Misinformation Watch

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

Updated 5:14 p.m. ET, January 21, 2021
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4:50 p.m. ET, January 4, 2021

Social media platforms should brace for a misinformation storm this week

From CNN Business' Kaya Yurieff

A high-stakes runoff election in Georgia. An hours-long spectacle as members of Congress oppose certifying President-elect Joe Biden's victory. And the continued rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine in the US and abroad.

This week is shaping up to be a perfect storm for misinformation to spread online and offline. And it will once again test the social media companies who have struggled to effectively crack down on baseless claims spread by President Donald Trump and others on their platforms in recent months.

"We are in a propaganda cyclone, across the country and in Georgia," said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communication at Syracuse University focused on social media who is critical of how the platforms have handled misinformation so far.

In the past week, Twitter conversations about Georgia have been “dominated” by false claims and misinformation about the presidential election results and the upcoming runoffs, according to a new report from nonpartisan nonprofit Advance Democracy. For example, 4 of the top 5 posts on Twitter in the past week about Georgia were from Trump -- and all 4 promoted baseless voter fraud claims about the election.

Meanwhile, two months of unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud from Trump and others paved the way for the upcoming "Stop the Steal" protest in Washington DC this week, timed with the certification of Biden's win in Congress.

Over the weekend, Twitter began showing a warning to users who clicked on a link for one of the websites for Wednesday's “Stop the Steal” protests. Twitter's pop-up message says, "Warning: this link may be unsafe." It lists several possible reasons, including “spammy links” that mislead people or “violent or misleading content that could lead to real-world harm.”

“It’s so vague," Grygiel said. "It really just shows that these companies weren’t ready for this."

The companies did implement a number of measures to cut down on the spread of election misinformation, but last month Facebook and Twitter confirmed they had begun relaxing some of them, despite Trump and his allies continuing to push baseless allegations of election fraud. Facebook, in particular, scaled back its so-called “break glass” measure implemented to prevent the spread of misinformation, a reversal that suggested the company believed the country is past the point of crisis. 

This week may test that assumption.

8:49 a.m. ET, December 31, 2020

Fact-checking Trump's conspiracy theory connecting Georgia's secretary of state to China

From CNN's Holmes Lybrand and Tara Subramaniam

In the waning days of his presidency, Donald Trump continues to spread nonsense conspiracies over the 2020 election and the officials who oversaw it, attacking Georgia's governor and secretary of state on Twitter Tuesday. 

Following Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's announcement that a ballot signature match audit found no evidence of absentee voter fraud in Cobb County, Georgia, Trump tweeted a conspiracy theory linking Raffensperger to the Chinese government. 

Trump tweeted that Raffensperger has a brother who "works for China," insinuating some nefarious, pro-China plot to have Trump lose the race in Georgia. 

"Now it turns out that Brad R's brother works for China, and they definitely don't want 'Trump'. So disgusting!" the President tweeted after attacking Georgia's Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

Facts First: This is false. A spokesperson for Raffensperger told CNN that the secretary of state has no siblings who work for China, as Trump baselessly alleged. 

Read more here

11:57 a.m. ET, December 25, 2020

'Deepfake' Queen delivers alternative Christmas speech, in warning about misinformation

From CNN's Zamira Rahim

A fake Queen Elizabeth danced across TV screens on Christmas as part of a "deepfake" speech aired by a British broadcaster.

The real British monarch traditionally delivers a Christmas Day speech aired around the world.

But her speech on Friday at 3 p.m. was followed by a digitally-created fake of the Queen, aired on Channel 4 and voiced by an actor, warning viewers to question "whether what we see and hear is always what it seems."

The broadcaster said the video was supposed to offer "a stark warning about the advanced technology that is enabling the proliferation of misinformation and fake news in a digital age."

