Fighting misinformation during a global pandemic

Note: This was written originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

act-checking and verification was already a crucial skill for journalists even before the COVID-19 pandemic came along, thanks in part to the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right’s weaponization of social media as a distribution method for misinformation. But the coronavirus has made fact-checking and filtering skills even more important, as trolls traffic in rumors about how drinking bleach or taking mega-doses of vitamin C can cure the virus, or how the rollout of 5G technology caused COVID-19 (misinformation that Twitter is now removing in the UK if it presents a tangible threat, after a number of antennas were toppled and burned). Complicating things even further is the fact that the president of the US himself is spreading misinformation about whether the virus can be treated by injecting disinfectant or using UV rays inside the body.

To talk about some of the skills and tactics that journalists (or anyone, for that matter) can use to fight this kind of misinformation, we used CJR’s Galley discussion platform to speak with a number of experts in fact-checking and verification, all of whom are co-authors of the latest edition of the Verification Handbook, which was published earlier this week by the European Journalism Centre (later this week, we’ll be using Galley to interview Gemma Mendoza of Rappler, Brandy Zadrozny of NBC, and Claire Wardle of First Draft). Craig Silverman, the media editor at BuzzFeed, selected all the authors and edited the handbook, and says the skills described in it are more important than they have ever been.

“It’s important for journalists to embrace complexity and to resist instinctively grasping for the obvious explanation,” Silverman told CJR. To give one example, he said, there has been a lot of bad reporting that assumes Russian trolls are to blame for everything bad on social media. “Poorly worded politics tweet from a newly-created Twitter account? Russian troll! Someone promoting trump? Russian troll!” In reality, the provenance of a specific rumor or hoax may be a lot more complicated, involving 4chan posts that were then shared on Twitter and picked up by an alt-right media outlet, and then tweeted by the president. And the platforms share much of the blame, Donie O’Sullivan of CNN told CJR. “We had a story this week about a conspiracy theory falsely claiming an innocent woman in the US was coronavirus patient zero. The conspiracy had been circulating on YouTube for weeks and the company didn’t do a whole lot about it.”

Joan Donovan, who runs the Technology and Social Change research center at Harvard, spends a lot of her time tracing the life-cycle of media manipulation campaigns, and told CJR that one of the downsides of organized efforts like the one that Russia’s Internet Research Agency conducted around the Black Lives Matter movement is that they prevent “authentic black voices from being heard on these issues. This is why it is so important for researchers to counteract platforms’ grand narrative that only they can give voice to the voiceless. If platforms aren’t protecting these communities, then they are fundamentally providing a space for co-option of their culture, their content, and their politics.”

NBC News reporter Ben Collins told CJR “the reality is that social media companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter certainly should take a large portion of the blame” for spreading misinformation. “The same bad actors that have recently been banned by these platforms because they finally crossed an invisible, arbitrarily line about what’s universally harmful to an anonymous panel of people? They’ve been doing a lot of harm for a long time.” Lack of moderation for content uploaded, he says, “was a permanently unsustainable model, designed to mitigate political blowback.”

Here’s more on misinformation:

Training algorithms: Fact-checking has value in itself, Silverman says, but there’s also a significant hidden benefit to the amount of fact-checking that’s being done on Facebook: It’s providing critical machine-learning data to Facebook to train its algorithms. “Each post that gets debunked is logged in a database, and Facebook then uses this corpus of false posts and the related fact checks to train systems to try and identify clear duplicates of the original, false post,” he says. “So all these human fact checkers are helping power a machine learning algorithm at Facebook that helps identify and suppress false content at scale.”

Fallibility: One of the best pieces of advice for journalists, or anyone else wading into the bad parts of the internet, says Collins, is to recognize your own fallibility. “So many things are created to steer you down the wrong direction to make you look bad, or blame perceived enemies for heinous crimes. We’re all extremely susceptible to disinfo when we’re trying to find the truth in a sea of petty grievances and teen boredom on fringe communities.” Disinformation peddlers may not be the smartest people on the internet, Collins says, but they can be “immensely talented at luring you in with seductive, feel-good, bias-confirming lies.”

Doing better: Journalists are doing better at thinking about the effects of amplification when they report on topics like mass shootings and their manifestos, says Harvard’s Donovan. The research of experts like Alice Marwick, Whitney Phillips, danah boyd (who spells her name using only lower-case letters), and Becca Lewis have provided journalists with “a point of view and a tool kit for writing about disinformation, hate groups, violence, and harassment,” she says. “What we don’t have currently is a comprehensive set of protocols and a large base of understanding about how to report on health misinformation.”

