Misinformation Watch

By Donie O'Sullivan, Kaya Yurieff, Kelly Bourdet, the CNN Business team and contributors from across CNN

Updated 11:21 a.m. ET, January 26, 2021
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11:42 a.m. ET, December 2, 2020

Facebook blasted over anti-vax content by UK lawmaker

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

A British member of Parliament blasted Facebook on Wednesday over its handling of anti-vaccine content and warned that the social media platform risks undermining Covid-19 vaccines just as vaccination programs are getting underway.

 “Today in the UK, the Pfizer vaccine has received regulatory approval and the first doses will be administered next week,” said MP Damian Collins, former Chair of the UK House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. “One of the greatest risks to the success of this program is anti-vaccine disinformation warning people not to take it.”

Collins’ remarks came during a public session of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation, a body that includes government officials from the United States, the UK, Canada, Germany, Ireland, India, Brazil and several other countries. The US was represented by Rep. David Cicilline, a leading tech critic and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s consumer protection subcommittee.

Citing research reports on anti-vaccine content on Facebook, Collins said the platform’s “own algorithms are pushing anti-vax content over authentic health information. The impact of this is declining trust in the vaccine.”

“This is not just a public health challenge, but why legislation to combat harmful disinformation is so necessary,” he added. Next year, Collins, said, the UK parliament is expected to debate a bill that could establish a new regulator for online harms modeled after similar agencies that govern tech platforms’ handling of user data and privacy.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said the company removes misinformation about the coronavirus that could lead to “imminent physical harm” and directs users to Facebook’s Covid-19 information center, which is available in 189 countries. Stone added that Facebook has banned advertisements that discourage people from getting vaccines.

On Monday, during a livestream with Dr. Anthony Fauci, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company is “planning a push” to provide users with authoritative sources of vaccine information. Zuckerberg said that Facebook has already reached out to President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team about helping with the pandemic response.

5:44 p.m. ET, December 1, 2020

Social media must prepare for flood of Covid-19 vaccine misinformation

From CNN Business' Kaya Yurieff

Nearly two years ago, public health experts blamed social media platforms for contributing to a measles outbreak by allowing false claims about the risks of vaccines to spread.

Facebook pledged to take tougher action on anti-vaccine misinformation, including making it less prominent in the news feed and not recommending related groups. But shortly after, Facebook-owned Instagram continued to serve up posts from anti-vaccine accounts and hashtags to anyone searching for the word "vaccines." Despite actions against anti-vaccine content since then — some as recent as last month -- Facebook has failed to totally quash the movement on its platforms.

Now, with Covid-19 vaccines potentially making their way to some Americans as soon as this month, the tech companies will face their biggest test on this front yet. The stakes for them to get it right, after years of struggling to combat vaccine misinformation, couldn't be higher.

"To beat this pandemic, we also have to defeat the parallel pandemic of distrust," Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said on Monday.

Some social networks have already put policies in place specifically against Covid-19 vaccine misinformation; others are still deciding on the best approach or are leaning on existing policies for Covid-19 and vaccine-related content. But making a policy is the easy part -- enforcing it consistently is where platforms often fall short.

Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have their work cut out for them: The coronavirus and pending vaccines have already been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories, which platforms have taken action on or created policies about. Some have made false claims about the effectiveness of masks or baseless assertions that microchips will be implanted in people who get the vaccine.

Earlier this month, Facebook booted a large private group dedicated to anti-vaccine content. But many groups dedicated to railing against vaccines remain. A cursory search by CNN Business found at least a dozen Facebook groups advocating against vaccines, with membership ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands of users. At least one group was specifically centered around opposition to a Covid-19 vaccine.

Brooke McKeever, an associate communications professor at the University of South Carolina who has studied vaccine misinformation and social media, expects a rise of anti-vaxxer content and said it's a "big problem."

"The speed at which [these vaccines] were developed is a concern for some people, and the fact that we don't have a history with this vaccine, people are going to be scared and uncertain about it," she said. "They might be more likely or prone to believing misinformation because of that."

That has real world consequences. McKeever's fear: that people won't get the vaccine and Covid-19 will continue to spread.

Public health experts say vaccines are extremely safe, and serious adverse reactions are very rare.

Moderna says it will ask US and European regulators to allow emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine as new study results confirm the shots offer strong protection.

But anti-vaccination posts continue to find a large audience. A July report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found anti-vaxxers have a following of about 58 million people, based primarily in the US, as well as in the UK, Canada and Australia. "The decision [of social media platforms] to continue hosting known misinformation content and actors left online anti-vaxxers ready to pounce on the opportunity presented by coronavirus," the report said.

