May 16, 2019

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Twitter goes after anti-vaxxers

Twitter is trying a new tactic to head off misinformation about vaccines.

This week, several media outlets reported on how the social media platform had started surfacing factual information about vaccines in search. As of last Friday, if a user searches for vaccine information in the United States, the top result will be a tweet from the Department of Health and Human Services urging users to “find credible, expert-approved information at

“This new investment builds on our existing work to guard against the artificial amplification of non-credible content about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines,” Del Harvey, vice president of trust and safety at Twitter, wrote in a blog post. “We already ensure that advertising content does not contain misleading claims about the cure, treatment, diagnosis or prevention of certain diseases and conditions, including vaccines.”

In the post, Harvey said that the new feature is functional on mobile apps in the U.S. (in English and Spanish), Canada (in English and French), the United Kingdom, Brazil, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and “Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.” If users in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Brazil or Korea search on the desktop version of the website, they’ll see a pinned tweet with information from credible sources.

Following Pinterest, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, Twitter is the latest tech company to prioritize countering vaccine misinformation. But its efforts reveal inconsistencies across different countries and languages — inconsistencies that tend to pervade other companies in Silicon Valley as well.

After pointing out the new advisory in a tweet on Tuesday, Alexios Mantzarlis, a research fellow at TED and former co-author of this newsletter (hi, dad!) tried to replicate the results by searching for vaccine information in Italian. That resulted in an advisory in Spanish.

Then, he asked for other Twitter users to share what they turned up. The results were varied, to say the least.

In Indonesia, the message only appeared on the Twitter app — not the browser version of the website.

In Canada, users saw a pinned tweet from a credible institution at the top of their feeds instead of a custom message.

In Mexico, an advisory didn’t appear on the desktop or mobile versions of Twitter for some phrases but did for others.

In Argentina and Japan, a message didn’t appear at all.

Meanwhile, users in the United Kingdom, Brazil and the U.S. all seemed to consistently get an advisory message. And, to Twitter’s credit, a message also appeared when Mantzarlis searched for specific conditions associated with vaccine misinformation, such as autism, MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) and HPV. All but the last one surfaced an advisory.

But the disparity in Twitter search results for vaccine information reveals how big tech companies have inconsistently applied anti-misinformation standards across different countries, cultures and contexts.

In an analysis of 12 countries, Mantzarlis’ team at TED found that searching Google for “Should I vaccinate my child” yielded different results in different countries. While countries like Mexico had less overall misinformation and more prominent results from health officials, users in Italy and France saw more misinformation and fewer official sources.

There’s more to come on that specific report in future iterations of this newsletter.

But for now, the point stands: If Silicon Valley wants to apply anti-misinformation efforts globally and at scale, it has to ensure its products work similarly in different contexts — particularly contexts where there are outbreaks of preventable diseases, such as measles in the Philippines. Otherwise, they’ll continue to prioritize Western, English-speaking countries over the rest of the world.

. . .   technology

  • WeChat, a messaging app popular in China and among the country’s expatriates, is being used to spread misinformation about the upcoming Australian election. The platform has become a hotspot for political misinformation around the world, particularly among Chinese-speaking U.S. citizens.
  • Reuters reported that WhatsApp clones are allowing marketers and political activists to bypass the platform’s controls aimed at limiting the spread of misinformation in India, where social media has been awash in rumors and falsehoods during the national election.
  • The advocacy group Avaaz last week arranged meetings between victims of misinformation and the big social media platforms. According to Wired, Avaaz encouraged the companies to adopt policies that would “alert people when they’ve been exposed to information marked false by third-party fact-checkers.”

. . .  politics

  • A new report from Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto, has identified a pro-Iranian group that used fake websites and social media to spread articles online and to attack Iran’s adversaries. Here’s the New York Times story, which gives a good description of the tricky tactics used by the operation, including “typosquatting.” Here’s the report itself, and an account from The Atlantic of how it was spoofed.  
  • The Times also reported this week on how the European parliamentary elections have become a target for disinformation campaigns by Russia and far-right groups. Warnings about such campaigns have been escalating in advance of the election this week. EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova called the situation “a digital arms race.”
  • Snopes this week published the results of an investigation showing how a small group of radical evangelical Christians is using Facebook pages as part of a network that pushes support for President Trump and spreads hate and conspiracy theories. All the pages are traced back to one evangelical activist. Meanwhile, The Hill wrote about how Americans are copying Russian disinformation tactics to try to undermine 2020 presidential candidates.

