December 10, 2020

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Minding the gap

Last week, Facebook announced it would be taking a more proactive role in fighting COVID-19 vaccine misinformation in an effort to support public health efforts to address the global pandemic.

However, in an interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered”, First Draft co-founder and U.S. director Claire Wardle argued that much of the misinformation about the pandemic response may fly under Facebook’s radar. Some of these posts come in the form of questions where there exists a gap about what people want to know about vaccines and what is readily publicly available.

“People have got genuine questions that we’re just not answering adequately enough,” Wardle said.

A November report by First Draft that looked at COVID-19 vaccine narratives found that across contexts of language and region, data deficits are being exploited by purveyors of misinformation aided by existing distrust in institutions. That’s not entirely shocking given what we know about information vacuums in the realm of politics, but in this instance there are concrete steps that can be taken to address these problems of supply and demand in the information ecosystem.

First Draft’s report recommended not relying on fact-checking social media content moderation alone to address these data deficits. The report argues this is a reactive approach that may feed into narratives about users being “silenced” by supposedly nefarious outside sources. Instead, the report recommended that news organizations collaborate with misinformation researchers to identify the biggest information deficits and coordinate on ways to address them.

“We can’t just tackle the misinformation if we don’t tackle providing quality accurate information,” Wardle told NPR’s Michel Martin. She added more needs to be done to help the public understand some of the more complex concepts about the workings of vaccines.

“The idea that you’re injecting a piece of a virus into somebody to make them stronger in terms of defending against it — that’s hard to get your head around if you haven’t had that explained properly,” Wardle said

The report’s final recommendation emphasized the need for empathy with the public’s hesitancy and/or gaps in understanding about vaccines.

“Finding a way for health experts to connect with those who are questioning vaccine safety, without validating or amplifying concerns, will be a fundamental component to rebuilding trust in health authorities and institutions,” the report said.

– Harrison Mantas, IFCN

. . . technology

  • Are labels on false social media posts enough to stop the spread of disinformation? CNN’s Brian Fung has a rundown of some of the concerns expressed by experts about the labels’ efficacy.
    • One expert, democratic governance advocate Alex Howard, told Fung that misinformation agents should be put in an “informational quarantine” in which posts would be reviewed before they appear.
  • YouTube said Wednesday it would remove videos that mislead people about the 2020 presidential election, saying enough states have certified their election results to determine a president-elect.
    • Eleven Democratic senators have written to Google CEO Sundar Pichai questioning how seriously the company tried to stop election-related disinformation, saying it profited from ads that spread it.

. . . politics

  • The Washington Post has put together a useful compilation of many of the baseless allegations of fraud that President Donald Trump has put forth to challenge the outcome of the election.
  • The conspiracy theory that a politician is wearing a wire during a debate will not go away. A number of fact checkers debunked the most recent one — that Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler supposedly wore an earpiece at the Dec. 6 debate against her Democratic challenger, the Rev. Raphael Warnock. This is an old hoax that dates back at least 20 years.

. . . science and health

  • Downplaying the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine could backfire and lead people to spread misinformation about the vaccine, Leana S. Wen, an emergency room physician and expert in health policy, wrote in The Washington Post.
    • Another “nightmare scenario,” she wrote, is that people will get the vaccine then die of other causes but the vaccine will be blamed. She recommends ways to head off that kind of misinformation.
  • The Chinese government has launched a public campaign to push the narrative that the COVID-19 virus originated outside China, The New York Times reported. Authorities are peddling theories that it started in Italy or India, or that it arrived via packaged food from other countries, wrote Javier C. Hernández.

When people get a COVID-19 vaccine in Britain, which rolled out a mass inoculation program this week, they get a card that has a space for the National Health Service to put in their name, the time of their next appointment and the vaccine batch number.

Unsurprisingly, the card has become the subject of misinformation. The main misapprehension is that recipients can use the card as “proof” of having been vaccinated, and that such proof will eventually gain them entry to events and other activities. But as Full Fact’s Leo Benedictus explained in this fact-check, such a card would be unreliable for that purpose, partly because anyone could alter or add to what’s written on it.

(As an aside, you can see the card in this CNN interview with a 91-year-old man who had just received the shot.)

What we liked: Most vaccine fakery usually circulates on social media. But in this case Full Fact called out misleading content in mainstream media, which should be an important source of solid information at a critical time for public health. One newspaper called it a “vaccine passport;” others called it an ID card. In addition, Full Fact is doing the rest of the world a service with the many vaccine falsehoods it has tackled. Because the U.K. is ahead in mass distribution of the vaccine, researchers and debunkers elsewhere can learn from the misinformation surrounding its rollout.

– Susan Benkelman, API

  1. The World Health Organization announced a new collaboration with African fact-checkers to fight COVID-19 misinformation, the Zimbabwe Herald reported.
  2. Remember the fake Twitter account that even President Trump thought was really his sister? The New York Times found the imposter.
  3. The BBC’s Marianna Spring reported on the story of a Pfizer vaccine trial participant whose feet pics sparked a wave of misinformation.
  4. Facebook will only take down posts that promote the power of prayer to cure COVID-19 if they increase the risk of catching the virus, according to a moderator training manual reviewed by The Times of London.
  5. Here’s a fun fact-check from the Taiwan Fact-Check Center about a false claim that San Francisco required masks, but forgot to outlaw nudity. (Sidebar: The city banned it in 2012)

Thanks for reading. Feel free to send feedback to factually@poynter.org. And send us your favorite fact checks! We’d love to hear from you.

Until next week,

Harrison and Susan

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
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