A fact-checker in quarantine sees misinformation in a new light

Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Decision-making in quarantine is mainly guess-based

On Tuesday, at 9 p.m., those who attended the latest NICAR conference — the annual data journalism summit held in New Orleans — received an email from the Investigative Reporters & Editors group with an alert that one of the participants had tested positive for the 2019 coronavirus.

From that moment on, I and about 1,000 other data journalists from many parts of the world were advised to be in quarantine.

Here is what happens when you are in this situation: A million questions pop up in your head and you just can’t find reliable sources with answers for them. So you start making decisions based on guesses — not on facts. That’s asking a lot of a fact-checker.

Should my family quarantine too? Should my daughter avoid school? Those were my first two questions and I couldn’t find answers for them late at night. In a call, early in the morning, my physician said the following: “If your husband and daughter don’t show any symptoms, if you are all OK, they can live normal lives.” So they left home. But was it the right decision? Would other doctors react the same way?

As a fact-checker, I convinced myself I did my best. I reached out to the most reliable source I had and followed the data. But as I found contradictory or misleading information — the very thing I write about every day — I realized how tempting it might be for others to just visit social media channels or WhatsApp groups to grab “information” from family and friends and accept it as “true content.”

No fact-checking measures would be applied to those pieces of “information” passed on by others and some real damage could happen. This is how falsehoods and misunderstandings spread. This is how hoaxes can threaten lives and lead to deaths in times like these.

Waiting to hear from a doctor about whether I need to sleep in a separate room, for example, is much harder than just typing the same question on Facebook. And I, of all people, know the odds of getting bad information on social media. It’s suddenly clearer how the lack of good information means more room for the bad.

Mathias Felipe, a researcher at University of Navarra, attended NICAR, too. As soon as his director heard about IRE’s email, Felipe received a message asking him to go back to Spain immediately. But could he jump on a flight?

“There is a lack of information regarding repatriation if you are under quarantine. I found many articles about trips but nothing about official repatriation,” he told me in a quick interview.

On Wednesday morning, Felipe wasn’t sure, for example, if he must tell the airline and/or the airport that he has been requested to quarantine, or if it was OK to just board and land in Navarra.

Reinaldo Chaves, project coordinator at the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, on the other hand, drove to a public hospital in São Paulo on Wednesday morning. He carried with him a list of eight questions for which he couldn’t find definite answers online.

  

“How long should I stay home? Should I adopt self-isolation measures only if I touched someone who’s infected? Should I self-isolate just because I traveled to a country with many COVID-19 cases? How should I clean my house? What products should I use? How long should I worry that the virus in a place can contaminate people? How often do I need to take my temperature? When should I take the test?”

He spent 40 minutes at the hospital (30 waiting and 10 with the doctors).

Writing in The Atlantic about the response to the virus, James Hamblin, a doctor and lecturer at Yale University’s School of Public Health, noted that “the source of most panic is uncertainty.” And, from the perspective of those who haven’t completed even their first day in quarantine yet, I can say it sounds about right. I am just wondering how it must be for those who have tested positive. The lack of reliable sources and definite answers looks like a black hole.

By the way, I’m feeling fine, as are the others quoted here. Thanks!

— Cristina Tardáguila, IFCN

. . . technology

  • The New York Times said the proliferation of misinformation about the coronavirus has “stumped” social media companies. The Verge’s Casey Newton, however, said the virus had put tech platforms into a “newly interventionist mindset.”
    • On Facebook, a search for the virus produces a list of credible sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
    • Twitter searches for COVID-19 direct users to mainstream news sources.
    • Searches for coronavirus on Google lead to a red “SOS” alert, with links to credible sources displayed most prominently.

. . . politics

  • In two instances this week, major social media platforms took action against posts aimed at helping President Donald Trump’s re-election.
    • In the first, Facebook removed Trump campaign ads that suggested they were about the 2020 census but were fundraisers in disguise. The site redirected users to a Trump campaign site. “After filling out the form, users are asked to make a donation to the Trump campaign,” wrote Popular Information’s Judd Legum, who first reported the ad.
    • A few days later, Twitter said it was flagging as “manipulated media” a video that was cut off to make it appear as if former Vice President Joe Biden inadvertently endorsed the president for re-election. In fact, the full video proves otherwise.
  

  • On the Democratic side, Biden’s colleagues are worried that he isn’t prepared for the onslaught of disinformation that’s about to hit him, the Daily Beast reported. 

. . . science and health

  • The U.S. State Department blamed Russia for “swarms of online, false personas” that sought to spread misinformation about coronavirus on social media sites, The Washington Post reported.
    • The national security news site Defense One reported that Iranian, Russian and Chinese propaganda media outlets are trying to convince people, without evidence, that the emerging public health crisis comes from U.S. biological weapons.
  • Misleading portrayals of the safety of tobacco use are widespread on YouTube, where the viewership of popular pro-tobacco videos has soared over the past half-dozen years, according to University of Pennsylvania research reported in the Misinformation Review.

President Trump recently announced that the government would expand the number of laboratories that could test for the coronavirus, a move many said was late in coming. Perhaps to deflect the criticism, Trump on March 4 claimed that an Obama administration decision on medical testing “turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing.”

But that wasn’t the case, as two fact-checkers showed. Both PolitiFact’s Jon Greenberg and The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler took readers on methodical journeys through Food and Drug Administration policies governing medical tests. Contrary to Trump’s assertion, there were actually no big changes to the policies during the previous administration.

There was plenty of debate during those years about whether tests developed in certain labs should be more tightly regulated. But eventually that idea was scrapped and the Obama administration deferred to Congress, the fact-checkers explained.

What we liked: This is the kind of story that fact-checkers are made for. Had a reporter writing about the FDA’s move to expand the testing tried to squeeze in a debunking of Trump’s claim, the story would have devolved into a history lesson. The fact-check format allowed these reporters to stay focused on the claim, and precisely why it was wrong.

– Susan Benkelman, API

  1. Coronavirus hoaxes have played into panic buying and fed the frenzy, wrote Andy J. Yap, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. He said consumers “compensate for a perceived loss of control” by buying products designed to fill a basic need, solve a problem or accomplish a task.
  2. Russia engaged in a textbook campaign of disinformation as it tried to thwart the probe of the downing of a Malaysian airliner in 2014, prosecutors told a Dutch court.
  3. First Draft has published tips for journalists covering coronavirus.
  4. A fake screenshot about a Trump tweet and the stock market caught a lot of people off guard.
  5. Tensions are growing between Singapore officials and tech platforms over the country’s “fake news” law.
  6. No, Daniel Radcliffe does not have coronavirus.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org.

Cristina and Susan