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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4:31 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Facebook shows ads for tactical gear despite announcing a temporary ban

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

Less than 24 hours before Joe Biden is set to become president, Facebook continues to show ads for tactical gear despite vowing to ban those promotions ahead of the inauguration.

A review by CNN and other internet users this week showed that ads for body armor, holsters and other equipment were being displayed on the platform as late as Tuesday afternoon. 

Often, the advertised products are pictured alongside guns, ammunition, or people clad in camouflage fatigues. 

The ads have frequently appeared in the timelines of military veterans and contribute to a false narrative of an imminent violent conflict in the United States, according to Kristofer Goldsmith, founder and president of High Ground Veterans Advocacy. 

“They’re selling the idea of pending violence, or inevitable violence, and that’s the kind of thing that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Goldsmith. 

In one example still on Facebook Tuesday afternoon, a pair of noise-reducing earbuds was being advertised as a form of active hearing protection, shown inserted in the ears of a gunman aiming down his rifle sights. 

Another ad, for body armor, promises consumers that the product can shield them from bullets, knives, stun guns and other threats. 

A third series of ads, for hard-knuckled gloves, showed a man wearing desert camouflage and a tactical rig performing various tests on the gloves, including punching concrete walls, breaking a glass bottle by hand and rubbing broken glass on the gloves’ palms.

“They put people in combat gear in a civilian setting,” Goldsmith said of the ads. "They’re promoting this image of, ‘You need to get ready for combat.’”

Asked for comment, Facebook referred CNN to its earlier blog post announcing that it will ban “ads that promote weapon accessories and protective equipment” in the United States through at least Jan. 22. 

"We already prohibit ads for weapons, ammunition and weapon enhancements like silencers," Facebook said in the blog post. "But we will now also prohibit ads for accessories such as gun safes, vests and gun holsters in the US."

After Facebook introduced the ban on Saturday, BuzzFeed News reported the following day that some ads for tactical gear were still active. Many of the ads observed by CNN had been active, in some cases, for months. Others had been launched within the past week.

Facebook appears to have removed some of the advertisements CNN found, including a series of ads for armored plates and plate carriers. The plates had, in some cases, been shown being held by heavily muscular individuals dressed in fatigues or being inserted into camouflage-patterned backpacks. Despite having seemingly removed some of the advertisers' ads, Facebook has allowed other ads for the same products, by the same advertisers, to persist on the platform.

Another now-removed series of body armor ads included marketing copy that claimed specific levels of protection under the rubric established by the National Institute of Justice. 

Veterans are a popular target for misinformation and conspiracy theorists, Goldsmith said, because as a group they enjoy political and social authority. An endorsement by a veteran can reinforce a conspiracy theory's apparent credibility.

“If you change the mind of a veteran, there’s a good chance you change the minds of those within that veteran’s immediate circle — friends, family, coworkers,” said Goldsmith. 

4:00 p.m. ET, January 15, 2021

'Stop the steal' groups hide in plain sight on Facebook

From CNN Business' Brian Fung and Donie O'Sullivan

Groups and individuals spreading lies about the 2020 election and calling to protest the outcome have continued to hide in plain sight on Facebook, even as COO Sheryl Sandberg this week tried to downplay the platform's role in the Capitol riots. 

From altering the names of their online forums to abusing the core features of Facebook's own services, conspiracy theorists have worked to evade content moderators despite the company's vows of a crackdown, new research shows. 

These groups' efforts to remain undetected highlight the sophisticated threat confronting Facebook, despite its insistence the situation has been less of a problem compared to on other platforms. It also raises new concerns that the groups' persistence on these mainstream social networks could spark a new cycle of violence that stretches well into Joe Biden's presidency. 

The latest examples surfaced on Thursday, as extremism experts at the activist group Avaaz identified 90 public and private Facebook groups that have continued to circulate baseless myths about the election, with 166,000 total members. 

Of those, a half-dozen groups appeared to have successfully evaded Facebook's restrictions on "stop the steal" content, according to Avaaz. Though many initially had "stop the steal" in their names, the groups have since altered their profiles, according to page histories reviewed by CNN Business — allowing them to blend in with other Facebook activity. 

"So instead of 'Stop the Steal,' they became 'Stop the Fraud' or 'Stop the Rigged Election' or 'Own the Vote,'" said Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz.

Read more here.

1:56 p.m. ET, January 14, 2021

YouTube hires a doctor to help combat Covid-19 misinformation

From CNN Business' Kaya Yurieff

YouTube is working with top health organizations to create authoritative medical videos for the platform in an effort to crackdown on Covid-19 misinformation.

The new health partnership team will be headed by Dr. Garth Graham, YouTube’s new director and global head of healthcare and public health partnerships. Graham was most recently the chief community health officer at CVS Health.