Overton window: One of the aspects of online rumors and conspiracy theories that is most troubling, says Collins, is that it affects what sociologists call the Overton Window, which is the range of behavior or statements that are permissible in normal society. The point, he says, is to shift the middle from “of course you should get a vaccine so you don’t get and spread a deadly disease” to “well, those Bill Gates people are pretty kooky, but maybe the answer is somewhere between what they’re saying and what 99% of medical professionals are saying about vaccines.” Even the stupidest conspiracy theories, Collins says, can have an effect once they are synthesized through more skilled orators and voices like trusted, regional talk radio voices and higher-production YouTube videos.

Other notable stories:

The New York Post has taken a number of steps to reduce costs during the COVID-19 shutdown, according to a report from The Daily Beast. In a series of calls with staffers on Wednesday, publisher Sean Giancola said that the Murdoch-owned newspaper’s business has been “drastically disrupted” by the economic impact of the coronavirus, due to a “significant decrease in the advertising demand.” The Daily Beast reported that people familiar with the cuts said that more than a dozen staffers were laid off. The paper has also reportedly told its staff of “runners” — street reporters who feed copy back to the newsroom—that they will be receiving months-long furloughs without pay until the coronavirus crisis is over.

The Guardian in the UK has increased the number of paying subscribers it has by 23 percent compared with last year, Press Gazette reported. The paper now has 821,000 recurring monthly supporters, a figure that includes 446,000 people who have either made voluntary financial contributions of any size, or signed up as patrons under a special arrangement that starts at $124 per month. Digital subscriptions for the Guardian’s tablet editions and apps grew by 39 percent to 265,000. Even print subscriptions to the Guardian, Observer and Guardian Weekly were up three percent.

In a petition filed in federal court late Monday, probation officials say former journalist Matthew Keys violated his parole by hacking into the YouTube account of a California business magazine called Comstock’s and deleting all the videos and then the account itself, after he quit the magazine over a dispute with management. Keys has been serving a sentence for conspiracy to steal viewers’ email addresses from a TV station in Sacramento after he was fired by the station. He was also accused of giving login credentials for the Los Angeles Times website to a hacker.

The BBC is facing another round of cuts, the Guardian reports, with the public broadcaster predicting its income will fall by $155 million this year due to English citizens not paying the government-mandated TV licence fee during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a drop in revenue from its commercial arm. Departing director general Tony Hall told staff Wednesday he is deferring negotiations over pay increases until later in the year, putting a freeze on all but the most essential hiring, and reviewing major capital projects. But he said there will also be cuts to some BBC shows.

David Barboza, the former Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times, has launched an online magazine called The Wire China, which will publish a small collection of articles every week, anchored by a 3,000-5,000-word cover story, reports Nieman Lab. Readers can sample one story before hitting the site’s paywall, which costs $19 for a monthly subscription or $199 for an annual pass. Editorially, Barboza said he hopes the site will be a little like a Chinese-news version of The Information or Stat News.

Kara Swisher, who already writes for the New York Times as a columnist, will now also be doing a podcast for the newspaper starts July 1. The paper said that Swisher will no longer be doing her Recode Decode podcast, but will bring “her fearlessness, intellect and wit” to the as-yet-unnamed podcast for the Times‘ Opinion section. Swisher co-founded All Things Digital with former Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg, then started a similar site called Recode, which was acquired by Vox Media in 2015.

YouTube will begin adding informational panels containing information from its network of fact-checkers to videos in the United States, according to The Verge. The panels, which were introduced last year in Brazil and India, appear on searches for topics where fact-checkers have published relevant articles on the subject. YouTube says more than a dozen US publishers are already participating in its network of fact-checkers, including FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and The Washington Post Fact Checker.

Postmedia Network, a chain of newspapers in Canada, says it will lay off about 80 employees and permanently close 15 of its community publications as it tries to cope with the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. .“Our business, like so many, has been hard hit by the freeze imposed across the Canadian economy and around the world,” CEO Andrew MacLeod wrote in a memo to staff that was obtained by The Canadian Press wire service. The print and digital advertising revenue impact of the crisis “has been very significant,” MacLeod said.

Olivia Nuzzi writes in New York magazine about the debate over whether to air Donald Trump’s news briefings live, and says she believes they should be. “What a lot of Trump critics miss is that the biggest threat to his presidency isn’t the pandemic and the collapse of the global economy. It’s Trump,” she writes. “The more we see him — rambling, ranting, casually spitballing about bleach and sunlight — the clearer that becomes. But that’s not the media’s problem, and taking the spotlight off of him as he displays the full extent of his inadequacies would only serve to help him and to make the public less informed about what the federal government is doing.”

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