Misinformation Monitor: August 2020
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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.
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.)
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 candidate, shared 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 Republican, shared 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 care: These 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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- (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.”
- (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
- (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.
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 down: By 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 care: The 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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