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Column: Why can’t Twitter and Facebook hold back the torrent of right-wing conspiracy claims?

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FILE - In this Thursday, March 28, 2019, file photo, Donald Trump Jr. speaks at a rally for President Donald Trump in Grand Rapids, Mich. The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee says the panel subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr. after he backed out of two interviews that were part of its Russia investigation. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

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By conventional standards, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube showed themselves to be paragons of public service Monday when they took down a video promoting a long-debunked “cure for COVID” and agitating against mask-wearing.

The conservative broadcast chain Sinclair also has been praised in some quarters for canceling a segment on one of its television shows promoting an especially unhinged assertion that Dr. Anthony Fauci played a role in manufacturing coronaviruses and sending them to China.

By real-world standards, however, the social media giants and Sinclair failed miserably.

We’re a supporter of free speech and a marketplace of ideas and viewpoints, even if incredibly controversial.

Sinclair Broadcast Group

The video remained up on Facebook for hours, long enough to garner more than 14 million views, and reportedly can still be found by determined searchers. Twitter not only deleted the video, but also restricted the account of Donald Trump Jr., who had posted the video on his account. The suspension was to last only 12 hours, however.

And Sinclair came close to providing a platform to the claim about Fauci embodied in a video documentary titled “Plandemic.”

Concerns about the firms’ inability or unwillingness to police their platforms for manifestly deceptive misinformation and disinformation may surface Wednesday during a joint appearance before the House Judiciary Committee by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple Chairman Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube.

The session’s nominal topic is the market power accumulated by these giant corporations, but the power of social media platforms to distribute dangerous myths is certainly pertinent.

Indeed, Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institution suggested that one of the questions that should be high on the lawmakers’ agenda is: “What have you done to stop the use of your products for racist appeals, hateful actions, or false information?”

It’s fair to say that inoculating these platforms against informational toxins isn’t always a simple matter, in part because distinguishing the purveying of disinformation from legitimate differences of opinion, especially on scientific matters, isn’t always easy.

Some of the conspiracy theories that leach into social media come cloaked with the aura of government statements, thus providing a convenient defense against calls to remove the material.

Consider the case of President Trump, whose Twitter output is not only voluminous more than 50 tweets on Monday alone but also chockablock with tweeted and retweeted conspiracy claims and false assertions. The Washington press event at the center of the controversial video Monday was fronted by Rep. Ralph Norman, a far-right member of the South Carolina Republican delegation.

As we’ve reported, the ability of misinformation and conspiracy-mongering to infect our public discourse is greater than ever before because its sources are no longer limited to inhabitants of the lunatic fringe or commercial entities that have profited from misleading the public, such as tobacco companies.

The speed with which this material can reach the public makes a mockery of the old saw about how a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on today, a lie can metastasize throughout the global body politic before the truth can even get out of bed.

The defense for posting and publishing such noxious material long has been that exposing it to the public has a disinfectant effect the public will be able to weigh it against truth and serious discourse, and it will wither away as a result. The power of social media to give such material credibility merely by making it public points to the question of whether some viewpoints are just too noxious.

There should be no question that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and their cousins could be much better at blocking some of this material before it can reach millions of viewers.

For one thing, some of it has long since been established as mendacious or deceptive.

Let’s consider the video involved in Monday’s controversy. Originally posted by the right-wing Breitbart News, the video featured a group of white-coated doctors associated with organizations calling themselves Americas Frontline Doctors and the Assn. of American Physicians and Surgeons.

Neither of these organizations nor many of the participants are unknown to followers of conspiracy theories or debunkers of pseudoscience.

a really good way to let people live in fear.” data-reactid=”53″>The head of America’s Frontline Doctors, Simone Gold, an emergency room physician, has described advice to wear masks as a con of massive proportion. She says the media has an agenda … to make you think that theres no actual facts out there that you can discern for yourself. … Thats a really good way to let people live in fear.

Gold, by the way, was a member of the so-called “expert panel” assembled by the Orange County Board of Education as window-dressing for its “white paper” advocating irresponsibly that schools in the county reopen for class without masks or social distancing.

The thrust of the video was to promote the use of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19.

