without public access, I think it’s worse. Because then you just have people imagining what’s there. And that can really be worse.”

Views on VAERS are similar in the anti-vaccine world, even though the system is not often used for its intended purpose among these groups.

Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, told NewsGuard that VAERS allows people who have received vaccines, or their families, to submit reports “if a vaccine provider fails to report a serious event” and check whether it has been received. She also noted that “VAERS transparency also ensures that scientists have open access to the VAERS database to use as a research tool.”

The question of whether the benefits of VAERS actually outweigh the risks remains a matter of debate. However, Professor Ellenberg said she believes that educating the public about the system and its purpose is the best way to counteract any unintended harm.

“Those of us who work in science can tear our hair out about the way people misinterpret things,” she said. “And all we can do is to continue to try to educate people.”

And, of course, now that the VAERS data in raw form has been public for so long, cries of a deep state conspiracy would certainly follow any move to shut the data off.


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Misinformation Monitor: April 2021

Welcome back to NewsGuard’s Misinformation Monitor, our newsletter tracking misinformation with exclusive data from five countries. Sign up to get the Misinformation Monitor in your inbox or download NewsGuard for your browser.

Written by Melissa Goldin and Kendrick McDonald
Reporting by Chine Labbé, Virginia Padovese, and Marie Richter


The big story European misinformers are copying false narratives from the 2020 U.S. election


But First, a Quiz:

1. Which of these brands has advertised on websites that have published falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic?

a)
Pfizer
b) Walmart
c) ViacomCBS
d) Verizon
e) All of the above

2. Which religious leader is spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories which have been promoted on a website aimed at the Francophone Muslim community?

a) Spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle
b) Pope Francis
c) Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan
d) The Dalai Lama

3. Which of these websites uses artificial intelligence to complement its reporting?

a) NowThisNews.com
b) TheBipartisanPress.com
c) StatNews.com
d) TrendingViews.co

Read to the end of the next section for the answers.


Same Myths, New Elections: How U.S. misinformation has inspired claims about European politics

By Melissa Goldin, Marie Richter, and Chine Labbé

It became clear in 2020 that election misinformation is not just an American phenomenon. Late last year, more than 40 sites in France, Italy, and Germany published false claims about the U.S. presidential election. But the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 has seen false narratives starting to adapt to local contexts in Europe, where misinformation that first emerged in the U.S. has helped revive fringe claims of political fraud, or craft new hoaxes, threatening to sow distrust in the democratic process in Europe, as it did in the U.S.

Breaking it down: False claims that U.S. President Joe Biden stole the 2020 election from Donald Trump, for example, have inspired multiple NewsGuard Red-rated (generally unreliable) French news sites to falsely claim that French President Emmanuel Macron was elected illegally in 2017 thanks to massive fraud enabled by the “French Deep State.”

  • In December 2020, the Red-rated site Geopolintel.fr, which covers geopolitical issues and has promoted debunked conspiracies and false claims, published an article titled, “Scytl: the software that makes your votes useless…”
    • “There are events that serve as a turning point in life,” it said of President Biden’s election. “Candidate Biden’s massive fraud in the US elections is one of them.” The article was also filled with other false claims, including the idea that a “Deep State” is quietly governing the U.S. “Of course, seeing that, one starts asking himself about his own country,” the article continued. “When we discover that France owns the Scytl software that was used to rig the US elections, legitimate doubts that we had about the 2017 presidential elections, which saw the election of a candidate brought out of nowhere… can only resurface,” it added, revisiting President Macron’s 2017 election.
    • Other articles also blamed the software operated by Dominion Voting Systems, the company at the heart of many false claims about the U.S. elections, for illegally getting Macron elected.

These narratives about President Macron’s legitimacy are not all new, and one popular article, which recently appeared on several Red-rated French sites, states that it was first published just after Macron’s election in May 2017.

  • MediaZone.zonefr.com, a website that has published conspiracy theories on many topics, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. elections, republished a July 2017 story in January 2021 which stated: “This article was written on July 25, 2017, but did not age one bit. I am reposting it because it shows how Macron got to the Elysee Palace through serious fraud, which resulted from a concerted action of the French Deep State.” 
  • The article was reposted on several other Red-rated French sites as well, including the far-right website NS2017.wordpress.com, as well as Profession-Gendarme.com and ReseauInternational.net, which both frequently promote conspiracy theories and other false information. The Réseau International story alone reached more than 1.1 million people on Facebook, according to data from CrowdTangle, a social media monitoring tool that is owned by Facebook. 
A January 2021 article on NewsGuard Red-rated site ReseauInternational.net claimed that French President Emmanuel Macron was elected in 2017 because of fraud organized by France’s “Deep State.” (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

In Germany, right-wing parties have voiced concerns about mail-in balloting and possible fraud during the country’s elections for many years. But these false claims have been given new ammunition with the spread of mail-in ballot falsehoods in the U.S. before and after the 2020 presidential election.

  • A March 2021 article published by Red-rated PI-News.net, a self-described “politically incorrect” website that promotes far-right conspiracy theories and publishes anti-Islam content, was titled, “The postal voting dilemma.” It stated: “Voting by mail, as the events of the presidential election in the U.S. spectacularly demonstrated, is fundamentally problematic and most susceptible to manipulation and forgery.”
  • A January 2021 article published by Red-rated JournalistenWatch.com, a website that has relied on misleading or unsubstantiated claims to back its undisclosed far-right, anti-Islam perspective, was titled, “Are we in danger of a fraudulent election in September?” It stated: “What this virus is good for. The left-wing radicals in the USA have successfully carried out their perfidious plan and effectively abolished democracy through deliberate fraud. All they needed was the absentee ballot. And now it looks like the leftists in Germany also want to pull off something as evil as this.”

In France and Germany, some far-right political figures and movements are now also using the COVID-19 pandemic to warn about the alleged dangers of mail-in voting and call for opposition to the status quo.

  • “This whole pandemic is a hoax caused by completely different reasons… because they want to implement mail-in balloting to carry out the biggest election fraud of this country next year,” said Robert Farle, an AfD (Alternative for Germany) state parliament member in Germany’s Saxony-Anhalt state, in January 2021.
  • In February 2021, in France, Florian Philippot, a former member of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, who now leads a far-right movement called Les Patriotes, called on the French to oppose a government bill that intended to introduce early voting on voting machines ahead of the 2022 presidential election. The bill was since rejected, but Philippot is still warning about the risk of seeing the pandemic being used to impose dictatorial measures. 

Why we should care: Misinformation surrounding democratic elections can lead to violence, as demonstrated by the violent protests at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In August 2020, a similar event was narrowly avoided in Germany when police stopped hundreds of people who attempted to storm the Reichstag, the country’s parliament building. And France’s Geopolintel website has already used an allegation of election fraud to justify violence, stating in its December 2020 story referenced above:  “We are on the verge of a rebellion that will undoubtedly transform into a violent insurrection… The French people are a victim of a monstrous cabal … that wants to impose a totalitarian and genocidal New World Order.”

 


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Quiz Answers:

1. Which of these brands has advertised on websites that have published falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic?

  • (e) All of these brands have placed programmatic advertisements on websites that have published falsehoods about the COVID-19 pandemic, likely inadvertently, by using ad-buying platforms that place advertisements with algorithms.

2. Which religious leader is spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories which have been promoted on a website aimed at the Francophone Muslim community?

  • (c) Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has been spreading a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 vaccines are “government policy to reduce the population of the Earth by two to three billion people.” This false claim was promoted in a March 2021 article on Alnas.fr, a NewsGuard Red-rated site geared toward French-speaking Muslims.

3. Which of these websites uses artificial intelligence to complement its reporting?

  • (b) TheBipartisanPress.com, a NewsGuard Green-rated (generally reliable) site covering U.S. news, uses artificial intelligence to analyze and label its own articles based on political orientation and purported bias.

Anti-vaxxers inject a familiar spin on COVID-19 variants

By Kendrick McDonald, Virginia Padovese, and Chine Labbé

A new myth: As many European countries experience a third wave of COVID-19 infections, anti-vaccine advocates have falsely asserted that coronavirus variants causing a rise in cases are actually the product of vaccines intended to help end the pandemic. Controversial doctors and an anti-vaccine member of the Italian Parliament have promoted the myth in France and Italy, where lockdown restrictions went into effect again in mid-March.

  • In January, French geneticist Alexandra Henrion-Caude told Red-rated far-right video news website TvLibertes.com that mRNA vaccines “could well generate the emergence of new variants” and said that “Every time [we vaccinate], we have the word variant that appears at the same time.”
  • In March, Italian doctor Leopoldo Salmaso, who lives and works in Tanzania, claimed during an interview on the YouTube channel of the anti-vaccine and COVID-19 skeptical group R2020 that “Our vaccines, the authorized ones, are increasing the number of variants.”
  • The following day, a portion of Salmaso’s video interview was shared by Italian anti-vaccine MP (Gruppo Misto) Sara Cunial on her Facebook page.
NewsGuard Red-rated site TVLibertes.com interviewed geneticist Alexandra Henrion-Caude in January 2021. (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

Why it’s false: Several COVID-19 vaccines have received emergency authorization from medical regulatory bodies in Europe and the U.S., and their clinical trials have shown that they are safe for most people. The vaccines don’t contain a live COVID-19 virus and cannot create a variant.

  • Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told NewsGuard in an email that the vaccines “are not complete viruses and so cannot replicate a new variant that can infect others. Some types of vaccine use attenuated whole viruses and these can generate variants that could theoretically pass on to others, but the COVID-19 vaccines are not of that type and so cannot do that.”
  • Vaccinations increase immunity against the virus, meaning variants which show a successful resistance to that immunity could be more successful in spreading. But this doesn’t mean the vaccine creates these variants.
  • “Some viruses can adapt to the immune response that is made following both infection and vaccination, through the selection of variants that are able to evade immune protection provided,” Hibberd wrote.
  • He added that we haven’t seen evidence of “resistant strains arising directly as a result of vaccines,” and we don’t know yet if it will be more common or rare for variants that resist immune responses to “become selected for and so increase in number.”

How it spread: In both Italy and France, the myth emerged from video interviews before being amplified by other sources.

  • The January TVLibertes.com interview with Henrion-Caude has been shared 4,000 times on Facebook and has received 11,500 total interactions (likes, comments, and shares). Clips of the interview have continued to circulate on the alternative video platform Odysee.com, including one with just under 26,000 views.
  • According to French TV channel LCI, Henrion-Caude misleadingly described a January 2021 press release from the French Academy of Medicine, which, like Hibberd’s quotes above, described how variants that resist immune response could succeed in spreading a virus.
  • Salmaso’s interview has received more than 16,000 views on YouTube. The group that interviewed him, R2020, has promoted anti-vaccine narratives on Facebook, and a section of its website includes slick infographics and images that can be shared online, including cards that read “No to the experimental COVID vaccine. We are not guinea pigs!”
  • Salmaso’s interview was promoted by Cunial to her 180,000 Facebook followers in a post that was shared more than 42,000 times. Later, another interview with Salmaso, by another anti-vaccine group called Movimiento 3V, was also shared by Cunial, as well as by the Red-rated website ImolaOggi.it.
  • Also in early March, Salmaso shared the myth that COVID-19 vaccines cause variants of the virus and the myth that the mRNA vaccines are “genetic manipulation” in an interview with the Red-rated site ByoBlu.com
  • DataBaseItalia.it, another Italian Red-rated site, shared the same myth in a March 2021 article, stating: “Are the variants caused by the vaccine? … the answer can only be yes!”
In March 2021, Italian anti-vaxx movement Movimento 3V published an interview with doctor Leopoldo Salmaso claiming that coronavirus variants causing a rise in cases are actually the product of vaccines intended to help end the pandemic. (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

Why it’s important: Virus variants are just the latest complicated scientific topic for the public to try to understand. During the pandemic, we’ve repeatedly seen how people turn to conspiracy theories, misleading narratives cloaked in scientific jargon, or other simple explanations to alleviate uncertainty. 