Read more here

9:38 a.m. ET, December 22, 2020

Newsmax 'clarifies' election conspiracy theories after legal threat from voting technology company

From CNN Business' Oliver Darcy

All throughout Monday, Newsmax viewers were treated to a short — yet remarkable — disclosure from the network's hosts: That Newsmax has no evidence Dominion or Smartmatic manipulated votes in the 2020 election; that Newsmax has no evidence Dominion or Smartmatic has any relationship with George Soros; that Newsmax has no evidence Dominion uses Smartmatic's software or vice versa; and that Smartmatic is a US company, not owned by the Venezuelan government. Newsmax framed the disclosure as a "clarification," though the network maintained it itself had never peddled any conspiracy theories about the companies.

The extraordinary about-face came after Smartmatic sent a blistering legal threat to Newsmax and other right-wing media outlets earlier this month. Ben Rhodes summed up the Monday messages succinctly, tweeting, "So, we're going to spread massive amounts of total disinformation like cancer metastasizing through American democracy, but we also don't want to get sued so we're offering this clarification."

Read more here

11:34 a.m. ET, December 21, 2020

After legal threat, Fox airs news package debunking election fraud claims made by its own hosts

From CNN Business' Oliver Darcy

People who tuned into Fox News over the weekend may have seen something unexpected: a point-by-point fact-check to wild election fraud claims made by some of the network's popular hosts.

After voting technology company Smartmatic sent Fox News a blistering legal threat that accused the network of participating in a "disinformation campaign" against it, the network aired a remarkable news package debunking claims its hosts and guests have propagated.

The package aired for the first time Friday night on Lou Dobbs' show. The same package then aired Saturday night on Jeanine Pirro's program as well as Sunday morning on Maria Bartiromo's show. All three hosts, who use their platforms to air pro-Trump propaganda, are close with the President.

Read more here

10:29 a.m. ET, December 17, 2020

Facebook and Twitter scale back election security measures

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

Facebook and Twitter are relaxing some of their measures intended to reduce the spread of misinformation around the election even as President Donald Trump and his allies continue to push baseless allegations of election fraud. 

Facebook confirmed to CNN Business on Thursday that it is scaling back a so-called “break glass” measure implemented to prevent the spread of misinformation during the election, a reversal that suggests the company believes the country is past the point of crisis. 

The emergency measure, first teased by the company's executives in September, tweaked Facebook’s algorithms to prioritize content from more authoritative publishers as determined by an internal metric called “news ecosystem quality.” 

The New York Times first reported the rollback.

“This was a temporary change we made to help limit the spread of inaccurate claims about the election,” Andy Stone, a spokesperson for Facebook, said in a statement. “News stories make up a small portion of what people see on Facebook overall, and political news makes up a smaller fraction of that news content."

"We’re still ensuring that people see authoritative and informative news on Facebook, especially during major news cycles and around important global topics like elections, COVID-19, and climate change," Stone added.

After the election, Facebook employees were also told the change was never meant to be permanent, according to the Times.

On Wednesday, Twitter announced it had also reverted a change designed to slow down retweets on its service. 

The initial product change, issued in October, prompted users to add a comment before retweeting a post, creating what the company calls a quote tweet. In its post-election review, however, Twitter concluded that this tweak did more harm than good. 

“Our goal with prompting QTs (instead of Retweets) was to encourage more thoughtful amplification,” Twitter said. “We don’t believe that this happened, in practice. The use of Quote Tweets increased, but 45% of them included single-word affirmations and 70% had less than 25 characters.”

Twitter also said that the intervention reduced overall sharing on its platform, which is why it reversed the change. 

Last week, Google lifted its moratorium on political advertising, saying that the “sensitive events” designation it had applied to election ads for roughly a month was no longer necessary. 

“While we no longer consider this post-election period to be a sensitive event,” Google spokesperson Charlotte Smith said in a statement at the time, “we will continue to rigorously enforce our ads policies, which strictly prohibit demonstrably false information that could significantly undermine trust in elections or the democratic process.”

