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?

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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