October 8, 2020

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and misinformation from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network & the American Press Institute’s Accountability Project. Sign up here.

Déjà vu: Hoaxers turn to the same tactics all over again

Fact-checkers chronicled a flood of misinformation following President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. A big one was that Trump wasn’t really sick — that his diagnosis was either a fake play for sympathy or part of the larger debunked QAnon conspiracy.

But three particularly conspiratorial hoaxes followed familiar patterns. They bear similarities to falsehoods we’ve seen before and serve as a caution to journalists and their audiences about the kinds of hoaxes to watch for when there is a big news development.

1 . The “doomsday” planes

In the wake of the president’s diagnosis, several social media users posted photos of the E-6B Mercury flight path to claim that the nuclear missile-carrying planes had been scrambled to prepare for an attack at a time when the commander in chief was vulnerable. While these planes do exist and are part of the nuclear triad, this claim was debunked when it was revealed that these were regularly scheduled flights.

We saw a similar usage of mystery aircraft in Europe in the early days of the COVID-19 infodemic. Starting in Italy, and then spreading to the rest of Europe, WhatsApp messages claimed that specialized military helicopters would begin spraying neighborhoods with disinfectant as part of the fight against COVID-19. This claim was completely made up, but it used the similar specter of a mystery plane to prey on public fear during the pandemic.

2. The hidden oxygen tank

Several low-resolution photos of the president walking to Marine One were used to claim he was hiding an oxygen tank underneath his shirt. This wasn’t helped by the mixed messaging from the president’s doctor, Sean Conley, as he spoke to the press over the weekend.

Video of the president along with high-resolution photos quickly debunked this claim, but this is not the first time an American politician has been accused of hiding something under their jacket. FactCheck.org debunked a claim that former Vice President Joe Biden wore a wire during the first debate, and The New York Times’ Kevin Roose wrote about how this conspiracy theory was leveled against Al Gore in 2000, and President George W. Bush in 2004.

3. The Simpsons saw it coming

“The Simpsons” — along with books, art pieces, and astrologers — have been credited with predicting the COVID-19 pandemic. The meme of President Trump in a coffin, however, was never actually in the show. Snopes pointed this out in 2017 when the meme was first popularized. “The Simpsons” did run an episode in 2000 showing Lisa becoming president following the outgoing Trump administration, which may be why these prediction memes are so powerful.

It’s important to draw attention to these kinds of patterns in misinformation. Daniel Funke discussed this with regard to hoaxes about mass shootings in a previous edition of Factually. If we can build up familiarity with these patterns, perhaps it will be easier for people to pause before sharing these falsehoods. If something seems familiar, there may be a reason why.

– Harrison Mantas, IFCN

. . . technology

  • NPR talked to Twitter’s head of site integrity about how the platform is gaming out potential misinformation threats after the Nov. 3 election, including what happens in the period between the voting and when the final results are reported.
    • “That uncertainty could create the kind of information vacuum in which conspiracy theories and attempts to undercut democracy would thrive — especially on social media,” wrote Shannon Bond.

. . . politics

  • Fact-checkers collaborating on the IFCN WhatsApp chatbot FactChat flagged an average of one false statement every three minutes in the first debate between President Trump and former Vice President Biden.
    • Trump made 38 false statements compared to Biden’s 17.

. . . science and health

  • Disinformation expert Joan Donovan, writing in the American Journal of Public Health, provided some tips for how health professionals can correct misinformation about COVID-19.
    • “The pandemic lays bare how the algorithmic design of search engines and social media, which prioritize fresh and relevant content, contributes to confusion by mixing different kinds of information into a single feed: the mundane, the newsworthy, and critical medical recommendations.” she wrote.
  • A viral article falsely suggested that military personnel will be forced to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. FactCheck.org debunked it.

In one of Georgia’s two races for U.S. Senate, GOP incumbent David Perdue is seeking to scare voters away from his challenger, Jon Ossoff, by casting him as a socialist and claiming he’s been endorsed by the Communist Party.

The Washington Post’s fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, tracked this down and learned that Perdue’s evidence of this “endorsement” was that the Communist Party USA in 2017 posted on Facebook a story from the Marxist newspaper People’s World about Ossoff’s bid for a U.S. House seat that year. Moreover, the Communist Party flatly told Kessler it does not endorse candidates of other political parties.

What we liked: This fact-check is a thorough and lively takedown of the Perdue campaign’s insistence on using the communist label against his challenger. It provides important context, documents Perdue’s past tactics, and holds the senator accountable for a claim that Georgians might have otherwise believed is true.

Susan Benkelman, API

  1. After last week’s presidential debate, false stories about Democrat Joe Biden spread on TikTok, Facebook and other platforms, The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin wrote.
  2. UCLA professor Sarah Roberts, an expert in social media, has coined the term “content moderation washing.” Here’s her Twitter thread, and the NPR story she’s referring to.
  3. Sean Hollister writing for The Verge looked at a potential new feature on Twitter to fight propaganda and misinformation.
  4. The IFCN announced it would begin a series of discussions with fact-checkers to come up with a unified plan for how to distribute their work and collaborate with tech companies.
  5. NPR’s Bobby Allyn looked at how a lack of transparency at Facebook has allowed claims of anti-conservative bias to persist.

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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  • And one more thing. Sarah Roberts, in her Twitter thread refers twice to “content moderation-washing” and in both occurrences uses a hyphen.

    The Poynter quotation uses no hyphen. It is therefore a misquote.

  • “Trump made 38 false statements compared to Biden’s 17.”

    This statement appears to assume the fact checkers missed no false statements by either candidate.

    Is that what was intended?