  • The vaccine rollout is crucial toward ending the pandemic, and we must continue monitoring attempts to undermine it, especially as officials have the added task of bringing rising cases under control.

Correction: An earlier version of this Misinformation Monitor incorrectly described Robert Farle as an AfD parliament member. In fact, Farle is an AfD state parliament member, in Saxony-Anhalt. NewsGuard apologizes for the error.


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Misinformation Monitor: March 2021

Welcome back to NewsGuard’s Misinformation Monitor, our newsletter tracking misinformation with exclusive data from five countries. Sign up to get the Misinformation Monitor in your inbox or download NewsGuard for your browser.

By Kendrick McDonald and Chine Labbé
Additional reporting by Virginia Padovese, Marie Richter, Gabby Deutch, Sophia Tewa, and Melissa Goldin


“An Absolute Dictator”: RFK Jr. on Dr. Anthony Fauci, “deadly” vaccines, and other conspiracies — all annotated with fact checks by NewsGuard

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. advocated against Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines in an interview with NewsGuard, backing up his claims with myriad falsehoods. (“File:RfkjrOCT2017.jpg” by Maxlovestoswim is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

For most of his life, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was known for his successful high-profile efforts to clean up polluted waterways, including New York’s Hudson River.

But in 2005, he began shifting his skepticism of government policies away from the environment, and focusing instead on science and vaccines. For the past decade and a half, Kennedy has seized on the prominence of his family’s name to falsely claim, with no proof, that the American medical establishment is lying about the safety of vaccines.

In a recent interview with NewsGuard , the day before Instagram removed his page for spreading dangerous misinformation, Kennedy discussed the COVID-19 vaccine and the coronavirus pandemic. Citing his experience in assessing related scientific issues he encountered in his career as an environmental lawyer, Kennedy has fashioned himself a crusader against Big Pharma and the government health apparatus that he says props it up.

You can read the full interview with Kennedy, edited for length and clarity, on NewsGuard’s website, along with annotated fact checks debunking the dozens of arguments Kennedy employed to bolster his claims that Dr. Anthony Fauci controls a ring of medical establishment co-conspirators and that Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous. The interview lasted for half an hour but required a team of four reporters to each take several hours debunking Kennedy’s falsehoods.

Taken together, his claims, and our point-by-point fact checks provide an eye-opening look at how hoaxes metastasize. Read it here.

 


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Ich bin ein anti-Vaxxer: Children’s Health Defense in Europe

By Virginia Padovese, Marie Richter, Chine Labbé, and Kendrick McDonald

While Facebook-owned Instagram cracked down on Kennedy’s personal Instagram, the Facebook page of iChildren’s Health Defense (CHD), the nonprofit organization chaired by Kennedy, remains active, as Kennedy seeks to expand his organization worldwide. In August 2020, CHD launched a new website — ChildrensHealthDefense.eu — with content specifically targeting a European audience. “The launch of this organization, Children’s Health Defense, in Europe is a beachhead; it’s an announcement to the world that we are not going to take it. We are building institutions to fight your institutions,” RFK Jr. stated during a launch event.

During an anti-lockdown protest in Berlin on Aug. 29, 2020, RFK Jr., gave a speech in which he warned that the pandemic gave governments “the ability to impose controls on the population that the population would otherwise never accept — creating institutions and mechanisms for orchestrating and imposing obedience.”

Children’s Health Defense in Berlin one day before RFK Jr. spoke at an anti-lockdown protest (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

Breaking it down: Many European misinformation outlets translated and published his speech, amplifying the reach of his conspiratorial messages and giving CHD a global audience.

  • At least ten German, five Italian, and five French-language websites rated Red — generally unreliable — by NewsGuard published a transcript or video of the speech, including JournalistenWatch.com, ByoBlu.com, and AubeDigitale.com.
  • RFK Jr. referenced the 1963 West Berlin Speech by his uncle, President John F. Kennedy. Several French Red-rated outlets, and Italy’s Red-rated Oltre.tv, described the 2020 event as similarly “historical.”
  • FranceSoir, the website of a former well-respected national newspaper that has recently published numerous false and unsubstantiated claims about COVID-19, spoke with RFK, Jr. two days after his speech. “If you can come to France, I definitely invite you,” publishing director Xavier Azalbert told him at the end of the interview.
  • In an interview with the German version of RT, RFK Jr. falsely claimed that no vaccines recommended in the U.S. have been tested against placebos, and he praised the Russian propaganda outlet. In the U.S., “RT America is the only place that we can talk about many of these subjects,” he said, later adding, “Unfortunately we have to go to Russia, to Russian TV, to tell the truth.”

In some cases, the expansion built on existing connections between CHD and European anti-vaxxers.

  • Italy’s Red-rated Corvelva.it became a “Coalition Partner” in February 2019 and is listed on a CHD page by that name with other like-minded groups from the U.S., Germany, and Canada. 
  • In a May 2020 story, Kennedy cited Antionetta Gatti, the wife of Stefano Montanari, the owner of Italy’s Red-rated site StefanoMontanari.net. That site, and CHD, published a letter from Gatti in July 2020 supporting the anti-vaccine movement and stating, “Italy was sold to Big Pharma and has become a huge laboratory where experiments are carried out on the population.” Gatti asked Kennedy, to “inform your people of what is happening in Italy.”
  • In April 2020, the Red-rated French language Swiss website Antipresse.net, which has republished false and misleading information about vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic, republished a CHD article and explained its interest in the celebrity factor RFK Jr. brings to the anti-vax movement. “It’s rare for a member of the U.S. establishment to attack another in such a frontal way, and with such grave accusations,” the site wrote. “But we know that the Kennedys like living dangerously.”

Why we should care: Antipresse.net’s quote sheds light on what might be a key reason for Kennedy and his group’s warm reception in Europe (not to mention in the U.S.). He’s seen as a member of the establishment willing to align with anti-establishment groups, lending authority and visibility to their cause. As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues, public health officials will continue to face a challenge in establishing their own authority among skeptical groups prone to conspiratorial thinking.


How a US video platform became a safe haven for French conspiracy theorists

By Sophia Tewa and Chine Labbé

Odysee is a US-based video sharing platform. None of its team members speak French, says Odysee marketing director, Julian Chandra. Yet, since its September 2020 launch, this site, built by the founders of a well-known publishing platform that uses blockchain technology, has become a mini-phenomenon in France. 

Breaking it down: From November 2020 to February 2021, French-language videos from Odysee were shared on social media more frequently than English ones. According to data from NewsWhip, a social media intelligence company, 561 French-language videos appeared on Facebook or Twitter, compared to 120 English-language videos. Many videos with the highest levels of engagement (such as likes and shares) covered conspiracy theories.

  • An estimated 28% of the site’s desktop traffic comes from France, as of February 2021, according to SimilarWeb. And part of that success can be found in the world of conspiracy theories. 
  • In late 2020, many French conspiracy theorists turned to Odysee after they were deplatformed from more mainstream sites. French tech news website Numerama even called Odysee “the YouTube of conspiracy theorists.” 
    • In November 2020, for instance, the French conspiracy documentary “Hold-Up” found a temporary home on Odysee after Vimeo removed it. Since then, the three-hour long documentary — which rehashes many long-debunked conspiracies about the COVID-19 pandemic, including the idea that the virus was created by the Pasteur Institute, a French research institute — has been removed from the platform for copyright violation, Chandra told NewsGuard.
French QAnon channel Les DeQodeurs, which was suspended from YouTube, already boasts more than 26,000 subscribers on Odysee. (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

From the beginning, Odysee CEO Jeremy Kauffman openly positioned his platform as a freer alternative to YouTube, which, he said, had become “far too strict.” Yet Chandra told NewsGuard that he did not see Odysee as an equivalent of Parler or Gab — two self-declared free-speech, right-wing social networks that have attracted many Trump followers after the former U.S. president was banned from Twitter and Facebook. He also said he did not want Odysee to be painted as a “repository for deplatformed content” either. 

“Odysee is a generalist platform, apolitical in nature… as a company, we don’t endorse or promote anything that you see on the platform, it’s just a platform,” Chandra told NewsGuard in a February 2021 phone interview. “If you are looking for a platform that is predominantly made up of controversial personalities that were deplatformed at one point or another, that’s a platform like BitChute or Parler or Rumble. It is not Odysee.”

The French adoption of Odysee in recent months tells a different story.

  • Far-right essayist Alain Soral’s Egalite Et Reconciliation video channel — which was suspended from YouTube in July 2020 — has more than 37,000 subscribers on Odysee. (Egalite Et Reconciliation also has a channel on Gab.)
  • Silvano Trotta, a popular YouTuber who has promoted many conspiracies, including the idea that the moon is hollow and that 9/11 was a hoax, joined Odysee in September 2020 after receiving several warnings on YouTube and worrying that his account would be removed. In a video promoting his new channel — now boasting more than 56,000 subscribers — he said: “You can’t say anything anymore on YouTube… The rules of the YouTube community have become close to that of a sect.”
  • French QAnon channel Les DeQodeurs, which was suspended from YouTube, already boasts more than 26,000 subscribers on Odysee.

Odysee asserts that appealing to extremist users and conspiracy accounts is not the platform’s goal. “That’s really interesting that they were able to discover Odysee and adopted it,” Chandra told NewsGuard. “I think that’s more an effect of them finding out about Odysee before we were able to kind of begin marketing in that region,” he added, saying that a lot of that French content “doesn’t register” in their data. “It’s not a lot of traffic for us,” he maintained. 

Conspiratorial Odysee content is also being shared in English and reaching viewers in the U.S., even if in smaller numbers than in France. 

  • One video with nearly 100,000 views advances the conspiracy that the company Dominion Voting Systems rigged the November 2020 election with its voting machines. 

Why we should care: This kind of content can have an effect on fixtures of a functioning society such as democracy and healthcare. Failing to acknowledge its popularity is an obstacle in the fight against misinformation. A search for the word “QAnon” on Odysee, for example, reveals videos claiming the COVID-19 vaccine is dangerous and that the 2020 U.S. election was stolen by Democrats.


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Misinformation Monitor: January 2021

Welcome back to NewsGuard’s Misinformation Monitor, our newsletter tracking misinformation with exclusive data from five countries. Sign up to get the Misinformation Monitor in your inbox or download NewsGuard for your browser.
By Virginia Padovese
Chine Labbe, Marie Richter, Gabby Deutch, and Bron Maher also contributed to this report


Falsehoods about violence at U.S. Capitol and Biden’s inauguration spread widely among well-known European misinformers

Following the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol earlier this month — two weeks before the inauguration of President Joe Biden — misinformation about what happened during the riots found a home overseas. Several European sites that had recently delved into promoting the U.S.-centric QAnon conspiracy theory and falsehoods about the 2020 U.S. election have now turned to the Capitol riots, claiming — as have right-wing commentators, misinformation publishers, and some politicians in the U.S. — that it was actually the left who caused the violence. Many of those same sites continued to push falsehoods about the U.S. election until right before President Biden was sworn in, or even during the inauguration. 

Italian blogger Cesare Sacchetti posted a link to NewsGuard Red-rated site RealRawNews.com, sharing a false story about the U.S. Marine Corps to his 38,000 followers. (Screenshot from Twitter)

Breaking it down: Claims that antifa, a coalition of left-wing activists, was responsible for the Capitol riots have proven popular on European misinformation sites and social media accounts, despite the initial source for these claims later issuing a major correction to its story.