The report said social media platforms have done the "absolute minimum."

Here's where the platforms stand on combating Covid-19 vaccine misinformation so far.

Read more here

2:23 p.m. ET, December 1, 2020

Red Cross chief: 'Fake news' about a Covid-19 vaccine has become a second pandemic

From CNN's Harmeet Kaur and Naomi Thomas

Red Cross chief Francesco Rocca
Red Cross chief Francesco Rocca

Covid-19 vaccines are fast approaching, but a second pandemic might impede efforts to recover from the first, according to the president of a global humanitarian aid group.

That second pandemic: "fake news" about those very vaccines.

Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a virtual briefing to the UN Correspondents Association on Monday that governments and institutions needed to implement measures to combat growing mistrust and misinformation.

"To beat Covid-19, we also need to defeat the parallel pandemic of mistrust that has consistently hindered our collective response to this disease, and that could undermine our shared ability to vaccinate against it," he said.

The leader of the world's largest humanitarian aid network said his organization shares "the sense of relief and optimism" that developments in Covid-19 vaccines bring. But governments and institutions "have to build trust in the communities" where misinformation has taken root, he added.

There is growing hesitancy about vaccines around the world, particularly the Covid-19 vaccine, said Rocca.

Read more here.

6:08 p.m. ET, November 30, 2020

Fired cybersecurity official addresses baseless claim that an algorithm flipped votes

From CNN Business' Sara Ashley O'Brien

In his first interview since Donald Trump fired him by tweet earlier this month, Christopher Krebs, the former top cybersecurity official, reaffirmed his stance that the 2020 Election was the “most secure in history.”

On CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday, the former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which was charged with protecting the election against hacking and other disruptions, said his team “did a good job. We did it right. I’d do it a thousand times over.”

President Donald Trump and has allies have peddled a range of conspiracy theories around voter fraud, often focusing on Dominion Voting Systems, a company that provides software to many local governments. They have claimed, without evidence, that glitches in the Dominion software led to miscast ballots, that it counted phony ballots, and that it ran an algorithm “to take a certain percentage of votes from President Trump and flip them to President Biden.”

CBS’ Scott Pelley asked Krebs for his reaction to some of the unfounded claims of fraud, and specifically the conspiracy theory vocalized by attorney Sidney Powell at the recent press conference led by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani about an alleged algorithm used by Dominion to swing votes in favor of President-elect Joe Biden.  Powell said that Dominion software "can set and run an algorithm that probably ran all over the country to take a certain percentage of votes from President Trump and flip them to President Biden.” (The Trump campaign has since cut ties with Powell.) 

“If there was an algorithm that was flipping votes or changing votes, it didn’t work,” said Krebs. “I think the more likely explanation though is that there was no algorithm, that the systems performed as intended, that the series of security controls before, during, and after an election protected those systems from any sort of misbehavior,” he added.

There have been no credible reports that the company's machines affected vote counts. As CNN previously reported, one county in Georgia experienced delays reporting its results due to apparent problems with Dominion software but other issues that were allegedly connected to Dominion were actually caused by human error.

Trump has used his Twitter account to perpetuate theories around unproven misuse of Dominion software as part of his broader voter fraud claims, which continue.

The President has been fixated on Georgia, where a statewide audit recently concluded and confirmed a victory for President-elect Joe Biden and found no widespread fraud. Trump, who objected to the recount in a Tweet on November 16, calling it “fake” and adding misleading claims about the state’s signature-matching processes. 

Trump reiterated misleading claims about the processes on Twitter Monday, suggesting that Governor Brian Kemp should “quickly check the number of envelopes versus the number of ballots. You may just find that there are many more ballots than there are envelopes. So simple, and so easy to do.” 

Twitter labeled all of the above Trump tweets as disputed.

All eyes are on the state as it gears up for runoff elections in January that will determine which party rules the Senate.

12:12 p.m. ET, November 30, 2020

Stelter: Bartiromo is just teeing up Trump to lie to viewers

From CNN Business' Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy

6:09 p.m. ET, November 30, 2020

A California radio station is battling coronavirus misinformation among indigenous farmworkers

From CNN's Nicole Chavez

After a day picking cranberries at a California farm, Josefino Cervantes Alvarado sat down for dinner to a unique mix of voices and music filling the room.

