February 20, 2020

Coronavirus vs. Zika: More misinformation – and more fact-checking


A recent study published by Science Advances raises an interesting question: when it comes to health information, do “interventions aimed at combating false and unsupported information really work?” Researchers from Dartmouth College, IE University in Spain and other institutions studied how Brazilians responded to corrective information about outbreaks of the Zika virus and yellow fever in recent years and found that efforts to counter misperceptions about those diseases may not always have been effective.

The study is timely, given the coronavirus outbreak, and it is tempting to apply its conclusions to the new virus. Scientific American, in fact, made the connection in a Feb. 14 article titled “Attempts at Debunking ‘Fake News’ about Epidemics Might Do More Harm Than Good.” Its subtitle is “Batting down conspiracy theories about disease outbreaks such as that of the new coronavirus may prove counterproductive to public health efforts.”

I look at it differently. To be sure, I am a fact-checker, not a scientist or a researcher. But having been in my home country of Brazil during both the Zika and yellow fever outbreaks, I can confidently say that Brazilians didn’t get nearly the amount of reliable information and the number of fact-checks about Zika and yellow fever as the world is seeing now about the novel coronavirus.

In other words, where others might look at what happened with misinformation surrounding those previous outbreaks and draw a connection to the coronavirus, I look at it and draw a contrast. Even a stretch. Misinformation about the Zika virus and yellow fever in Brazil can’t be compared to falsehoods about coronavirus now. Neither can the work being done by fact-checkers in both situations.

Now, for example, we’re seeing an international collaboration among fact-checkers. Since Jan. 24, 90 professionals from 39 countries have debunked 495 falsehoods in 15 languages. The #CoronaVirusFact / #DatosCoronaVirus alliance has published six international reports in English and created a special search list on Twitter (poy.nu/2019CoronaVirusFacts) to help citizens easily get the latest verified content online. This URL is being widely shared by the International Fact-Checking Network and its 85 verified members.

Moreover, the fact that fact-checkers are now combating the fourth wave of misinformation regarding the lethal virus is the latest indication that the work being done is actually pushing misinformers into new directions.

In the first week of the collaborative project about the coronavirus, hoaxes were about the origins of the virus (bananas, bats, Chinese biological weapons) and conspiracy theories (Bill Gates is behind it all).

A few days later, it switched into edited and out of context videos (people falling to death on streets, pets being killed). Then fake preventative measures and false cures became super viral (vitamin C, garlic soup).

Now falsehoods are trying to push citizens into believing that China is seeking authorization to exterminate infected citizens. All false.

So fact-checkers will keep doing their work, attempting not to be the final silver bullet for misinformation but just to sideline it in favor of the facts.

— Cristina Tardáguila, IFCN

. . . technology

  • An Indian politician has used an AI-generated video to make it look like he was speaking languages he doesn’t speak, Vice reported. The video of Bharatiya Janata Party President Manoj Tiwari criticizing the incumbent Delhi government of Arvind Kejriwal went viral on WhatsApp, wrote Nilesh Christopher.
    • The “positive campaign” using a deepfake to reach different linguistic voter bases “marked the debut of deepfakes in election campaigns in India,” Christopher wrote.

. . . politics

  • Wired magazine dissected the QAnon conspiracy movement, its influence on social media and its efforts to steer voters to President Donald Trump.
    • “Beginning early last year, Qanon followers more explicitly embraced concepts of ‘information warfare,’ efforts to shape narratives and people’s beliefs to influence events” wrote Elise Thomas.
  • Facebook this week removed a page with false and misleading news called “North Carolina Breaking News.” It described itself as “satire/parody” that wants to help Trump win re-election this fall, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.
    • “The pace at which the page was able to grow — allegedly more than 50,000 followers in less than a month — shows how easy it still is to create a widely trafficked source of false news, with the 2020 election just on the horizon,” wrote the News & Observer’s Hayley Fowler.
    • The paper also followed up with a helpful-for-readers explainer on how to spot “fake news” sites.

. . . the future of news

  • A new survey from the Pew Research Center’s Election News Pathways project shows that the more closely people follow political news, the more concerned they are about disinformation. Concern is lowest among people who don’t follow political news closely at all.
  • Digital researchers at New York University and Stanford University looked at whether people could tell the difference between real and fake news, the Financial Times reported. Their conclusion: most participants could tell that true news was true, but they were “not good at identifying fake news.”

The U.S. president’s annual budget submission to Congress is often dismissed as an inconsequential document because it’s just a proposal – a blueprint of priorities that the White House sends to lawmakers, who often ignore it.

But as the president’s vision for government, it might carry slightly more meaning in an election year. The flashpoints generally include the social safety net programs – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Both parties look at the exact same set of numbers and characterize them completely differently. Trump says his budget “won’t touch” the programs while Democrats say his budget is proof that he wants to eviscerate them.

Factcheck.org’s Lori Robertson looked at the rhetoric around this year’s budget and offered a no-spin take, expertly navigating the semantics of fiscal policy. She noted, for example, the difference between actual cuts and cuts in growth, and explained how the budget would actually affect beneficiaries of these programs.

What we liked: For the next nine months, candidates for both White House and Congress will be proclaiming that their proposals would protect seniors. But will they? Robertson’s detailed piece could easily be used as a guide for anyone who wants to understand how these numbers really work.

— Susan Benkelman, API 

  1. A U.S. senator being interviewed on Fox News raised the possibility that the coronavirus had originated in a high-security biochemical lab in China, a conspiracy theory that lacks evidence, The New York Times reported.
  2. The Asian American Journalists Association issued a statement calling on newsrooms to cover coronavirus accurately and factually “without further fueling xenophobia and racism towards Asian American communities.”
  3. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has launched a video series called “Fakeout.” Its first installment showed how the lack of information from Gabon’s government about the 2018 hospitalization of its president in Riyadh led to a coup attempt.
  4. Freedom of expression advocates including Amnesty International condemned moves by Singapore authorities to use the country’s “fake news” law to require that Facebook restrict its users from seeing the States Times Review, saying the government’s move was designed to silence critics.
  5. A BBC reporter cleverly tried out some of those cooking tips you see on videos on social media – like “milk carton flan.” His results were less than successful, which is apparently why he calls them “fake bakes.”

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

Cristina and Susan

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Cristina Tardáguila is the International Fact-Checking Network’s Associate Director. She was born in May 1980, in Brazil, and has lived in Rio de Janeiro for…
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