  • The day after the Capitol riots, the French far-right site RiposteLaique.com claimed that the demonstration was “good natured,” yet also that the violence was committed by members of antifa posing as Trump supporters. “It was actually antifa militias that infiltrated the demonstration, and proof is starting to accumulate,” the site reported.
  • DataBaseItalia.it, an Italian site rated Red (or generally unreliable) by NewsGuard, regularly shares QAnon conspiracy theories, and claimed that “It was Antifa’s terrorists and not Trump’s supporters who rushed to the Capitol, broke in, and tried to incite a riot.” Another Red-rated site, MaurizioBlondet.it, posted videos of the riots, commenting: “Raid at the Capitol of Antifa wreckers who pretend to be ‘patriots’. Not very convincing.”
  • The German version of the Epoch Times, a right-wing pro-Trump newspaper, republished a Washington Times article claiming that facial recognition firm XRVision detected antifa members at the Capitol. XRVision, however, said this was untrue, and The Washington Times’s story now features a prominent correction. The German Epoch Times also published the Washington Times’s correction and issued an apology — after its article had already reached close to 900,000 users on Facebook and Twitter, according to CrowdTangle data.
  • In the UK, conspiracy theorist David Icke also republished the Washington Times story, but the DavidIcke.com story remains uncorrected.

In France, some unreliable sites and commentators saw in these events the beginnings of a so-called “U.S. Spring” — like the Arab Spring — and warned that a similar violent popular revolution might also happen in Europe.

  • On January 7, far-right site Breizh-Info.com, wrote: “Are we moving towards a US Spring? It seems that last night’s historical event revealed two Americas that don’t want to/can’t live together anymore. Is it a foretaste of what’s coming to Europe a few years from now?”
  • Three days later, the site Dreuz.info asked if the invasion of the Capitol could be the first act of a revolution in the making. “What happens when the democratic process does not work anymore? …The impossibility to express oneself through voting necessarily leads to civil war, and the Capital storming is the first act.”
After leaving the White House, Donald Trump left a note for Joe Biden. A fake version of that note, which says, “Joe, you know I won,” has spread online. A French QAnon site included a French translation of the fraudulent letter. (Screenshot from QActus.fr)

In the days and hours leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration, and even right after he was sworn in, misinformation about the election having been stolen from Donald Trump continued spreading in Europe.

  • The day before the inauguration, Italian site UnUniverso.blog published an article claiming that Joe Biden had been arrested and the ceremony would not take place. “He will remain in federal custody until a detention hearing on Friday,” the article said. A few days earlier, Italian blogger Cesare Sacchetti, the owner of Red-rated site LaCrunaDellAgo.net, tweeted that “the [U.S.] army is still loyal to Trump,” which he deemed a “major problem” for “globalism,” suggesting that the army would remain on Trump’s side even after he left office. Sacchetti’s evidence was an article from the American conspiracy site RealRawNews.com, which falsely claimed that the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps accused U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of “treason.”
  • On the day of the inauguration, the German Epoch Times published an article claiming that a “review of the elections [is] still far from complete” and that there had been “influence on the election from Italy.” Of course, the integrity of the U.S. election had already been affirmed by the governors and secretaries of state of all 50 U.S. states, as well as federal officials and the Electoral College.
  • Hours before Biden’s inauguration, an author on the French site Dreuz.info wrote: “I will not be watching the ceremony. It will be a hideous sham… All the country’s institutions have failed.” And on the day Trump left office, French QAnon website QActus.fr wrote that the inauguration was just an “illusion,” continuing to assert that Trump would stay in power as the heroic figure at the heart of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Why we should care: Real-life violence fed by online misinformation could well happen in Europe, too. Some well-known French misinformation websites are already warning about it. In Germany, observers of the Capitol riots were reminded of the events in Berlin in August 2020, when hundreds of people protesting the German government’s COVID-19 measures attempted to storm the Reichstag. (Police stopped them from entering). Prior to the protest, right-wing activists had used messenger apps and social media to spread the falsehood that American and Russian soldiers were in Berlin to help overthrow the German government. During the protest, the claim emerged that even then-President Donald Trump himself was in town.

 


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Days before a new president was inaugurated, a new election fraud theory emerged: #ItalyDidIt

Earlier this month new false claims about U.S. presidential elections were widely shared on social media, with the hashtags #ItalyDidIt and #ItalyGate.

According to these false claims, an information technology specialist who used to work for Leonardo Spa, an Italian company operating in aerospace, defense, and security, orchestrated illegal vote switching during the 2020 U.S. election.

A similar claim, based on a 52-minute video in which Maria Strollo Zack — a chair of Nations in Action, an organization that claims to be dedicated to advocating for families, according to its website —  baselessly stated that votes were switched from Trump to Biden at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. According to Zack’s unsubstantiated claims, former U.S. President Barack Obama and former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi were involved in the plot to rig the election.

Jan. 5, 2021, tweet by BlueSky Report, a US account created in October 2020 that now has more than 39,000 followers, claimed, “Italy interfered with the U.S. Elections. Let’s first look at the possible players involved. Obama and former PM of Italy Renzi. The Story is developing” was retweeted approximately 6,000 times.

A Jan. 5, 2021, tweet started the #ItalyDidIt narrative. The “developing” story was quickly debunked, but it spread rapidly, in English and Italian — and other European languages. (Screenshot from Twitter)
  • Italian blogger Cesare Sacchetti’s site LaCrunaDellAgo.net, best known for publishing QAnon conspiracy theories, published an article on ItalyGate, concluding that “If we want to find the key to this elaborate international coup, we must necessarily look to Rome.”
  • In an article headlined “US elections: All ways lead to Rome,” French Red-rated site Geopolintel.fr promoted the claim that the U.S. election fraud was orchestrated by Barack Obama and Mateo Renzi.
  • The German EpochTimes.de also advanced that claim and wrote that there had been “influence on the election from Italy.” The site again made this claim the day of the inauguration, after Trump left the White House for the last time.
  • Some American unreliable sites also advanced the #ItalyDidIt narrative — but, curiously, the misinformation super-spreader TheGatewayPundit.com, which has published hundreds of stories about supposed U.S. election fraud, was skeptical, writing, “Reported Italian Intervention in the 2020 Election Falls Apart with Scrutiny.”

Why we should care: Italy isn’t the first European country to be targeted as complicit in a false American election claim; in November and December, one false narrative that circulated online claimed that evidence of illegal vote switching was housed on the servers of a Spanish company and seized by the U.S military in Frankfurt, Germany. American misinformation purveyors now have a ready-made European audience willing to leap at the chance to spread falsehoods about U.S. politics, even if these falsehoods implicate their own country.


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Misinformation Monitor: November 2020

Welcome back to NewsGuard’s Misinformation Monitor, our newsletter tracking misinformation with exclusive data from five countries. Sign up to get the Misinformation Monitor in your inbox or download NewsGuard for your browser.
By Gabby Deutch and Chine Labbe
Additional reporting by Virginia Padovese, Marie Richter, Bron Maher, and Kendrick McDonald


The big story … Nearly two-thirds of sites publishing election misinformation have also pushed COVID myths

Of the 134 sites that NewsGuard has identified as publishing materially false information about the 2020 U.S. election, 84 of them — 63 percent — have also published misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. This is concerning, but not surprising; most of these sites already had a history of publishing conspiracy theories and hoaxes prior to both the coronavirus pandemic and the U.S. election. 

A recent article on Freedom.news, in the Natural News network of misinformation sites, that claimed that mail-in voting and COVID-19 were part of a grand conspiracy to rig the 2020 U.S. election. (Freedom.news / NewsGuard)

Breaking it down: Some of the sites on the list are familiar standbys, known for publishing conspiracies on any and all topics.

  • The website of David Icke, the ex-British footballer now known for claiming that the world is under the control of shape-shifting aliens, does not miss an opportunity to join a conspiracy: Last week, his site’s home page said “There is no virus,” and he has advanced the debunked theory that a software program called Scorecard altered votes to tip the election to Joe Biden.
  • The NaturalNews.com network is a group of hundreds of health-focused domains with deceptive names like FactCheck.news and WhiteHouse.news. The sites have been at the forefront of advancing falsehoods about the coronavirus pandemic as well as potential COVID-19 vaccines, even months before Pfizer and Moderna recently announced their successful vaccines. Several of these sites have also dabbled in the U.S. election, touching on multiple election conspiracy theories, none of them substantiated, and alleging widespread Democratic fraud.
    • The network has been kicked off Facebook and Twitter, so it has used a vast network of alternative domains to encourage people to “Bypass censorship” by sharing NaturalNews content hosted on other domains, such as ClearNewsWire.com and DistributedNews.com.

Are these false claims actually reaching people? 
Yes and no. Many of the sites that have published both COVID-19 and election misinformation have seen engagement (meaning likes, shares, and comments on Facebook and Twitter) drop recently from a peak in March and April, when the coronavirus began to spread rapidly in the U.S. People were spending more time reading the news to stay up to date on coverage about the new virus that was upending everyone’s lives — and for a lot of people, that meant more time finding and reading conspiracy theories about the virus.

  • Take, for example, MadWorldNews.com — a relatively obscure conservative news site that in the spring published numerous conspiracies about the coronavirus, including that Bill Gates had a “sinister agenda” to track people who get the future COVID-19 vaccine. The site has also spread numerous falsehoods about vote-counting following the U.S. election, but average daily engagement in October and November is 68 percent lower than it was in March and April, according to data from the analytics tool NewsWhip.
  • CharismaNews.com, a website geared toward Pentecostal Christians, has pushed dangerous false cures to COVID-19, including colloidal (or liquid) silver, which the FDA has warned against repeatedly. Recently, the site published false information about the election being rigged in favor of Joe Biden. Charisma News’s average daily engagement is down by more than 50 percent from March and April.
On Nov. 20, 2020, TheGatewayPundit.com’s homepage featured conspiracies about both COVID-19 and the U.S. election.

But for some of the most popular NewsGuard Red-rated (or generally unreliable) political sites that are publishing election misinformation, engagement has skyrocketed in recent weeks.

  • TheGatewayPundit.com, one of the best-known right-wing political conspiracy sites, is a source of several of the most viral myths about the U.S. election. Gateway Pundit has falsely claimed Democrats stole the election through rigged mail-in ballots, votes illegally cast in the name of dead people, secret middle-of-the-night counting, and more. The site has also pushed unproven treatment regimens for COVID-19, but political conspiracies define the site — and its engagement in recent weeks, around the election, is up 81 percent from the spring, when interest in the coronavirus peaked.

Why we should care: It’s difficult to say whether efforts taken by search engines and social media platforms to limit the reach of misinformation are working. Some notorious peddlers of conspiracy theories have seen their social media engagement decrease since the coronavirus first emerged; others have seen their engagement increase, bringing their dangerous misinformation — about COVID-19, the election, and more — to even more people. Either way, the dozens of sites NewsGuard has documented as publishing falsehoods about the two largest stories of the year are not stopping anytime soon.

 


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Meanwhile, in Europe…

U.S. election misinformation finds an audience across the Atlantic

Earlier this year, NewsGuard reported that U.S-centric QAnon conspiracies had spread to Europe. The same pattern occurred again recently, with niche falsehoods about the U.S. electoral process finding a receptive audience across the Atlantic. So far, more than 41 French, Italian, and German-language sites (as well as two sites based in the U.K.) have published false claims about the 2020 U.S. election.

Claims of massive fraud have proven popular in Europe, particularly the idea that Democrats and Joe Biden rigged the vote-counting process to steal a victory away from President Donald Trump.

The French-language site Patriote.info claims that “massive fraud in favor of Democrats is unquestionable.” (Patriote.info / NewsGuard)

Breaking it downMany of the most popular U.S. election falsehoods in Europe were broad, aimed at undermining and questioning the results of the election, or advancing the false narrative that the results are tainted by fraud. 

  • The U.K.-based Politicalite.com claimed that six U.S. states “intend to steal the election with mail in votes,” buying into the myth that counting mail ballots after election day is illegal.
  • RiposteLaique.com, a far-right French-language conspiracy site, claimed that the supposed fraud in the U.S. election is similar to actions that occurred under “flawed regimes of Latin America,” referring specifically to Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, the authoritarian former and current rulers of Venezuela.

Local, detailed instances of alleged fraud, rooted in the intricacies of the American electoral system, found a home on unreliable European sites. These misinformation publishers did not shy away from exploring — albeit inaccurately — the complexities of the American voting system.