. . .  the future of news

  • A new Pew Research Center survey found that misinformation is a key concern for people in 11 emerging economies. In focus groups ahead of the survey, Pew said, the phrase “fake news” was invoked in English “even though the bulk of the sessions were conducted in other languages.”
  • Russia’s RT network has been banging a drum about what it says are the dangers of 5G cellular technology, a disinformation campaign The New York Times says is aimed at stoking fears in America — even as Russian President Vladimir Putin is painting an optimistic picture of 5G technology in his own country.
  • Last week, Full Fact, Chequeado and Africa Check announced that they had won $2 million from the Google AI Impact Challenge. Here’s what they’re going to do with the money — and how it might help solve some lurking challenges with automated fact-checking.

Each week, we analyze five of the top-performing fact checks on Facebook to see how their reach compared to the hoaxes they debunked. Read more about this week’s numbers, and how misinformation transcends platforms, languages and borders, here.

  1. Estadão Verifica: “It is a false rumor that attributes cuts in education to irregularities in the management of federal universities” (Fact: 46.6K engagements // Fake: 145.9K engagements)
  2. Rappler: “FALSE: 2019 election ballots are ‘pre-shaded’ with UV ink” (Fact: 4.6K engagements // Fake: 12.6K engagements)
  3. “No, Climate Change Isn’t ‘Made Up’” (Fact: 4.4K engagements // Fake: 1.1K engagements)
  4. Chequeado: “No, the photo of the parked buses is not from the day of the presentation of the CFK book” (Fact: 2.8K engagements // Fake: 10.4K engagements)
  5. Agence France-Presse: “The best way to remove a tick is with fine-tipped tweezers, not soap and a cotton ball” (Fact: 978 engagements // Fake: 53.3K engagements)

The Times in London this week corrected a headline and clarified a story about how much taxpayer money is being saved by independent schools after Full Fact published a fact check challenging the paper’s story on the issue.

The story stemmed from a report by the consultant Oxford Economics, which said the taxpayer savings from such schools is at least £3.5 billion per year. The Times published a story saying that the independent schools “save the taxpayer £20 billion.”

The Times apparently misread the study — or at least its figures — and added the direct taxpayer savings of £3.5 billion to Oxford Economics estimates of other contributions the private schools make to the economy.

But, as Full Fact pointed out, “the amount of money going into the economy as a whole is not the same as taxpayer savings” and noted that, to get to the £20 billion-plus figure, some double counting would have to occur.

What we liked: Full Fact did its math, and in the process gave its readers a lesson in accounting and how to read a report like the one the consultants produced. We also give The Times credit for clarifying the story and changing the headline online.

  1. Mother Jones wrote about a report that found advertising money is increasingly being funneled away from legitimate news websites to hyperpartisan, clickbait or outright bogus ones.
  2. Censorship in the name of controlling misinformation is not a new phenomenon, Reason Magazine wrote in an opinion piece.
  3. The Washington Post’s Fact-Checker has a new video out explaining its processes. The Post’s Glenn Kessler calls it a “complement, not a supplement” to the paper’s political coverage.
  4. Vox Media’s Facebook Watch show titled “Consider It” covered how governments are trying to legislate against misinformation worldwide — and how it could backfire.
  5. Speaking of government action, Singapore has passed a bill that imposes heavy fines and jail time for “malicious actors” that spread false content online. It also enables the government to force corrections.
  6. And in Bahrain, prosecutors are charging an attorney and human rights advocate for publishing “fake news” on Twitter.
  7. Wired wrote about how a WhatsApp hoax about a bank in the U.K. could have worsened its financial outlook.
  8. This week, Agência Lupa in Brazil became the first fact-checking site to join The Trust Project, a consortium of more than 70 news outlets and institutions fighting the spread of misinformation globally.
  9. Last month, Sri Lanka blocked access to social media sites to prevent the spread of misinformation about terrorist attacks at several churches in the country. That didn’t really work, but the government employed the tactic again this week after a reported flare-up in religious tensions.
  10. The Sacramento Bee published a story about how conspiracy theories on Twitter forced the cancelation of a festival in a tiny Northern California town.

That’s it for this week. Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to

Daniel and Susan

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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