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Facebook and Twitter are cracking down on videos that promote conspiracy theories and unproven COVID cures, but researchers say that removing already viral misinformation can backfire and make things worse

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Facebook and Twitter are cracking down on videos that promote conspiracy theories and unproven COVID cures, but researchers say that removing already viral misinformation can backfire and make things worse

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  • Social media platforms have enacted bans on disinformation related to COVID-19 and other issues, but researchers say that banning content after it’s already gone viral can do more harm than good.  
  • For example, the platforms recently banned a viral video of doctors urging COVID-19 treatment with hydroxychloroquine, which federal agencies have called ineffective and dangerous. 
  • That ban prompted news coverage and charges by conspiracy theorists that the video contained truth being suppressed by authorities. 
  • Social media platforms say they are addressing disinformation as quickly as they can.  
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Disinformation campaigns can rocket to virality by capitalizing on the very bans that social media companies have enacted to address them, researchers and analysts say. 

A key case in point is the “America’s Frontline Doctors” video posted on July 27 in which a white-coated group urged treatment of COVID-19 with hydroxychloroquine, which federal agencies have called ineffective and potentially dangerous. The video went viral after President Trump tweeted it, and the platforms removed it that day. But posts about it spiked July 28, the day after Twitter banned it, researchers say. Why? Viral posts about a video that was suddenly unavailable piqued interest even more, they say. 

The social media companies’ bans are “stopping viral disinformation at a very high rate of engagement — once they have already been established,” says Annie Klomhaus, cofounder and chief operating officer of the Austin internet and social media research firm Yonder. By cutting off the content after it’s already gained so much steam, the bans end up putting the disinformation in a media spotlight. In the case of the “Frontline Doctors” video and the controversial drug, its proponents can then claim the ban is part of a suppression campaign connected to the government, furthering their conspiracy theory. 

In the case of the video, it spread through a formula that’s proven incredibly effective for disseminating other messages (or disinformation), too. The groups pass around videos and other disinformation in private groups, which Facebook doesn’t closely monitor. Once the content has momentum, users post it to Twitter and seek to engage large influential accounts that share the same ideology. At that point, it is difficult for social media companies to take any action that doesn’t exacerbate the issue, in part because of intense coverage by traditional media, which will write up both the fact that disinformation has gone viral and its removal.

“The companies are in a really hard place,” Klomhaus says. “They’re trying to do the right thing,  but addressing something that is already viral is a really hard problem.” 

Paul Barrett, deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, who has authored recent widely-cited research on social media disinformation, agrees. 

“By the time platforms even notice the existence of such a video, it’s often gone viral, and millions of people have seen it, possibly being misled on important issues such as the effectiveness of supposed medical cures,” he said. “What’s more, the very act of taking down such content can feed into conspiracy theories that the material is being suppressed by malign interests.”

Twitter has said its moderators take action swiftly when disinformation is discovered. In the case of the “Frontline Doctors” video, a Twitter spokesperson says, “Tweets with the video were in violation of our COVID-19 misinformation policy. We are taking action in line with our policy.”

A Facebook spokesperson said, “It took us several hours to enforce against the video and we’re doing a review to understand why this took longer than it should have.” The company said it has removed more than 7 million pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram for violating its policy against sharing COVID-19 misinformation.

Some familiar social media influencers helped to make the “Frontline Doctors” video go viral. The video picked up momentum in private Facebook groups, then made the jump to Twitter, where the right-wing youth group Turning Point USA amplified it. (That group has opposed masks and social distancing despite its cofounder’s death from COVID-19.) 

The far-right blog Breitbart News picked the story up, as did several programs on a favorite news source of the president, Fox News. The video reached millions when it was tweeted by President Trump and his son, Don Jr. This led to bans by Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Those bans were widely covered by news agencies, and the disinformation campaign reached its peak of 120,000 social media posts about the drug the day after Twitter banned the video. In the week before, there were 18,000 posts about the drug, according to researchers at Yonder. 

Trump Politwoops deleted

Records on the Politwoops website show President Trump deleted tweets promoting a disinformation video.

Politwoops/Propublica


This may have been exactly what the groups promoting the video wanted. One of the main promoters of the video appears to confirm that view. 

A doctor thrust into the spotlight by the video, Stella Immanuel, posted on Twitter that her religious ministry – which says some health issues are caused by people having sex dreams about “demons” – benefited from the TV coverage brought about by the social media ban. 

“CNN, MSNBC etc are doing free commercials on our deliverance ministry,” she said in a tweet on July 28, the day after Twitter banned the video. 

Immanuel did not respond to several requests for comment. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. When asked about his sharing of the video last week, President Trump said, “[Immanuel] said that she’s had tremendous success with hundreds of different patients, and I thought her voice was an important voice, but I know nothing about her.”

The group is backed by Tea Party Patriots, a conservative group that has supported protests against lockdown measures.  The New York Times reported that the group posted the video to its YouTube channel on July 27 before it went viral. 

Klomhaus of Yonder notes that a similar hydroxychloroquine disinformation campaign followed this path in April, and more disinformation campaigns are likely to exploit this process, especially as the pursuit of a coronavirus cure continues, along with the upcoming election.

“As a vaccine comes closer to coming out, this narrative will probably continue,” Klomhaus said. “If it follows the previous pattern of recurring in a few months, that would put this kind of viral politicalization of the virus squarely right in front of the election.” 

For example, there are many many conspiracy theories about Microsoft founder Bill Gates and COVID-19 that have no basis in fact that are spreading in similar ways on social media, Klomhaus says. 

Barrett of NYU says social media platforms must address the holes in their techniques for addressing disinformation, because there’s no way the problem is going away in the leadup to November’s election. 

“Unfortunately, the platforms have no choice but to improve their technical and human content moderation methods and press ahead with removing content that is dangerous to users,” he said. “The platforms cannot just throw up their hands and say the problem has no solution.”



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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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