  • The French-language site Patriote.info shared a photo of a man carrying a ballot box to his car as evidence of “fraud in action,” when it was actually a photo of an election worker transporting ballots, legally. 
  • Compact-Online.de, a website affiliated with the far-right AfD party in Germanyshared the debunked “Sharpiegate” conspiracy, perhaps assuming that the site’s readers had knowledge of specific counties in Arizona.
  • VoxNews.Info, an Italian website known for its anti-immigrant viewsclaimed that a county in Nevada had more votes cast than the number of registered voters, and blamed this discrepancy (which did not actually exist) on “dead people or illegal people” voting.

As is true in the U.S., European websites that have published false claims about the U.S. election are repeat offenders. Most have also published COVID-19 hoaxes.

  • 37 out of the 43 European websites NewsGuard identified as publishing U.S. election misinformation also published falsehoods about the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Some websites even found a way to link the two events, as part of an alleged global conspiracy led by the mainstream media. One French-language site argued that both the pandemic and the U.S. elections proved that the media lies, because they were censoring “proof of a massive electoral fraud” as well as the supposed truth that the pandemic’s purpose is “a tool of social engineering.”

In France and GermanyRussian propaganda outlets joined in on the conspiracies.

  • The German version of RT, the Russian government disinformation and propaganda effort, promoted the claim that “1.8 million ghost voters” in 29 states cast a ballot.
  • The French-language website of Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik claimed that ballots of dead voters were counted in Michigan.
The deputy party leader of Germany’s far-right AfD party tweeted that is it “far from certain” who won the U.S. election. (Twitter / NewsGuard)

False claims about the U.S. election that have spread to Europe have, in some cases, begun alluding to key aspects of the QAnon conspiracy theory and its hostility toward a so-called “deep state” in the U.S.

  • Italian blogger Cesare Sacchetti claimed that “the deep state is stealing the elections” by “creating imaginary votes for Biden.”
  • Similarly, the French-language misinformation site Le-courrier-du-soir.com wrote that “a strategy has been put in place by the Democratic party and the Deep State – who both want to get rid of Trump – several months ago to steal the presidency from the current American president. And that’s exactly what is happening now.”

In the U.S., politicians have been among the most vocal backers of misinformation about widespread voter fraud. Some European politicians have joined in as well, further discrediting the U.S. democratic process.

  • In Italy, Guglielmo Picchi, a Member of Parliament for right-wing party The Leaguewrote on Facebook that Democrats were trying “to steal the election.”
  • In Germany, Beatrix von Storch, deputy party leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant party AfDsaid on Twitter, “Who has won the #USElection2020 is far from certain. And that is a good thing: it is up to a democratic constitutional state to eliminate massive evidence of election fraud.”
  • In the UK, Brexit party leader Nigel Farage advanced the idea of a widespread fraud, and accused America of being “incapable of counting votes state-by-state.”

Why we should care: Federal elections are coming up next year in Germany, and the French presidential election is 18 months away. The popularity of the claim that mail-in voting is prone to fraud is especially worrisome, given that mail-in voting is fairly common and has even increased in recent years in Germany, and that some French politicians are calling for the reintroduction of mail voting after it was abolished in 1975.


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Misinformation Monitor: August 2020

Welcome back to NewsGuard’s Misinformation Monitor, our newsletter tracking misinformation with exclusive data from five countries. Sign up to get the Misinformation Monitor in your inbox or download NewsGuard for your browser.
By Gabby Deutch


The big story … Popularity of politically-funded local “news” sites skyrocketed in first half of 2020 


But First the Quiz:

1. Which website created and published the false claim that Kamala Harris is ineligible to serve as president because her parents are immigrants?

a. En-volve.com, a misinformation site whose Facebook page has more than 675,000 followers
b. 
TheGatewayPundit.com, a popular conservative site that has advanced conspiracy theories about the 2016 death of DNC staffer Seth Rich
c. 
OneWorld.press, a Russian propaganda site identified by the State Department as interfering in U.S. politics

2. Which misinformation site was recently shared on Facebook by a Wisconsin politician in a post opposing mandatory mask policies?

a. SOTT.net, a site that publishes conspiracy theories, including the falsehood that Israel was responsible for the 9/11 attacks
b. 
TruePundit.com, a website that has falsely claimed that Dr. Anthony Fauci will earn billions of dollars from a future COVID-19 vaccine
c. 
WorldTruth.tv, a site that has advanced conspiracy theories about the Illuminati and about 5G’s supposed connection to COVID-19

3. Which European politician refused to wear a mask at a July conference that downplayed the threat of the coronavirus?

a. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
b. 
Marine Le Pen, president of France’s far-right National Rally party
c. Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s right-wing League party

Read to the end of the next section for the answers.


Political operatives make fake local “news” sites to get partisan propaganda to voters. New data shows it’s working.

Total social media interactions with articles from Arizona Mirror, Alpha News, and the Tennessee Star were greater in the first half of 2020 than in all of 2019. For Up North News, which launched in December, interactions increased dramatically between January and June. (NewsGuard via NewsWhip)

Hundreds of sites that claim to be new local news organizations are actually funded by political interests, aiming to reach voters under the false banner of local news. A new analysis from NewsGuard examining four of these Red-rated, or generally unreliable, sites — the liberal Arizona Mirror and Up North News (Wisconsin), and the conservative Tennessee Star and Alpha News (Minnesota) — shows that it’s working. 

All four sites have grown more popular in 2020. Arizona Mirror, Alpha News, and the Tennessee Star had more social media engagement (defined as likes, shares, and comments on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest) in the first half of 2020 than they did in all of 2019. Up North News did not exist until December, but from January to June, its engagement increased tenfold. (NewsGuard gathered this data from Newswhip and CrowdTangle, two social-media analytics tools.) 

Tricia Zunker, a Democrat running for Congress in Wisconsin, used an article from the liberal UpNorthNewsWI.com in a post attacking her Republican opponent. (Facebook / NewsGuard)

Who reads the articles? Stories from all four politically funded sites are often shared by politicians on Facebook, where the positive posts serve as a form of campaign messaging. 

  • Tricia Zunker, a Wisconsin school board member and Democratic congressional candidateshared an Up North News story that criticized her Republican opponent for his stances on the coronavirus pandemic. Up North News is part of the Courier Newsroom network, a left-leaning group of sites that uses Facebook ads to push pro-Democrat articles to voters. It is funded by the progressive nonprofit Acronym.
  • Jason Lewis, a former Minnesota Congressman now running to unseat Democratic U.S. Senator Tina Smith, has shared numerous Alpha News articles attacking Democrats and liberal policies in Minnesota. Alpha News does not disclose that it was founded by the executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Club, a major conservative advocacy group.
  • Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and Democrat running for U.S. Senate in Arizona, has shared multiple Arizona Mirror articles about immigration and other issues at the heart of his campaign. AZMirror.com is part of States Newsroom, a network of sites tied to the Hopewell Fund, a liberal nonprofit.
  • U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republicanshared a Tennessee Star article that quoted her, at length, tying recent Black Lives Matter protests to a rise in COVID-19 cases. Tennessee Star was created by former Tea Party activists.

Why we should careThese websites are seen as a new, under-the-radar way to reach voters at a time when scrutiny of “fake news” is at an all-time high. Voters and social media companies are starting to take notice: Earlier this month, Facebook announced new policies cracking down on these sites. But it’s clear that these upstarts are having an impact — and filling the void left by the closure of many legitimate local news sources.

 


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QUIZ ANSWERS:

  1. (a) En-volve.com, a news site founded in 2016 to back President Trump’s campaign, published an article in the summer of 2019 — as the Democratic presidential primary kicked off — saying that Kamala Harris’s “Birth Certificate Makes Her INELIGIBLE For Presidency.”
  2. (a) Wisconsin State Rep. Michael Schraa shared a SOTT.net article that falsely claimed that masks are ineffective and questioned the efficacy of proven COVID-19 treatment methods
  3. (c) After Italy’s Matteo Salvini did not wear a mask at a public event last month, he reversed course and, a week later, urged all Italians to wear masks.  

Meanwhile, in Europe…

Europe’s anti-mask movement began on little-known misinformation sites. Here’s how it went mainstream.

A screenshot of a tweet from an account affiliated with the Yellow Vest movement in France. The mask reads, “When tyranny becomes the law, RESISTANCE becomes a duty.” A hashtag on the post translates to: “Drop the masks.” (@91Gilets via Twitter)

In the U.S., the anti-mask debate pits liberty and individual choice against government controls and mandatory rules. Similar arguments have begun to emerge in Europe, most notably in Germany. An August anti-mask protest in Berlin attracted 20,000 people — and added oxygen to anti-mask conspiracies and misinformation that had been slowly growing for months. 

  • The German rally was organized by an offshoot of Querfront, a new nationalist movement that has brought together right-wing and left-wing radicals with hardcore conspiracy theorists who all share an opposition to the government and its coronavirus response. 
  • The name of the protest — ”The end of the pandemic – The Day of Freedom” — was a reference to a Nazi propaganda film, called “Day of Freedom,” created in 1935 by Leni Riefenstahl.
  • Even with 20,000 maskless attendees in the middle of a global pandemic, some Italian commentators took to Twitter to falsely claim the rally was actually bigger. One popular tweet featured a photo of a 2019 event in Zurich, with the caption “Berlin today.” Another used a photo that was taken in Berlin, but in 1999.

Breaking it downBy the time the first mask mandates went into effect in April, a few obscure sites had already started laying the groundwork of anti-mask ideology, publishing pseudoscientific claims that advocates would later cite as “evidence” of why mask orders were dangerous to people’s health and an infringement on their rights.

  • A January story on the NewsGuard Red-rated French site Cogiito.com claimed that “N95 masks are USELESS, the coronavirus enters the body through eyeballs.”
  • The NewsGuard Red-rated German site Politaia.org wrote in February that “the protective function of the masks is not only controversial, but practically even rejected.”
  • In Italy, misinformation sites push the falsehood that masks are worse than the pandemic itself, with many citing the work of a controversial researcher named Stefano Montanari, whose personal site routinely pushes false health claims.
  • QAnon social media accounts both in Italy and in France have jumped in, urging followers to practice “civil disobedience” and not wear masks.

The anti-mask dogma has also been adapted for various political ideologies. 

  • A July article on the far-right French site RiposteLaique.com used a xenophobic argument to oppose masks: “People are managing to convince idiotic French people that it’s necessary to wear a mask to go grocery-shopping, just like they manage to explain that immigration is still an opportunity for France.”
  • Italian MP Sara Cunial — who no longer affiliates with a party after she was kicked out of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement last year — posted on Facebook in May that masks can cause heart attacks. 
  • In July, leader of the Italian right-wing League party Matteo Salvini attended a meeting that downplayed the virus’s risks — without wearing a mask. He later reversed himself, telling the news site SkyTg24 that “Masks must be used when needed.”

Why we should careThe anti-mask pseudoscience advanced by a network of European misinformation sites quickly took hold among conspiracy theorists. But they have now been joined by political activists who talk about fighting for freedom. It’s apparently a persuasive message, and it shows no signs of slowing down.


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Misinformation Monitor: July 2020

Welcome back to NewsGuard’s Misinformation Monitor, our newsletter tracking misinformation with exclusive data from five countries. Sign up to get the Misinformation Monitor in your inbox or download NewsGuard for your browser.
By Gabby Deutch


The big story … Companies that boycott Facebook to protest hate speech are still advertising on misinformation sites


But First the Quiz:

1. Which American news website is secretly run by a Republican political consultant and is amplified to an audience of 8.5 million people on Facebook?

a. JournalPatriot.com
b. 
PatriotLedger.com
c. 
PatriotJournal.org
d. 
StatesmanJournal.com

2. Which prominent brand that has joined the boycott of Facebook — protesting Facebook’s policies that allow irresponsible content to spread on the platform — also finances irresponsible misinformation websites by advertising on them?

a. Pfizer
b. 
Target
c. 
Starbucks
d. 
All of them and many more

3. Which European leader has been frequently referred to as a “deep state puppet” by followers of Qanon, a conspiracy theory that until now has been largely confined to the United States?

a. Emmanuel Macron
b. 
Boris Johnson
c. 
Angela Merkel
d. 
Vladimir Putin

Read to the end of the next section for the answers.


