When what was unthinkable yesterday is reality today


Once President Donald Trump declared on Friday that he would use a federal law known as the Stafford Act as the basis for an emergency declaration to assist states with their coronavirus response, it wasn’t long before misinformation started circulating on social media and in text messages.

The law essentially allows federal resources to flow to states for their relief efforts, but hoaxers and conspiracists quickly contorted the action into a national quarantine, or some kind of “lockdown.” Viral texts amped it up some more, falsely saying Trump’s action meant impending martial law, a term that implies using the military to overrule civil law enforcement during a crisis.

The activity prompted a response from the National Security Council on Twitter: “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE,” the NSC said. “There is no national lockdown. @CDCgov has and will continue to post the latest guidance on #COVID19. #coronavirus”

The supposed sources of the martial law rumors varied for different recipients, NBC’s Ben Collins reported. He saw versions attributed to “high-ranking military officials,” a “close friend … with incredibly reliable information” and “a source that works for Homeland Security.”

But what made the rumors potent was that they contained just enough plausibility to seem real, especially at a time when each news cycle brings new warnings from governments about how to avoid spreading or contracting the virus. We may not be headed toward martial law, but people are being asked to stay home. France was put on lockdown on Tuesday. Millions in northern California were being told to “shelter in place.” The United States and Canada are closing their border to “non-essential” traffic.

Overlaying those concerns are worries about how a president who has consistently expanded the power of the executive branch might use it in November if the virus persists.

“What’s next?” asked Juan Williams, a political analyst for Fox News, in a column in The Hill critical of Trump’s coronavirus response. “Cancel the November election?”

The question arose while there were already intense debates about whether primary elections in some states should be postponed. On Tuesday, three states went ahead with them. Others, like Ohio, did not – with the governor acting in defiance of a state court ruling. Some that were scheduled for the coming weeks will be delayed. So if a primary could be postponed, could Trump delay this fall’s general election?

The question was asked widely enough that the fact-checker Snopes looked into it, and clarified that such a move would require an act of Congress. News organizations like USA Today wrote explainers. The election could be postponed only “with great difficulty,” The New York Times wrote.

But there was continued debate, including among serious scholars, about whether Trump would find a way to delay the presidential election. Like the martial law rumor, the element of believability kept it alive.

At a time when each day brings something that was once unimaginable, almost anything becomes easier to imagine. And a crisis in which yesterday’s unthinkable can become today’s reality is a friendly environment both for scaremongers deliberately aiming to plant false narratives and concerned citizens seeking to peer over the horizon.

— Susan Benkelman, API

. . . technology

  • Members of the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus alliance and verified signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network can now apply for grants and get funds to improve their work in the COVID-19 battlefield. Tuesday, Facebook announced it would support the initiative, launched in January, with $1 million.
    • The following day, WhatsApp also donated $1 million to the IFCN. Members of the IFCN coronavirus  alliance will have the chance to “deliver their fact-checks in new formats, conduct studies and research on health-related misinformation and also access new tools like the WhatsAppBusiness App and the WhatsApp API.”
  • Social media platforms “continue to be a dangerous socio-technical vulnerability in times of confusion and crisis,” misinformation expert Joan Donovan, of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, wrote in MIT Technology Review. She called for emergency protocols that authorities can use to reach people on social media, such as those available for mobile phones, cable TV and radio.

. . . politics

  • Could Russia use coronavirus hoaxes to interfere in the next U.S. election? In an op-ed published by The New York Times, professor Thomas Rid, from Johns Hopkins University, wrote that the environment is ripe to divide Americans, since  “disinformation is about activating emotional reactions, in order to divide and corrode the targeted entity.”
  • An edited video put out by Joe Biden’s campaign makes it look like Trump said coronavirus is Democrats’ new hoax, PolitiFact reported, when in fact, there was nearly a full minute between when the president said “coronavirus” and “hoax.”
    •  2020 is “shaping up to be the year of deceptively edited campaign ads,” PolitiFact reporter Daniel Funke (our erstwhile newsletter co-author) noted on Twitter.

. . . science and health

  • New York State’s attorney general has issued a cease-and-desist order to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones over fake coronavirus cures like DNA Force Plus supplements, Silversol products, and Superblue toothpaste.
  • The Regional Council of Medicine in São Paulo will investigate a doctor who posted a video on social media injecting serum in a pregnant woman while saying it would prevent her from getting the new coronavirus, reported G1.
  • Manlio De Domenico, a scientist at Bruno Kessler Foundation’s Center for Information and Communication Technology, in Italy, analyzed 120 million tweets and more than 22 million websites and concluded that, because of the 2019 coronavirus, “the whole world is sad.”

PesaCheck, the Ugandan fact-checking organization, showed this week the value of fact-checking a claim that turned out to be true.

Referencing a police press conference, PesaCheck’s staff verified that two Ugandans had indeed been arrested for peddling a fake coronavirus vaccine. The two suspects were taken into custody after injecting, “an unknown liquid substance to members of the Ahamadiya Muslim Sect, claiming it could protect them against coronavirus.”

In the article, fact-checkers also pointed out that Uganda already has some cases of COVID-19 and shared with readers links to authoritative sources like the World Health Organization and the Ugandan Minister of Health, Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng.

What we liked: PesaCheck was able to take the eye-catching story of misinformation and turn it into a resource for authoritative information. They demonstrated the danger of scam cures while also connecting Ugandans to the correct information.

– Harrison Mantas, IFCN

  1. BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko is keeping a running list of coronavirus hoaxes.
  2. To avoid spreading misinformation about the coronavirus, think like a science journalist, Mother Jones’ Rebecca Leber wrote this week.
  3. Journalists need to embrace a public service mission in light of coronavirus, wrote Stephen Cushion, a professor at the Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.
  4. Researchers at DomainTools discovered ransomware hidden in some COVID-19 apps. When a person in search of coronavirus information uses the app, the malicious tracker can lock out their phones, wrote Forbes.
  5. Tech companies’ “surveillance-based business models” are distorting the public sphere and threatening democracy, the nonprofit freedom of expression advocacy group Ranking Digital Rights concluded in a new report.
  6. A fake photo of actor Tom Hanks in quarantine with his “Cast Away” co-star, the volleyball named Wilson, went viral last week.

That’s it for this week! We hope you noticed that we now have Harrison Mantas with us. He is IFCN’s new reporter, writing about the misinformation universe. Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org. We will all read it.

Cristina, Susan and Harrison

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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…
Cristina Tardáguila
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…
Harrison Mantas

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