Misinformation Monitor: May 2020
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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?
3. Which of these “news” websites is run by a Democratic Super PAC whose specialty is digging up dirt on Republicans?
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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- (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.
- (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.
- (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.
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
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.