Fortune 500 companies pulled ads from Facebook to protest the social media site’s policies on hate speech. But elsewhere on the Internet, they’re subsidizing the same or worse content.

An ad for Walgreens, which is participating in the Facebook ad boycott, appeared on ZeroHedge in July. (ZeroHedge.com / NewsGuard)

More than one thousand companies of all sizes — ranging from Verizon to outdoors retailer REI to hundreds of small business and nonprofits — have signed on to the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, a movement led by the ADL and NAACP asking companies to pause Facebook advertising  to protest what the civil rights organizations see as Facebook’s failure to fight hate speech. “Your profits will never be worth promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence,” the campaign arguesYet many of the biggest brands participating in the boycott fund websites that promote as much or often more of the content that these advertisers don’t want to fund on Facebook.

Over the past four months, companies including Pfizer, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Target placed advertisements — probably inadvertently, through algorithms that determine where programmatic ads appear — on sites that NewsGuard has rated Red, meaning generally unreliable.

Using data from Moat, an advertising technology service, NewsGuard examined the advertising practices of 15 companies participating in the boycott. Some — including Patagonia, Coca-Cola, and Ben and Jerry’s — did not have any ads appear on NewsGuard Red-rated sites in recent months.

Others advertised on infamous misinformation websites that have promoted debunked conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birthplace, anti-vaxx propaganda, and Islamophobic falsehoods.
Take technology giant HP as an example. “We expect all platforms on which we advertise to uphold responsible policies that prevent our ads from appearing alongside objectionable content, regardless of the source,” the company said in a statement announcing its participation in the boycott.

  • The company’s ads recently appeared on 28 NewsGuard Red-rated sites, including GellerReport.com, an unreliable website that described Islam as an “assault to our way of life” in a 2018 article that argued that “Until the Western world understands the threat of Islamic ideology to their society and culture, people will continue to die.”
  • HP also advertised on TheConservativeTreehouse.com, a misinformation site that gained attention last month for promoting the false claim (which later appeared in President Trump’s Twitter feed) that an elderly peaceful protester attacked by police in Buffalo, New York, had been a member of antifa. (An HP spokesperson did not respond to an email from NewsGuard.)

The list goes on:

  • Starbucks, HP, Ford, Target, and Unilever ads fund ZeroHedge, a finance-blog-turned-conspiracy-hub that pushed falsehoods about former Vice President Joe Biden during the congressional impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump last fall and has falsely claimed the coronavirus was stolen by Chinese spies from a Canadian lab.
  • Ads for some companies appear on Russian disinformation websites, too: Microsoft and HP advertised on Sputnik, and Adidas advertised on RT, both of which are mouthpieces for Vladimir Putin that seek to sow division in the U.S. and in Europe.

Why it matters: The Facebook ad boycott has amassed an unprecedented amount of corporate starpower, with businesses asserting that inclusive values are as important as profits. Yet their ads continue to subsidize unreliable sites across the Internet, appearing alongside racist and conspiratorial articles. This doesn’t mean the companies support those websites. But it’s what happens when companies place ads using algorithms, without considering a website’s content or journalistic standards.

 


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QUIZ ANSWERS:

  1. (c) PatriotJournal.org is a conservative news site run by a Texas political consultant who also operates popular interconnected Facebook pages with names like Liberty Upheld and United American Patriots that have millions of followers. (See below for more details.) 
  2. (d) All of these companies — and, as explained above, numerous others — have financed NewsGuard Red-rated misinformation sites by advertising on them.
  3.  (c) German Chancellor Angela Merkel is routinely targeted by Qanon as a “deep state puppet.”

A Texas GOP consultant is secretly using a network of Facebook pages with millions of followers to boost his three partisan websites.

Ryan Mauldin, co-founder of Republican digital media firm Vici Media Group, is using a network of nine Facebook pages and three groups — none of which disclose any connection to each other or to Mauldin — to boost page views on his three right-wing websites. Through pages with names like Defense of FreedomMake America Great, and Patriots Unitedthe hyperpartisan articles can reach a combined audience of 8.6 million Facebook users. The network appears to violate Facebook’s ban on inauthentic behavior, which was created to bring transparency to the platform so that users know who created the content they encounter on the platform.

Mauldin is the force behind three websites, PatriotJournal.org, GOPDailyBrief.com, and AmericanJournalDaily.com, which publish nearly identical content. The sites are highly partisan, and NewsGuard rated them unreliable for failing to disclose their agenda or their ties to the well-connected Republican consultant. Stories have at times positively covered Vici’s clients, most notably Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. (Mauldin did not respond to three emails from NewsGuard.)

Mauldin runs Vici with his brother Patrick, who has a history of creating deceptive websites. Last year the New York Times reported that he ran a mysterious satire site called JoeBiden.info, which resembled a campaign website for the former vice president but actually skewered his policies and campaign tactics.

  • In fact, Patrick Mauldin has worked for Biden’s opponent — a glowing testimonial on Vici’s website from Brad Parscale, President Trump’s senior advisor and former campaign manager, says that in 2016 Patrick “played an important role in our social media strategy which ultimately played a big part in helping Donald Trump win the election.”

The Facebook pages promoting the sites’ articles don’t disclose their connection to the Mauldin brothers, instead giving off the appearance that they are organic communities of conservative-minded Facebook users. However, several of them are affiliated with a company called Viral Media Partners LLC, which is registered in Ryan Mauldin’s name.

  • The Patriot Journal Facebook page has spent over $17,000 on Facebook ads since May 2018, urging readers to sign petitions supporting the president and opposing Democrats.

What the pages tell Facebook users: All have About sections attacking mainstream media and promoting conservatism. They range from “Like this page if you are a TRUE American Conservative! Get the news you NEED to know” (American Conservative) to “We stand with real patriots by pushing back against the liberal media bias” (Liberty Upheld).

What the pages post: Many articles are posted on almost all of the Facebook pages within a 24-hour time frame, underneath the same descriptions — further evidence of coordination between the pages. Stories contain hostile broadsides against Democrats and groups like Black Lives Matter, and admiration for President Trump and Republicans.

Why we should care: Following the proliferation of online disinformation during the 2016  election, Facebook wrote new rules to protect “authenticity” on the platform. “We don’t allow people to misrepresent themselves on Facebook, use fake accounts, [or] artificially boost the popularity of content,” reads Facebook’s official policy on inauthentic behavior. The goal, Facebook writes, is “to create a space where people can trust the people and communities they interact with.” (NewsGuard did not receive a response to two emails sent to Facebook’s press team.)

  • Mauldin’s collection of pages (and affiliated three groups) has amassed a combined 8,659,159 followers without disclosing, to a single one of them, that the network is run by a political consultant. Vici Media Group is not a particularly well known firm, but the small Texas-based company has earned over $430,000 in the past year from its work with four congressional candidates — in addition to the group’s work for state-level candidates in Texas, political organizations like the pro-life Ohio Right to Life, and Patrick Mauldin’s consulting for President Trump’s reelection.
  • By failing to disclose this pertinent information to readers of the three sites run by Ryan Mauldin, or to the millions of people who see the articles on Facebook, Mauldin is not giving readers the full story.

Rita Zolotova, a Facebook spokesperson, declined to offer any specifics about the Patriot Journal network of pages. Zolotova noted that she had not yet looked at the pages, but said they probably don’t reach the level of “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which involves fake accounts and often refers to foreign influence operations. But she said there are other ways pages might violate Facebook’s transparency rules, such as by failing to disclose that a network of pages is run by the same organization.

“It’s very likely if they are in fact run by the same person, that they would be in the pipeline and on the radar of our teams,” Zolotova said. Facebook routinely reaches out to networks that are tied to a single organization to “ask them to disclose that, and if they don’t, we will remove them,” Zolotova said. 


Qanon, a conspiracy movement about the U.S. “deep state,” takes root in Europe

A screenshot of a Qanon explanatory video with 2.2 million views shows just a handful of the languages to which it has been translated. (YouTube / NewsGuard)

Coronavirus spawned an “infodemic,” with conspiracy theories about the virus’s origin, symptoms, and cures spreading quickly online. As conspiracies have grown more popular, they’re taking a new shape in Europe: Internet personalities, musicians, and politicians are now placing conspiracies about the coronavirus, politics, pedophilia, and more into the Qanon framework.

What is it? According to NBC News, “Qanon is a convoluted conspiracy theory with no apparent foundation in reality.” An anonymous Internet user named Q “has taken to the fringe internet message boards of 4chan and 8chan to leak intelligence about Trump’s top-secret war with a cabal of criminals run by politicians like Hillary Clinton and the Hollywood elite,” NBC reported.

  • It’s a distinctly American ideology — skepticism toward the elites, with adherents adopting an almost religious reverence toward the belief system. But while the figures at the heart of Qanon are American (President Trump is seen as something of a savior, with Hillary Clinton and others in the U.S. “deep state” apparently seeking to stymie him), its general premise of distrust and conspiratorial thinking can be easily transferred to any country where disgruntled citizens don’t trust the people in charge.

In Italy, Germany, and France, Qanon social media accounts have grown by thousands of followers in recent months. They seek to spread the Qanon gospel to Europeans in their native languages.

The French Twitter account @QAnonFrance has amassed 8,200 followers since November in its bid to “allow non-English speaking patriots to follow Q.” The account shares mostly U.S.-centric conspiracy theories on topics including Clinton and the “deep state,” but it also criticizes the Macron government. It features French far-right content, including articles by essayist Alain Soral, who founded the NewsGuard Red-rated website EgaliteEtReconciliation.fr and whose YouTube channel was removed this month for “severe or repeated violations of YouTube’s rules forbidding the use of content inciting hatred.”

  • LumiereSurGaia.com, a NewsGuard Red-rated site that ranks among the top 400 sites in France, has published Qanon conspiracies since 2018, and it recently shared a video from a French Qanon YouTube channel calling the COVID-19 pandemic part of the “Deep State’s plan…to destroy the economy to create chaos and create a demand for a world government headed by Soros, Rothschild and the Saudi family,” while taking down Trump.

In Germany, a Facebook group called Qanon deutsch blumenberger has published coronavirus conspiracies and Qanon theories — specifically focusing on the alleged existence of so-called deep state pedophile networks in Germany — to 29,875 members.

  • A prominent German booster of Qanon has been Xavier Naidoo, a popular soul/R&B singer. He posted videos from Qlobal-Change, the biggest German-language Q account (with 96,000 YouTube subscribers), on Telegram. Naidoo recently claimed the coronavirus pandemic is really a cover for an effort to fight back against “elites” and set children free from pedophile networks run by those “elites.” The musician’s Qanon posts came not long after he made a number of controversial anti-immigrant comments  —  putting him directly in the spotlight, leading him to receive more attention than ever from German tabloids.
  • Compact-online.de, a NewsGuard Red-rated site that publishes false stories to support the far-right AfD party, has brought the “deep state” framework to Germany. “The AfD and other patriotic forces are being hunted,” said a special COMPACT print issue on the deep state. “Anyone who says a clever word is targeted by the Deep State.” The site has also tried to tie Jeffrey Epstein and U.S. politicians to sexual abuse in Germany. “All just isolated cases? No, there’s a perverted system behind it too!”

A growing network of Qanon accounts in Italy share posts from Qlobal-Change, the blog shared by Naidoo in Germany. The site also has Spanish and Portuguese YouTube channels — but its YouTube channel lists its location as the United States, suggesting it might be run by an American hoping to export the Qanon ideology.