"Greetings to everybody tuning in to Radio Indígena 94.1 FM," said a voice coming from the radio's speakers in Spanish. Moments later, he heard another voice speaking in Mixteco — one of several indigenous languages from southern Mexico.

"I used to feel ashamed of speaking Mixteco," Cervantes Alvarado, 40, whose first language is Mixteco, said in Spanish. "Whenever I listen to (the radio), I feel proud of who I am and don't want my children to forget that."

When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit the United States, the hosts of Radio Indígena were among the first people who could explain Covid-19 to indigenous Mexican farmworkers in Ventura County, thanks to their ability to switch between Spanish, Mixteco and other indigenous languages. As the months passed, they took to debunking coronavirus misinformation.

Read more here

6:09 p.m. ET, November 30, 2020

'Firehose of falsehood:' How Trump is trying to confuse the public about the election outcome

From CNN Business' Brian Stelter

Trump is Trump. There's nothing new to say about the man. But there is still lots to learn about his enablers. So many people, from GOP functionaries to Fox News hosts, are helping him to undermine democracy by denying the election and attacking reality. So many people are complicit.

People like Maria Bartiromo. Formerly an acclaimed journalist, known around the world for making CEOs tell the truth, now she tees up Trump to recite lie after lie. Her Sunday morning call with Trump on Fox News was his first "interview" since he lost the election, but it wasn't a real interview at all. He wasn't ready to acknowledge that he lost, and neither was she. He displayed delusional weakness. She was complicit. And she's far from the only one.

Read more here

11:44 a.m. ET, November 27, 2020

On Thanksgiving Day, Trump tweeted against Section 230

From CNN Business' Kaya Yurieff

While many Americans were enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, President Trump was tweeting against a law known as Section 230 and railing against Twitter's trending section.

"For purposes of National Security, Section 230 must be immediately terminated!!!" Trump tweeted on Thursday evening.

The reasoning behind Trump's claim -- without evidence or further detail -- that Section 230 must be repealed for national security reasons is unclear. Section 230 protects tech companies' ability to moderate content as they see fit.

For years, many of the biggest names in tech have relied on the little-known law to avoid being held responsible for some of the most controversial content on their platforms. But as social media networks have become hotbeds for hate and misinformation, an increasing number of voices, including Republicans, are advocating for changes to the law.

Trump also attacked Twitter's "Trends" section, saying it has "absolutely nothing to do with what is really trending in the world. They make it up, and only negative 'stuff'. Same thing will happen to Twitter as is happening to @FoxNews daytime. Also, big Conservative discrimination!"

And he was still at it on Friday morning, retweeting and tweeting a spate of falsehoods.

He retweeted his own post from Thursday, which said: "Just saw the vote tabulations. There is NO WAY Biden got 80,000,000 votes!!! This was a 100% RIGGED ELECTION."

There is no evidence of widespread election fraud. Joe Biden received 80,026,721 votes. Twitter quickly added a label to the tweet that said, "This claim about election fraud is disputed."

6:10 p.m. ET, November 30, 2020

Trump retweets false claim that 6,000 ‘fake Biden votes found in Arizona' 

From CNN's Holmes Lybrand

Even as key states certify election results indicating — as national news networks have reported — that Joe Biden will be the next President, Donald Trump continues to spread baseless claims of voter fraud on Twitter.

On Tuesday, Trump reposted a tweet from a user falsely claiming that “fake Biden votes” were uncovered in Arizona. 

“Report: 6K fake Biden votes found in Arizona ‘lead’ drops to 4K,” the Twitter user posted, later adding a screenshot of the pro-Trump outlet One America News Network with the same “report” in text running along the bottom of the screen. 

The report, however, is absolute bunk, and the Tweet has been labeled as "disputed" by Twitter. The claim appears to refer to a temporary tally change that occurred in the unofficial election results because of an uploading issue with one county’s results, according to election officials.

A tweet from Arizona’s Secretary of State Katie Hobbs clarified the issue hours before the claim was posted.

“Unofficial election results were displaying incorrectly briefly today due to an uploading error that posted Greenlee County's results multiple times while uploading write-in candidate info,” she posted on Twitter Tuesday. “The error has been corrected.”

Garrett Archer, a data analyst for ABC15 in Arizona, also posted about the uploading error on Tuesday, noting in a follow-up tweet that “Stuff like this happens from time to time. No, the results didn't change.” 

Archer’s original tweet flagging the issue has been incorrectly used by many Trump supporters to falsely allege fraud in the Arizona election.

Arizona will certify its election results on November 30. Biden currently holds a narrow margin of more than 10,000 votes.