The persistence of the claim for this nostrum, which has been incessantly talked up by President Trump, is simply astonishing given that every randomized clinical trial of the treatment, the gold standard in clinical studies, has found it to be ineffective against the virus (and hazardous for some patients besides).

Yet the videotaped event featured Stella Immanuel, a Houston physician who claims to have treated more than 350 patients with hydroxychloroquine and “they’re all well.” She called the studies debunking the drug’s effectiveness “fake science” and said, “You don’t need masks; there is a cure.”

Immanuel maintains on her website that “serious gynecological problems, Marital distress, miscarriages, impotence, untold hardship, financial failure and general failure” are caused by “evil spiritual marriages.” After Facebook took down Monday’s video, she issued a sort of curse against the company via Twitter: “Put back my profile page and videos up or your computers will start crashing till you do.”

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube would have us believe that they were caught flatfooted for hours by this material.

Then there’s Sinclair, which played a more active role in distributing patent disinformation than the social media platforms, until public disclosure caused it to backtrack.

Sinclair is a rapidly expanding broadcast conglomerate that now operates more than 190 television stations coast-to-coast. The right-wing tenor of its news content suggests that it’s hoping to share the conservative market with Fox, if not surpass its rival.

Over the weekend, Sinclair was prepared to give a platform to a participant in a certain video known as “Plandemic.” Clips of the video don’t seem to be available as of this writing from the production’s website, but as pseudoscience debunker Dennis Gorski reported in May, the blurb for the video included statements such as this:

“The media has generated so much confusion and fear that people are begging for salvation in a syringe. Billionaire patent owners are pushing for globally mandated vaccines. Anyone who refuses to be injected with experimental poisons will be prohibited from travel, education and work. No, this is not a synopsis for a new horror movie. This is our current reality.”

The participant was Judy Mikovits, who was to be featured in a segment of Sinclair’s show “America This Week,” interviewed by host Eric Bolling, a former Fox News host. Mikovits’ professional career was subjected to scrutiny earlier this year by Science Magazine, which did not paint a pretty picture.

In the Sinclair segment, according to a clip and a transcript published by Media Matters for America, Mikovits states, “I believe Dr. Fauci has manufactured the coronaviruses in monkey cell lines and shipped them from and paid for and shipped the cell lines to Wuhan, China, now for at least since 2014.”

Bolling subsequently brought on a guest who disputed the claim that Fauci was involved in manufacturing the novel coronavirus, though she maintained that the virus was likely made in a laboratory (another highly dubious assertion).

Sinclair at first defended its program. “We’re a supporter of free speech and a marketplace of ideas and viewpoints, even if incredibly controversial.”

But that won’t do. The defense of pandering to ignorance in the name of informational “balance” is an old stunt that depends on portraying disagreements as “controversies” even when no real controversy exists. (We took Katie Couric to task in 2013 when she aired an interview with an anti-vaccination activist as though she was merely reporting the controversy, and she quite properly conceded the misstep.)

In the Sinclair case, there is no controversy about Fauci’s role in the coronavirus. No serious evidence that he played any such role exists. Sinclair at first responded to “feedback” about the Bolling segment by delaying the broadcast but subsequently pulled the plug entirely, telling CNN that “given the nature of the theories [Mikovits] presented we believe it is not appropriate to air the interview.”

It’s gratifying, one supposes, that the limits of Sinclair’s shame and sensitivity to public “feedback” have been determined. But it was a close call. Sinclair should never have given a platform to Mikovits’ claim, for any effort to check it out would have revealed the dangers of putting it on the air. The question is whether Sinclair has learned anything from the episode just as the question is whether Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have learned that it’s imperative to address videos such as the hydroxychloroquine news conference proactively. Lives are at stake.



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Sanders and Schumer call on McConnell to hold hearings to fight election conspiracy theories – KTVZ

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Sanders and Schumer call on McConnell to hold hearings to fight election conspiracy theories - KTVZ

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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York are calling on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to create a new bipartisan committee focused on election integrity and schedule hearings to reassure Americans over a process President Donald Trump has repeatedly sought to undermine.