  • A site called Qanon.it (which is a major promoter of Qlobal-Change) is regularly shared to thousands of people on Facebook and Twitter across several different Q-supporting accounts.
    • Qanon.it directs readers to an introductory video about Q, which has subtitles in a shocking 20 languages — ranging from French and Chinese to Catalan and Hebrew. 
  • In May, Italian independent member of parliament and anti-vaxx activist Sara Cunial (formerly a member of the 5 Star Movement) gave a speech in parliament promoting conspiracies that had been popularized by pro-Qanon accounts. Although Cunial did not mention Qanon, she accused Bill Gates, a frequent target of people who follow Q, of sterilizing women in Africa (among other false claims). A video she posted of her speech — which was also published on the site Qanon.it — has been shared more than 29,000 times on Facebook.
    • Cunial is not the only politician to promote these theories. At least 10 current U.S. political candidates running for state-level or congressional positions have either pledged allegiance to Q or expressed interest in Qanon.

Why we should care: At first glance, it doesn’t make much sense for Europeans to buy into a conspiracy theory with the U.S. president at its center. But the spread of Qanon across the Atlantic suggests that the conspiratorial worldview at the heart of this belief system is becoming more popular. It allows believers to place themselves on what they see as the right side of history, fighting the elites who are supposedly engaging in dangerous and illegal behavior. It’s simple, and simple transfers easily. It’s also hard to stop.


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Editor’s Note: This post was updated on July 17, 2020, to include more details about Facebook spokesperson Rita Zolotova’s comments to NewsGuard.

Misinformation Monitor: June 2020

Welcome back to NewsGuard’s Misinformation Monitor, our newsletter tracking misinformation with exclusive data from five countries. Sign up to get the Misinformation Monitor in your inbox or download NewsGuard for your browser.
By Gabby Deutch


The big story … False stories about “paid protesters” spike — again — in effort to delegitimize Black Lives Matter protests


But First the Quiz:

1. Which bestselling author shared a 3-hour video by David Icke, a British conspiracy theorist who was removed from Facebook for publishing “health misinformation that could cause physical harm,” to their personal website?

a) J.K. Rowling
b) 
Alice Walker
c) 
Celeste Ng
dJames Patterson

2. Which Minnesota news site is secretly funded by a major conservative political nonprofit?

a) AlphaNewsMN.com
b) 
PostBulletin.com
c) 
MinnesotaReformer.com
d) 
StarTribune.com

3. Which country has the highest percentage of people who disagree with the statement that vaccines are safe?

a) United States
b) 
Russia
c) 
France
d) 
China

Read to the end of the next section for the answers.


Misinformation sites have been linking George Soros to racial justice protesters since Black Lives Matter movement gained prominence in Ferguson

The relative popularity of the term “paid protesters” in Google searches over time. Spikes shown include March 2016, when a satirical Craigslist ad said people could get paid to protest then-candidate Donald Trump; the November 2016 presidential election; and, finally, May 2020, as protests against racism and police violence took off following George Floyd’s death. (Google Trends / NewsGuard)

As protests against police brutality have swept the nation, so has a common refrain used to discredit them.
 
The trope of “paid protesters” depicts public expressions of disapproval or dissent as inauthentic, arguing participants are not morally or ideologically motivated, but do so for financial or other disingenuous reasons.
 
It’s not new. The latest iteration simply shows how the narrative has evolved over the last several years, incorporating motifs that have appeared in news cycles of protest and civil unrest throughout the digital age. We tracked the phrase, linking it in many cases to NewsGuard Red-rated (generally unreliable) sites.

August 2014: Protests occur in Ferguson, Mo., after the police killing of Michael Brown

As the Black Lives Matter movement grew more widespread, George Soros was accused of funding rioters in Ferguson and the movement more broadly with a $33 million payment. While his Open Society Foundations had given money to several organizations in Ferguson, many had received funding before protesting began, and it was not for the express purpose of protesting.

Misinformation publishers like the Red-rated YourNewsWire.com (now publishing under the name News Punch) continued to claim for years that the movement was “produced by George Soros.”

January 2017: Women’s Marches occur across the country in response to the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

George Soros is accused of funding the protests because of past donations he made to organizations involved in the Women’s Marches, such as Planned Parenthood.

One Red-rated conservative blog wrote that “the liberal media and Democrat pundits are mischaracterizing the past weekend’s march as grassroots. Listening to them, people would believe that the participants were sincere, spontaneous and concerned citizens.  While some were genuine, most were paid minions.”

August 2017: Unite the Right Rally organized by white supremacists occurs in Charlottesville, Va.

Unreliable websites questioned whether counter protesters who demonstrated in opposition to the alt-right were authentic. Red-rated ZeroHedge.com pointed to a Craigslist ad for “Crowds for Hire” as suspicious evidence, but the post was actually a generic (and authentic) ad looking to hire actors and photographers Charlotte, N.C., not Charlottesville, Va.

February 2018: The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, spurs gun control activism by students across the country.

False accusations claimed that Parkland student activists are “crisis actors” (a variation of the “paid protesters” trope) who were not actually at the high school during the shooting and were hired — by Democrats or others — to use the incident to promote an anti-gun agenda. Alex Jones of InfoWars previously made similar claims related to the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.

George Soros is connected to the crisis with scant evidence. David A. Clarke, a former Milwaukee sheriff and conservative pundit, tweeted, “The well ORGANIZED effort by Florida school students demanding gun control has GEORGE SOROS’ FINGERPRINTS all over it.”

October 2018: A caravan of Central American migrants approaches the U.S. border to seek asylum.

Even without a protest, peddlers of misinformation invoke George Soros, claiming he financed the group of migrants, who were alleged — without evidence — to pose a threat to the U.S. Red-rated sites such as PacificPundit.com and PuppetStringNews.com reported the claim as fact, despite a denial from Soros’s Open Society Foundations.

May/June 2020: Protests against police brutality occur across the country after the killing of George Floyd.

Facebook posts falsely accused George Floyd of being a “crisis actor,” claiming that he did not die and attended his own funeral.

Red-rated site The Conservative Treehouse was the first to promote a conspiracy theory that a 75-year-old Buffalo, NY, man who was seriously injured when police shoved him to the ground was not an authentic protester, but a member of Antifa. Notorious misinformation publisher Natural News falsely accused the man of being a “crisis actor” and “professional agitator.” President Trump amplified the accusations on Twitter after seeing a report on the story from One America News, a conspiracy-promoting right-leaning news channel.

Conservative pundit Candace Owens tweeted that “Democrat George Soros has these thugs on payroll,” referring to Minneapolis protesters.

 


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QUIZ ANSWERS:

  1. (b) Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple, posted a video of David Icke linking the pandemic to Jews, Le Monde reported.
  2.  (a) AlphaNewsMN.com, a NewsGuard Red-rated news site that calls itself an “independent voice for Minnesotans,” was founded by the executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Club, a conservative advocacy group. The site does not disclose its connection to this group or its political agenda.
  3. (c) France has the world’s highest percentage of people who disagree that vaccines are safe, with one in three people finding vaccines unsafe, according to a study conducted in 2018 by Gallup and funded by Wellcome, a British public health NGO.

The COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t exist. That doesn’t stop anti-vaxxers from saying it won’t work.

(ChildrensHealthDefense.org / NewsGuard)

As scientists make progress on a coronavirus vaccine, vaccine opponents around the world are already claiming the vaccine will be ineffective and unsafe. 

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a prominent U.S. vaccine skeptic, told NewsGuard in an interview that “if they actually create a vaccine that does what people think, what the promoters suggest it’s gonna do, we would be all for it.” 

His organization, Children’s Health Defense, says this of all vaccines: If only there were better testing, the group would support them. Yet they currently oppose all existing vaccines.

  • The reason? Children’s Health Defense falsely asserts that vaccines are not tested for safety. But vaccine testing generally has three phases, and in the third phase — which tests vaccines against a placebo, among thousands of participants —  vaccines are “tested for efficacy and safety,” according to the CDC.

According to Kennedy, “in Phase III, they’ll study only efficacy and not safety,” he told NewsGuard, but this is simply not true. Kennedy claimed that none of the vaccines “for children has ever been safety tested against a placebo,” he added — another falsehood.

“If you can show me a vaccine that’s been safety tested, that’s been tested against a placebo, and that…should avert more harm than it causes — that’s a pretty, I think, simple standard,” Kennedy said. It is, in fact, the very standard used by the FDA, which regulates and approves vaccines.

  • “It’s the same dynamic as the pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church,” Kennedy said of vaccine opponents, suggesting that anti-vaccine activists are spreading an unpopular but true message, much like the whistleblowers who exposed widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. “Everybody is subsumed into the orthodoxy,” with a “small group of people” who stray from that orthodoxy — in this case, the vaccine opponents are the ones who Kennedy says dare to speak the truth.

In France, several unreliable sites warned that the vaccine would kill more people than COVID-19 — one distorting a quote attributed to Bill Gates, another citing the conspiracy-riddled Plandemic video.

Italy, Germany, and France have all seen the spread of the false claim that people who received the seasonal flu shot were at higher risk for COVID-19, despite a lack of evidence for this claim.

  • All three countries have increased the number of mandatory vaccinations in recent years as vaccine skepticism has increased. A recent campaign in Germany could be telling: The country began a mandatory measles vaccination policy in March, just as coronavirus was taking off across Europe. A group of parents filed a lawsuit opposing the rule, claiming that they “do not oppose the vaccinations themselves, but rather the compulsory nature of the law,” according to the news channel Taggesschau. Their outrage could be a sign of things to come as governments consider how to ensure that millions of people receive the future COVID-19 vaccine.   

Data shows that large numbers of people say they won’t receive a COVID-19 vaccine when it is eventually released.

  • Anti-vaxx narratives have long resonated in France. 33% did not find vaccines safe when polled in 2018, and a recent survey shows that 26% of French people would not use a vaccine against the coronavirus.
  • In both Italy and Germanyabout 20% of people said they would not receive the coronavirus vaccine. In the U.K., polling showed that only 4% of people would not get the vaccine, though 15% are still undecided.

Why we should care: As the pandemic morphs and shifts and our lives change accordingly, misinformation narratives are also morphing and adapting. And based on these poll numbers, people continue to take these startlingly false claims at face value — despite an utter lack of evidence.


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Misinformation Monitor: May 2020

Welcome back to NewsGuard’s Misinformation Monitor, a newsletter tracking misinformation with exclusive data from five countries. Sign up to get the Misinformation Monitor in your inbox or download NewsGuard for your browser.
by Gabby Deutch


The big story… Major Republican and Democratic campaign organizations are using shady “news” sites to spread political propaganda


But First the Quiz:

1. Which health and beauty website has published COVID-19 misinformation?

a) ThePuristOnline.com, a wellness magazine operated by Cristina Cuomo that posts recipes, wellness tips, and inspirational quotes
b)
MarieClaire.com, a fashion publication that has published magazines in more than 36 countries
c)
BarefootContessa.com, a cooking website run by the Food Network’s Ina Garten
d) ShondaLand.com, a lifestyle and culture website founded by television producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes

2. How many of the Facebook posts that NewsGuard found on its list of English-language “Super Spreaders” — accounts spreading coronavirus misinformation to audiences of more than 100,000 people — were labeled as false by Facebook?

a) 31%
b)
42%
c)
59%
d)
76%

3. Which of these “news” websites is run by a Democratic Super PAC whose specialty is digging up dirt on Republicans?

a) TheLedger.com
b) ClarionLedger.com
c) American-Ledger.com
d) Ledger-Enquirer.com

Read to the end of the next section for the answers.


Election Update: American political groups invest in deceptively-named websites to make their arguments seem more legitimate

One of these sites is run by a Democratic super PAC and one is run by the Republican Governors Association (RGA). Judging only by the sites’ names, it would be impossible to guess which is which.

At the FreeTelegraph.com, readers find stories criticizing Democrats and praising Republican governors on everything from their handling of the coronavirus pandemic to their stances against China. The site is sponsored by the RGA, which works to elect Republican governors.

