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Hoaxes about coronavirus spread faster than the virus itself

Three weeks ago, China officially reported the first death caused by the 2019 coronavirus. But since then there has been a distinct lack of quality data from the Chinese government about the origins of the new disease and the official steps authorities are taking to find a cure for it.

The information void has led to widespread disinformation that is too much for any one fact-checker. For this reason, last Friday, fact-checkers from more than 30 countries decided to band together and share information. With the coordination of the International Fact-Checking Network and the help of simple tools like Slack and Google Sheets, members of the collaborative started to read each other’s fact-checks, translate the content into different languages and republish it as often as possible as a way to prevent hoaxes from spreading.

As of Wednesday, the community had detected 86 instances of misleading information that deserved international attention. Many involved a false coronavirus patent, which wasn’t hard to debunk.

False Facebook posts claiming that the Chinese virus wasn’t really new surfaced almost at the same time in the United States, Canada, India, France, Turkey and Brazil. Some of these posts were accompanied by wild conspiracy theories about the existence of biosecurity labs. Others were picked up by the anti-vaccination movement to “prove” that the health industry is just causing panic so it can develop and sell a vaccine.

The World Health Organization on Monday issued a list of prevention tips to help people avoid contracting the virus. But that didn’t keep internet users from sharing hoaxes about how to protect themselves. A list of ineffective substances to prevent the disease includes, so far, salty water and a magic spray. Others suggested remedies like grape vinegar, steroids and ethanol. There will no doubt be more to come.

Fact-checkers are also aiming to deliver their coronavirus content in formats that allow them to reach the widest possible audience. BuzzFeed is keeping a running list. (Poynter-owned) MediaWise is doing stories on Instagram and republishing them on YouTube.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that the big tech platforms are themselves scrambling to contain conspiracy theories and other misinformation about the virus. This is a tough situation for Facebook, Twitter and Google, but perhaps even tougher for platforms not commonly used in the West, like Line, KakaoTalk and Weibo.

. . . technology

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is unwilling to battle the spread of disinformation and propaganda on his own company’s platform, Hillary Clinton told The Atlantic.
    • “They have, in my view, contorted themselves into making arguments about freedom of speech and censorship,” Clinton said, “which they are hanging on to because it’s in their commercial interests.”
  • Amid WhatsApp users in India, a new study found efficacy in user-driven corrections to misinformation. Boom has a thorough account.

. . . politics

  • Content on TikTok is getting more political, The Wall Street Journal’s Shelby Holliday reported in a (what else?) video story. That also means more misinformation leading into this fall’s U.S. election, she said, and experts predict the platform will face challenges as it attempts to moderate the content.
    • “TikTok is in very nascent stages of doing this,” Kate Klonick, an assistant professor at St. John’s University Law School, told Holliday. “I think they have their work cut out for them because they just might not have the sheer number of people, let alone the rules in place to attack disinformation.”
  • The Washington Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker dissected pro-Trump smears against former National Security Advisor John Bolton after it was reported that his new book would corroborate accounts that the president withheld aid for Ukraine in an effort to advance a probe into the Bidens.

. . . the future of news

  • Fast-breaking news is always a rich environment for hoaxers. The latest example was the death of the basketball star Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash. “Twitter became an absolute mess … filled with falsehoods and misinformation, much of which spread by verified users who were parroting unconfirmed reports,” Mic reported.
    • The pattern was familiar, Daniel Funke and Ciara O’Rourke wrote for PolitiFact: First there were suggestions that it was planned, then false videos, then claims that it never happened.
    • It gets worse: Some social media posts said Bryant tweeted before the crash that he had dirt on Hillary Clinton. PolitiFact promptly debunked this. And AFP debunked an old video purported to be of the crash.

As we know from a manipulated video that went viral last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a common target of misinformation on social media. Now the California Democrat’s leadership of the House’s impeachment of President Donald Trump is attracting another kind of hoax.

This one involves the pens she used while signing the impeachment articles the House sent to the Senate on Jan. 15. After signing the articles, Pelosi gave the pens as souvenirs to some of her colleagues. That made her the target of criticism that she was turning a solemn event into some kind of performative ceremony.

But then came the hoaxes, most of them claiming the pens cost thousands of dollars. At least one said they were made of 14-karat gold. One post said she used $15,000 worth of pens for the signatures.

All these were debunked by FactCheck.org, which tracked down the source of the pens and learned that they have a suggested retail value of about $20 each.

What we liked: Others had checked this claim before, but FactCheck.org reporter Saranac Hale Spencer went to the actual vendor, Garland Writing Instruments in Rhode Island, and talked to its owner. He told FactCheck.org he’s also filled orders for the Trump White House and others.

  1. Anti-vaxxers are piggy-backing on political hashtags like Joe Biden’s #nomalarkey, Vice News reported.
  2. In Canada, an anti-vaccination film was shown in some public libraries and select movie theatres in Alberta, alarming public health advocates and doctors in the province.
  3. Angelina Jolie is teaming up with the BBC to produce a documentary to help young people learn news literacy, Variety reported.
  4. Pinterest is banning misinformation about the 2020 U.S. census.
  5. Mike Caulfield, who heads a digital polarization initiative at the American Democracy Project, wrote in Nieman Lab about how a simple command — in this case CTRL-F — can help fight against misinformation.
  6. There have been lots of stories about Finland’s vaunted news literacy education program. Here’s a new one from The Guardian.
  7. U.S. senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has unveiled a proposal to impose penalties on platforms that spread disinformation about voting locations and rules.

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…
Cristina Tardáguila
Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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