There is growing anxiety among Democrats, and some Republicans, that Trump will not only continue to sow doubt over the legitimacy of the coming election but throw the subsequent count into chaos by declaring victory before all the votes can be tallied, including the millions that will arrive by mail.

In a letter to McConnell, Sanders and Schumer quote back the Kentucky senator’s own words, in which he attested to the reliability of mail-in voting by citing its successes in Oregon, Washington and Colorado, which have been using the system for years.

Trump has repeatedly questioned the validity of mail-in voting, promoted conspiracy theories questioning election security, called on supporters to act as unsanctioned “poll watchers,” and suggested that the absence of a clear result by the evening of November 3 would in some way cast doubt on the eventual outcome. Key allies in powerful positions, like Attorney General Bill Barr, have followed suit. Barr has persisted in puffing up a debunked claim that ballots received by mail would somehow strip the sender of their privacy — ignoring well-established safeguards.

By escalating the matter now, Sanders and Schumer are responding to growing concern, in partisan and nonpartisan spaces, that Americans are not adequately prepared for the potential of a longer-than-usual wait for results or Trump’s willingness to short-circuit the democratic process if he smells defeat.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress must come together to ensure that we have a free and fair election where every vote is cast and counted without intimidation,” Sanders told CNN, “where no one has to put his or her health in danger to cast a ballot, and where we have full confidence in the results.”

The proposed hearings would invite a cross-section of election officials from across the country to testify to the security and reliability of mail-in, early- and in-person voting — subjects on which Sanders and Schumer, again, referenced McConnell’s own words.

“Despite the clear security of our vote-by-mail system, some have continued to undermine it with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud,” they wrote. “As you have correctly said, people ‘can vote early, you can vote on Election Day, or you can drop it in the mail,’ and that voters should ‘not worry about your vote not counting.’”

The minority leader and Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also want more detailed discussion about the fraught hours, or days, after the polls close and a real-time watch of the election horse race potentially swings from one candidate to another.

“We know a number of states may well be counting ballots for a period of time after Election Day, and that those votes may be determinative in this election,” the senators wrote to McConnell. “To avoid disinformation, conspiracy theories, and suspicion about results, we must understand the likely timeline for this process.”

The letter goes on to reference the recent war games-style preparations conducted by a group called the Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan gathering of operatives and academics that made headlines when some of the outcomes of their exercises — including “both street-level violence and political impasse” — were reported on in late July.

“A bipartisan group of experts and officials have studied multiple scenarios where the outcome of the election was not immediately known. Some of these scenarios resulted in unrest and even violence,” Sanders and Schumer wrote, suggesting the Senate should elevate similar discussions and familiarize the public with the uncertainties ahead. “We would like to hear from the most knowledgeable people in the country as to how we can do everything possible to make sure that the election and the period afterward is secure and peaceful.”

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HHS official sorry for conspiracy theory video

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HHS official sorry for conspiracy theory video

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HHS supported Caputo, with a statement that called him a critical, integral part of the presidents coronavirus response, leading on public messaging as Americans need public health information to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was no immediate statement from the White House.

Attempts to reach Caputo were unsuccessful.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called on Azar to fire Caputo, accusing the spokesman of trying to interfere with CDC reports to the medical and scientific community, as well as the public at large. And Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Azar himself to resign, citing interference with the CDC as one example of what he termed the administration’s failures.

Officials at CDC have privately complained of recent efforts by political appointees at main HHS to try to edit or press for changes in the agency’s weekly MMWR publications, a go-to resource for public health professionals.

MMWR articles are technical, but they reveal telling details. One published earlier this year noted that while Trump’s travel restrictions dramatically reduced travel from China in February, nothing was being done at that time to restrict travel from Italy and Europe, where the coronavirus was spreading widely and rapidly. Analysis of virus samples from hard-hit New York in March suggested it was introduced there from Europe and other parts of the U.S., the CDC article reported.

Caputo is an unswerving Trump loyalist. His recent book, The Ukraine Hoax, claims the presidents phony impeachment was rooted in a vast conspiracy.

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unwinona:This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS…

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unwinona:This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS...

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My RSS Feedunwinona:

This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS and Polio narrative (among others), only we’re seeing it escalated to weeks and months instead of years or decades.

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