  • If you click through and scroll all the way down to the bottom of an article, you’ll see a note: “Sponsored by the Republican Governors Association.” But on Twitter, where the Free Telegraph shares its articles to 54,000 followers, the website is described only as “your home for breaking conservative news and political opinion,” with no mention of its connection to a major political organization.
  • Articles are shared on Facebook by local and state Republican Party chapters. Because the name Free Telegraph suggests a generic local newspaper that could be located anywhere, the Republican Party is giving off the impression that its political positions are backed up by legitimate reporting when all these pages are doing is sharing campaign talking points.

American-Ledger.com is even more opaque. The site is run by American Bridge PAC, a leading Democratic super PAC. American-Ledger.com only notes, at the bottom of each long page, “PAID FOR BY AB PAC,” with no further explanation of what AB PAC is.

  • Posts on American-Ledger.com are the opposite of everything on FreeTelegraph.com. They provide negative coverage of Republicans that Democrats hope to defeat in 2020. It’s basically a hub for anti-GOP opposition research — which makes sense, given how American Bridge describes itself: “We find what Republicans are hiding and make sure voters hear about it.”
  • The site’s Twitter page says its goal is “empowering the public and exposing wrongdoing,” with no reference to American Bridge. American Ledger’s articles have been posted by left-leaning activist groups such as Emily’s List and state Democratic Parties, who don’t let on that what they’re posting is not journalism.

Why we should care: With in-person campaign events on hold, social media matters more than ever for candidates. Watch out for more “news” sites like these that are directly tied to political campaigns.

  • Politically-funded sites posing as news continue to proliferate at the local level. In a New Jersey congressional race, Republican candidate Kate Gibbs attacked incumbent Democratic Rep. Andy Kim for posting uncritical, supportive articles from Courier Newsroom, a website run by the progressive nonprofit Acronym.
  • The New Jersey Globe reported that Courier had spent about $40,000 on Facebook ads boosting its positive Kim stories to his constituents — and that Kim has received the endorsement of End Citizens United, a political action committee working to “get big money out of politics.”

 


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QUIZ ANSWERS:

  1. (a) The Purist, a NewsGuard Red-rated site, has listed bleach baths and mega-doses of Vitamin C as being among the possible COVID-19 remedies and has also written that 5G technology is dangerous.
  2. (b) On a list of Facebook pages that have spread coronavirus misinformation to millions of followers, many posts were mysteriously removed after NewsGuard flagged them. Of the posts that remain on Facebook, only 42% are labeled as false.
  3. (c) American-Ledger.com is operated by American Bridge PAC, a Democratic super PAC that works to publicize negative information about Republicans.

As coronavirus news fatigue sets in, health misinformation sites remain popular, but readers are now focusing on more of their other health care hoaxes

As coronavirus gripped the U.S. in March, Americans grew obsessed with news about the novel virus. Engagement (meaning likes, shares, and comments on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn) with articles about coronavirus on all news and information sites increased by 1023% from February to March, according to data NewsGuard compiled from the social media analytics firm NewsWhip. The more than 100 English-language sites that NewsGuard has identified as publishing false claims about the virus saw a massive increase in social media likes and shares, too: They saw engagement with content about the virus grow by 478%, a smaller but still unsettling amount.

  • However, in April, engagement with coronavirus news was lower — down 18% from March on all news and information sites, including legitimate ones. The COVID-19 hoax sites tracked by NewsGuard saw a larger decrease, receiving 33% less engagement in April than in March.  
    • People are still closely tracking the pandemic — 87% reported following coronavirus news closely, according to a late April report from the Pew Research Center, a public opinion polling organization — but 71% of Americans said they need to take breaks from the onslaught of COVID-19 news.
    • Fewer people reading and sharing coronavirus news from sites that have posted conspiracy theories about the virus and dangerous false “cures” should be a good thing. But at the same time that those sites saw less social media engagement with coronavirus content, their overall engagement (on topics such as vaccines and cancer) rose by nearly 5% from March to April.In other words: As people grow tired of reading about coronavirus, evidence suggests many are still turning to health misinformation sites, only on other topics.
From January 2019 through April 2020, total engagement with three notorious health care hoax sites (NaturalNews.com, Mercola.com, and GreenMedInfo.com) mostly decreased — until the coronavirus pandemic, when it increased dramatically. 

Case study: NewsGuard tracked the monthly engagement (on all topics, not just coronavirus) of three of the worst offenders when it comes to health misinformation: NaturalNews.com, Mercola.com, and GreenMedInfo.com (all of which are NewsGuard-rated Red sites). All have published false and unsubstantiated claims about the virus, vaccines, and other medical conditions. From January through April, total engagement with these sites was up 122% — meaning it more than doubled from the time coronavirus emerged.

  • In 2019, these sites saw massive declines in social media engagement, in part due to Facebook and Twitter banning NaturalNews.com last summer. But by April, their combined engagement of 954,606 likes, shares, and comments was nearly back to what it was in January 2019 (1,104,058 engagements).

Why we should care: Public trust in credible information is crucial when it comes to stopping the spread of the coronavirus. But COVID-19 misinformation is only the most visible product of the overall health care “infodemic.” NewsGuard’s analysis shows that many people continue to rely on health care hoax sites that sow distrust in real medicine, such as vaccines, as well as distrust in the institutions and governments that promote vaccines.   


COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook remains active, with limited fact checking

Screenshots of two posts with similar claims — that the coronavirus was produced in a laboratory — reveal that one remains active with no warning, while the other is labeled as partly false by Facebook. Both were pre-bunked by NewsGuard. (Facebook.com / NewsGuard)

Last month NewsGuard published a report on social media “Super Spreaders” — English-language Facebook pages with more than 100,000 followers that had shared false information about the coronavirus, in violation of Facebook’s misinformation policies. The accounts — ranging from Rush Limbaugh’s page to anti-vax communities and hubs for conspiracy theorists to seemingly innocuous lifestyle pages — have a combined reach of more than 21 million people. A month later, fewer than half of those posts have been taken down, and of the ones that remain, most (58%) have not been flagged as false by fact-checkers.

  • There appears to be no clear standard for when a post is taken down, what is labeled as false, and what remains active and unlabeled. One example: NewsGuard highlighted six posts that claim 5G causes coronavirus; four have been removed, but two remain active, with no warning label.
  • All 26 posts that remain on Facebook had been “pre-bunked” by NewsGuard, meaning that even before Facebook’s fact-checkers identified the misinformation, the links in these posts all carried NewsGuard’s Red warning shield, signifying that the posts came from generally unreliable websites.
  • Twitter doesn’t fare any better. NewsGuard identified 10 “Super Spreaders” on Twitter that, together, reach more than 3 million people.
    • Two weeks after the report was released, nearly two-thirds of the posts NewsGuard highlighted remain active, with no warning to users. (9 percent have been removed, and 27 percent feature a warning only when users click the link in the tweet.)

Compare that to Italy, where NewsGuard identified 10 Facebook pages that were responsible for significantly contributing to the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. Nine of those 10 sites have since been removed, compared to just one of 31 English-language pages (that of David Icke, former professional soccer player turned professional conspiracy theorist).

  • All 10 Italian pages deceptively lured in readers with innocent-sounding names like “A Fairy Tale in the Heart” or “Luxury Fashion.” They reached more than 5 million people.
  • When these pages were first created, they posted only photos of animals and cute kids. But at some point prior to COVID-19, these pages began posting right-wing political content and health “news” unrelated to those subjects, primarily from the NewsGuard Red-rated sites ViralMagazine.it and FanMagazine.it.
  • The owners of these Italian sites — which post similar content but are not connected — were also the administrators of some of those pages. They confirmed to NewsGuard that they did not receive any communication from Facebook about its decision. One afternoon they just realized their accounts had disappeared.
    • “I’m writing an email to Facebook … to understand if they can restore them. I will clean them up and go back to simply publish quotes or photographs, as I used to do in the past,” FanMagazine.it’s owner told NewsGuard.

One surprise on the list of Francophone Super Spreaders: The second-largest French-language “Super Spreader” was a Congolese pastor based in Kinshasa, who three times a week publishes video sermons to over 750,000 followers.

  • On March 19th, Pastor Marcello Tunasi posted a particularly popular 90-minute sermon called “The truth about CORONAVIRUS ‘COVID-19,’” which was viewed 857,000 times, 18 times the amount of views of a recent sermon in May.
  • Tunasi claimed that the virus was a “a man-made poison” and implied that it could be a bioweapon, a popular false claim about the virus.  “You should know, my brothers, that certain pandemics in this world… are tests, weapons being tested on Men… they will get you vaccinated when they want… and there will be a lot of money involved, because vaccines are a business,” he added.
  • Tunasi’s reach goes beyond the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In January, he preached to a full Paris Zenith, an arena with nearly 7,000 seats, according to Le Monde.
    • The post is still active on Facebook, and it received another 1.2 million views on YouTube.

The growing overlap between vaccine opponents and anti-lockdown protestors is the culmination of years of anti-vax narratives

Anti-vaccine activists have been warning against a future coronavirus vaccine since the virus emerged. In their early messaging about the as-yet-nonexistent COVID-19 vaccine, you’ll see echoes of vaccine opponents’ narrative about other vaccines — that they are part of a government plot to control citizens by forcing them to get supposedly harmful medical procedures against their will, all to line the pockets of pharmaceutical executives. (No evidence exists to back up any of these claims.)

  • Big Pharma, big profits: Anti-vax sites were quick to speculate that COVID-19 was a scheme by “Big Pharma” and “globalists” to gin up fear and force people to get a vaccine, thereby making people like Bill Gates even richer in the process. (In Europe, anti-vax narratives have coalesced around Gates purportedly forcing the vaccine on the global population.)
    • From a January 31 post on HealthNutNews.com and Mercola.com, two NewsGuard-rated Red health care hoax sites: “The hysteria being drummed up follows a well-worn pattern where the population is kept in a state of fear about microbes so that drug companies can come to the rescue with yet another expensive (and potentially mandatory) drug or vaccine.”
  • Alternative “cures”: By March, these sites could no longer pretend the pandemic wasn’t real. They pivoted to proposing false “cures” that, they claimed, would work better than vaccines.
    • The popular NaturalNews.com wrote in early May: “A vaccine, we are repeatedly told, is the only thing, or perhaps some new ‘blockbuster’ antiviral drug, that can cure the world of this scourge and make everything happy and wonderful once again. Meanwhile, not a peep is being made about things like intravenous (IV) high-dose vitamin C.” (Natural News sells multiple varieties of vitamin C, though not for intravenous use.)
  • Individual liberty: A key element of the anti-vaccine narrative is that mandatory vaccinations infringe on personal freedom. When some Americans began arguing that government stay-at-home orders, meant to slow the spread of the virus, limited their freedom, vaccine opponents saw natural partners — and began further discrediting public health officials.
    • In April, NaturalHealth365.com, another NewsGuard-rated Red site run by Jonathan Landsman, a Florida “health and fitness expert,” claimed Anthony Fauci, a bogeyman for anti-lockdown protestors, wants to force vaccines on Americans: “No more ‘life as we know it:’ Did Anthony Fauci, MD – America’s leading infectious disease expert – just give the green light for mandatory medical procedures?”

Why we should care: As world leaders and health professionals were stymied by the virus, vaccine opponents saw an opportunity to spread their anti-vaccine dogma to the millions of Americans living in a world that has been irrevocably changed by the pandemic. Now, the challenge for institutions is not only beating COVID-19 — it’s winning back the trust of the people the anti-vax movement has converted.


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Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported the number of NewsGuard’s English language Facebook ‘Super-Spreaders.” The correct number is 31. NewsGuard apologizes for the error.

