Misinformation Monitor: June 2020
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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
d) James Patterson
2. Which Minnesota news site is secretly funded by a major conservative political nonprofit?
3. Which country has the highest percentage of people who disagree with the statement that vaccines are safe?
a) United States
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
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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- (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.
- (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.
- (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.
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 Germany, about 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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