6:21 p.m. ET, December 16, 2020

Fact-checking Trump's claims of voting machine errors in Michigan

From CNN's Tara Subramaniam

The Electoral College officially confirmed President-elect Joe Biden's win Monday, yet President Donald Trump has continued to insist the results are fraudulent.

Shortly after Biden crossed the electoral vote threshold necessary to secure his win, Trump took to Twitter to tout a recently released report from Allied Security Operations Group, an organization that was involved with the Trump campaign lawsuits in battleground states. According to Trump, the report claims that analysis of the election results in Antrim County, Michigan, "shows massive fraud" on a level that could change the results of the election. The report has received pushback from state officials.

Excluding retweets, Trump seemingly referenced the report in five of his nine tweets on Tuesday, all of which Twitter flagged as containing disputed claims about the election. Echoing the report, Trump tweeted that voting machines from the election technology company Dominion Voting Systems had "changed the results" of a landslide election and that Michigan's voting machines in particular had a "68% error rate."

Facts First: Trump's characterizations of the report are false and misleading. The report, which was released to the public Monday, claimed Antrim County, not the state's voting machines as a whole, had an error rate of approximately 68%. Both Trump and the report are unclear as to what this supposed error rate actually encompasses but Michigan officials and elections experts, including federal employees in the Trump administration, have found no evidence supporting the report's claims.

Read more here

4:33 p.m. ET, December 16, 2020

Twitter will start removing false or misleading tweets about the coronavirus vaccine

From CNN Business' Rishi Iyengar

Twitter will start removing false and misleading information about Covid-19 vaccines from next week onwards, the company announced Wednesday.

Tweets subject to removal include those suggesting vaccines "are used to intentionally cause harm to or control populations" as well as "false claims which have been widely debunked about the adverse impacts or effects of receiving vaccinations" and claims that vaccines are unnecessary because "Covid-19 is not real or not serious," Twitter said in a blog post.

The new rules are an expansion of Twitter's existing policies against misinformation about the coronavirus — the company began removing tweets that could cause a "direct risk to people's health or well being" in March and started applying warning labels to other misleading coronavirus tweets in May.

Twitter will also add labels or warnings to tweets that spread "unsubstantiated rumors, disputed claims, as well as incomplete or out-of-context information about vaccines" starting early next year, it said.

Social media sites are gearing up for an uptick in misinformation and disinformation as coronavirus vaccines begin to be administered across the United States and other countries.

Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have their work cut out for them: The coronavirus and Covid-19 vaccines have already been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories. Platforms have scrambled to take action or create policies to combat the spread of coronavirus-related misinformation.

4:26 p.m. ET, December 16, 2020

How QAnon's lies are hijacking the national conversation

From CNN's Rob Kuznia, Curt Devine and Drew Griffin

It started with a Tweet from a QAnon supporter at 2:09 in the morning: #SubpoenaObama.

Though devoid of context, the cryptic message made sense to anyone in tune with the groundless conspiracy theory that the Obama administration -- prior to leaving office in 2017 -- had taken active measures to undermine the incoming Trump presidency.

Within a minute, the same Twitter account sent another tweet encouraging others to push the hashtag, adding that if they do, "good things will happen."

Dozens of QAnon enthusiasts obliged, and before long the hashtag was on fire, at times racking up roughly 4,000 tweets per hour, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), which tracks misinformation across social media channels. Along the way #SubpoenaObama was tweeted by conservative influencers such as Glenn Beck and former Fox Nation personalities Diamond and Silk.

By the next day, May 14, the hashtag had apparently caught the eye of President Trump, who used Twitter to urge Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- to call Obama to testify.

"He knew EVERYTHING," Trump tweeted, referring to Obama. "Just do it."

Later that day, Graham announced a probe into the matter -- although he begged off Trump's request to subpoena Obama himself.

The example highlights a little-known facet of QAnon, experts at the NCRI said.

Rather than being a nebulous group that amplifies messages organically at the grassroots level, QAnon appears to also be an occasional architect of messages that, through coordinated behavior, make their way to the most powerful factions of the Republican Party.

Read more here