Misinformation Monitor: April 2020

Welcome back to NewsGuard’s Misinformation Monitor, a newsletter tracking misinformation with exclusive data from five countries. Sign up to get the Misinformation Monitor in your inbox or download NewsGuard for your browser.
by Gabby Deutch


The big story… 80% of the sites pushing coronavirus conspiracies were publishing other toxic misinformation before this crisis


But First the Quiz:

1. Which COVID-19 conspiracy theory was based on a preliminary scientific study that was withdrawn and discredited two days after it first appeared online?

a) The COVID-19 virus contains ‘HIV-like insertions,’ suggesting it was engineered
b) 5G cell phone technology is linked to the coronavirus outbreak
c) Garlic can cure COVID-19
d) The COVID-19 pandemic was predicted in a simulation

2. In early April, 20 telephone poles in the U.K. were torn down by people who believe the false theory that 5G mobile technology causes coronavirus. In what country did that theory first emerge?

a) Spain
b) France
c) United States
d) Russia

3. How many visitors did NaturalNews.com, a popular purveyor of health misinformation, have in March?

a) 1.4 million
b) 2.6 million
c) 3.9 million
d) 5.1 million

Read to the end of the next section for the answers.


NewsGuard Alert –The “Super-Spreaders”

We’ve been turning our attention to some of the Facebook pages that are most responsible for spreading the popular COVID-19 hoaxes that NewsGuard has been tracking.On Tuesday we published a list with 15 of the worst English-language offenders that we’ve spotted so far on Facebook. Since then, we’ve found 17 more pages that post coronavirus misinformation and have more than 100,000 followers. All 32 pages remain active, meaning Facebook has not taken them down (although 13 posts have been removed). The largest page that we’ve found so far is a Turkey-based page called Global Informers, which has shared false Iranian and Russian propaganda about the coronavirus to its 4.8 million followers. See the rest here.


Coronavirus spawned an “infodemic.” But the misinformation playbook isn’t new. 

This March 2009 article shows one of the many instances that NaturalNews.com used the term “biological weapon” to describe something that was definitively not a biological weapon. Now, it uses the term to describe the novel coronavirus. (NaturalNews.com / NewsGuard)

The most popular Covid-19 conspiracy theories are unsettling and shocking because we’ve never seen misinformation like this before. Right? Not exactly.

  • Of the 187 sites NewsGuard has now identified as publishing verifiably false information about the novel coronavirus, more than80% had already been found to be generally unreliable by NewsGuard’s journalists, meaning that they had a Red rating already attached to their URL before they published their first COVID-19 hoax — and well before that hoax might have been fact checked.

During past public health crises, such as swine flu in 2009, Ebola in 2014, and measles in 2019, the popular hoax site NaturalNews.com offered “explanations” that were eerily similar to the coronavirus conspiracy theories the site is now pushing. These articles reveal no affinity for science — only a dangerous desire to push a host of outlandish, incongruous theories until one sticks.

  • Breaking it down: “Reporting” by Natural News on past outbreaks stokes panic and fear, no matter how big the public health risk, while also undermining public health guidance. 
    • Natural News has warned for years of a potential Ebola outbreak on U.S. soil, despite the fact that only four Americans contracted the disease in 2014, according to the WHO
      • A July 2019 article asked  (without evidence): “Why is the U.S. government importing thousands of migrants from Ebola-stricken nations and distributing them across U.S. cities?”
    • Amid last year’s measles outbreak, Natural News saw an opportunity to criticize vaccines — and to promote natural remedies sold on the site. (The CDC reported that nearly nine in 10 measles patients had not received the vaccine.) 
      • As early as 2009, the site called vaccines “biological weapons.” When measles reemerged, Natural News said it had been right all along.
  • One popular coronavirus conspiracy theory says COVID-19 was engineered as a biological weapon at a military laboratory in Wuhan. Natural News has been sounding the alarm on “bioweapons” for years. Natural News founder Mike Adams — who calls himself the Health Ranger — also operates a website called BioDefense.com, with tips to “defend yourself” against pandemics and biological warfare. 
    • 2014: “Ebola can be easily harvested and released as a bioweapon,” the site claimed.
    • November 2018: “Globalists plan to exterminate 90% of the human race” by releasing a “bioweapon viral strain.”
      • It was not the first time Adams had cried bioweapon, but when the novel coronavirus emerged just over a year later in Wuhan, the conspiracy-minded spotted more than just a coincidence.

Why we should care: 3.9 million people visited NaturalNews.com last month. That’s 33 percent more than in February, according to web analytics firm SimilarWeb. The websites that drive misinformation don’t come out of nowhere — they build an audience for years, waiting for the perfect storm of a global health emergency and a hunger for answers at a time when few exist.

The Italian hoax site FonteVerificata.it wrote that Boris Johnson testing positive for the coronavirus was fake, despite the headline actually being accurate. (FonteVerifica.it / NewsGuard)

Still, some new websites have popped up recently simply to confuse readers about the coronavirus.

  • One headline from a site named Extra-Times.com said New York governor Andrew Cuomo was banning alcohol sales — but when readers clicked the link to the site, a message said “You Got PRANKED!”
    • The site, called Prank Mania (Extra-Times.com is the fake name it uses to trick readers), allows users to create “pranks” and share them, garnering hundreds of thousands of views on false stories. Many recent “pranks” feature totally made-up information about coronavirus.  
  • An Italian site called FonteVerificata.it (which translates to “Verified Source”) that emerged in March has the effect of confusing people about what is true and what is not when it comes to coronavirus. 
    • FonteVerificata is designed to look like a fact-checking site, posting headlines with a banner that says “real news” or “fake news.” Except the fact check actually says the opposite of what’s true. “Boris Johnson tests positive for coronavirus,” said one recent headline. Below, a photo of the British premier had a banner saying “FAKE” over it. Except Johnson did test positive for the coronavirus, and was treated for it in an intensive care unit.
    • FonteVerificata should be read as satire, its founder, blogger and YouTuber Gian Marco Saolini, told NewsGuard, even though that isn’t made clear on the site. Saolini argued that his site would teach people to “develop critical thinking that they don’t have at the moment,” he said. “I want to submerge the Internet with sh*t to saturate it.”  

 


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NewsGuard provides a human solution to misinformation by rating the reliability of news and information sites. Our ratings, based on nine objective journalistic criteria, give each website a score from zero to 100 — along with a corresponding Green (generally reliable) or Red (generally unreliable) shield — and give people more context for what they read online. Use the form below to subscribe.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

QUIZ ANSWERS:

  1. (a) The conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 virus contains ‘HIV-like insertions,’ suggesting it was engineered, was based off data from a preprint study published on BioRxiv.org, a forum for scientific researchers. The paper was withdrawn two days later, but the false claim had already spread. 
  2. (b) The first known false link between 5G and coronavirus was made by the French website LesMoutonsEnrages.fr in January.
  3. (c) NaturalNews.com saw visitors increase by 33% to 3.9 million last month. 

Old Hoax Graduates to Fomenting Destruction: How COVID-19 misinformation merged with old 5G conspiracies to unleash havoc in the U.K.

This January 20 Facebook post from the page affiliated with the French site Les Moutons Enragés — which means “The Enraged Sheep” — referred to 5G-Nocide (a riff on “genocide”) in this first false connection between 5G and the novel coronavirus. (Facebook / NewsGuard)

As has been widely reported, the U.K. has suffered from a dangerous new consequence of misinformation: organized campaigns, encouraged by peddlers of misinformation, to damage public spaces and infrastructure. 

  • Earlier this month, vandals in the U.K. tore down telephone poles and verbally harassed British mobile workers after weeks of viral conspiracies falsely connected emerging 5G mobile technology to the COVID-19 virus.
  • These conspiracies first appeared on Facebook in January alongside an article from a French hoax site, before they quickly spread across what Jasper Jackson of First Draft News called “a ready made network” of conspiracy theorists, referring to the dozens of anti-5G Facebook groups where messages demonizing the technology have gone viral.
    • Breaking it down: Long before the coronavirus emerged, a network of anti-5G Facebook pages — based in large part on material fabricated by Russian propaganda outlets like RT — was steeped in misinformation related to other supposed dangers of the new technology. 
    • False claims that 5G technology causes cancer, radiation poisoning, the death of wildlife, and other negative effects have gained traction online for more than two years, despite the fact that exposure to radio waves from 5G technology does not pose a risk to human health, scientists found.
      • Now these Facebook groups — with the help of unreliable websites in the U.S. and Europe — are spreading new COVID-related spurious claims on their own. Having successfully muddied the waters, the Russian propaganda outlets that first crafted these 5G hoaxes are now sitting this one out. Confusingly, RT has recently begun posting stories saying 5G is not dangerous. (However, the old conspiracy theories remain on RT.com.) 
    • The first 5G conspiracy linking the technology to COVID-19 appeared in a January 20 article on the French hoax site LesMoutonsEnrages.fr, which began to spread when it was posted to Facebook, First Draft found. First Draft News also told NewsGuard that the Facebook group Stop 5G UK, an early anti-5G group created in 2017, has seen its membership nearly double, to 58,000, in the past month. First Draft’s data shows that at least seven other U.K.-based anti-5G Facebook groups have recently doubled in size.
      • Soon after, several unreliable sites claimed that Wuhan — where the coronavirus first emerged late last year — was also where 5G technology was first rolled out, suggesting that the 5G rollout in the Chinese city may have had something to do with the outbreak. In fact, Wuhan was just one of several Chinese cities where 5G was rolled out.
    • Why we should care: The U.K.’s stay-at-home order requires people to limit trips outside to keep coronavirus from spreading. But dozens of British citizens left their homes to damage crucial communications infrastructure and harass essential workers, all to voice an opinion that has no grounding in reality. 5G conspiracy theorists aren’t the only ones with legions of followers, so don’t expect this to be the last protest fueled by misinformation.

Conspiracy theorists are fueling coronavirus misinformation by exploiting preliminary scientific studies

Before scientific research is published, it goes through an extensive review process that can last months. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, some people favor making data more readily accessible in the name of public health. But this has led to the exploitation of some studies that have not yet been reviewed — and in some cases, turn out to be wrong.

  • The websites MedRxiv and BioRxiv allow researchers to quickly receive feedback on studies that have not yet been published or peer-reviewed. “Caution: Preprints are preliminary reports of work that have not been certified by peer review,” warns the MedRxiv.org home page. They “should not be reported in news media as established information.” NewsGuard has rated both websites as platforms, signaling that their content has not been vetted. 

On January 31, a study that had not undergone any formal review was posted on BioRxiv and brought “unprecedented numbers of readers to the site,” according to co-founder John Inglis. 

  • A group of Indian scientists submitted the paper, which said they had discovered similarities in protein sequences between the new strain of coronavirus and HIV that were unlikely to have occurred naturally. But the authors overlooked how these same sequences can be found in many other viruses, not just HIV, according to health fact-checking site HealthFeedback.org. The study was withdrawn two days after it was posted.
  • The quick withdrawal of the paper did not stop misinformation sites, such as Infowars.com and NoSignalFound.fr, from citing the research to promote the false claim that the virus was man-made or engineered. 
  • Inglis believed much of the attention “was driven by partisan websites and influencers, not professional journalists of standing.”

British tabloid the Daily Mail’s Mail Online was the most popular site to turn to these platforms for unvetted coronavirus content. The Mail Online receives more engagement — meaning likes, shares, and comments on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest — than any other news site in the U.K., according to data NewsGuard gathered from social-media analytics firm NewsWhip. 

  • The Mail Online reported on Feb. 10 that a “study reveals” the virus’s incubation period could be “24 DAYS instead of previously thought two weeks.” This news, based on a Chinese study posted on MedRxiv, would pose a major challenge to existing knowledge on the coronavirus. But it turned out to be incorrect, and its authors later revised the paper’s figures. 
  • The final version of the study, published on Feb. 28 in the esteemed New England Journal of Medicine, found that the incubation period for COVID-19 was actually between two and seven days.
  • The Mail Online noted in its story that the study was not yet peer-reviewed. But it never updated its original story or reported on the finished study. A Mail Online spokesperson did not respond to two emails and a phone call from NewsGuard requesting comment.

“The more sensational a result appears to be in a preprint, the more checking they need to do and the more caution they need to express,” Inglis said.


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