YouTube will work with organizations including the American Public Health Association, Cleveland Clinic and the Forum at the Harvard School of Public Health to make “high-quality health content” for its users, according to a blog post.

Like other tech platforms, YouTube has had to tackle the spread of misinformation about Covid-19.

In October, the Google-owned platform said it would take down videos that include misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines. It previously took action on other content containing falsehoods about the virus, such as videos disputing Covid-19 exists. At the time, the company said it had removed more than 200,000 videos containing dangerous or misleading information about Covid-19 since February 2020.

9:15 a.m. ET, January 14, 2021

Messaging app Zello bans thousands of armed extremist channels after Capitol riots

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

The messaging app Zello said it has removed more than 2,000 channels on its platform related to armed extremism, and banned all “militia-related channels,” after it found evidence that some of its users participated in the Capitol riots. 

Zello, a voice messaging app that provides a walkie-talkie-like function, condemned the violence in a blog post on Wednesday.

“It is with deep sadness and anger that we have discovered evidence of Zello being misused by some individuals while storming the United States Capitol building last week,” the company said. “Looking ahead, we are concerned that Zello could be misused by groups who have threatened to organize additional potentially violent protests and disrupt the U.S. Presidential Inauguration Festivities on January 20th.”

Zello added that “a large proportion” of the channels it removed on Wednesday had been dormant for months and in some cases years.

The company is further analyzing the groups on its platform to determine whether any may violate its terms of service. But it added that because it does not store message content, the task is not as simple as running searches for keywords or hashtags and blocking them.

7:42 p.m. ET, January 13, 2021

Telegram struggling to combat calls for violence amid surge in growth

From CNN's Brian Fung and Mallory Simon

The messaging app Telegram is battling an increase in violent extremism on its platform amid a surge in new users, the company acknowledged to CNN Wednesday. 

In the last 24 hours, the company has shut down "dozens" of public forums that it said in a statement had posted "calls to violence for thousands of subscribers."

But the effort has turned into a game of cat and mouse, as many of the forum's users set up copycats just as soon as their old haunts were disabled. Screenshots and Telegram groups monitored by CNN show that a number of channels containing white supremacy, hate and other extremism have been shut down, but that at least some have been replaced by new channels. And at least one meta-channel has emerged that maintains lists of deactivated groups and that redirects visitors to the replacements. One now-defunct group that CNN reviewed had more than 10,000 members.

"Our moderators are reviewing an increased number of reports related to public posts with calls to violence, which are expressly forbidden by our Terms of Service," Telegram spokesperson Remi Vaughn told CNN. "In the past 24 hours we have blocked dozens of public channels that posted calls to violence for thousands of subscribers." 

Vaughn added: "Telegram uses a consistent approach to protests and political debate across the globe, from Iran and Belarus to Thailand and Hong Kong. We welcome peaceful discussion and peaceful protests, but routinely remove publicly available content that contains direct calls to violence." 

Telegram has surpassed half a billion active users worldwide. The company announced Tuesday that it had grown by 25 million users over the past several days -- with about 3 percent of that growth, or 750,000 new signups, occurring in the United States alone, Telegram told CNN.

Apps such as Telegram, Signal and MeWe have experienced explosive growth in recent days after WhatsApp sent a notification to its users reminding them that it shares user data with its parent, Facebook -- and following the suspension of President Donald Trump and the alternative social network Parler from many major tech platforms. 

One of the people who has been reporting violent channels to Telegram is Gwen Snyder, a Philadelphia-based activist who said she has been monitoring far-right extremists on the platform since 2019. Earlier this week, as Telegram was witnessing a surge in new users, Snyder enacted a plan to organize mass pressure against Telegram’s content moderators.

“We started two days ago calling for Apple and Google to deplatform Telegram if they refused to enforce their terms of service,” Snyder told CNN. “We had dozens if not hundreds of relatively large-follower Twitter accounts amplifying the campaign.”

It’s difficult to determine whether Telegram’s actions may have been a direct result of the activism; Snyder said she never heard from Telegram or from Apple or Google, either. 

But at least some of the Telegram channels affected by the crackdown appeared to believe that Snyder’s efforts were responsible — and soon began posting her personal information online and targeting her with death threats.

“That’s my home address,” Snyder said in a public tweet, attaching a redacted screenshot of an extremist Telegram channel that had shared her information. Addressing Telegram, she added: “You're okay with this? ENFORCE YOUR OWN TERMS OF SERVICE.”

4:38 p.m. ET, January 13, 2021

Facebook sees online signals indicating more potential violence 

From CNN Business' Donie O'Sullivan

Facebook has seen online signals, on its platform and elsewhere, indicating the potential for more violence following last week’s insurrection, a company spokesperson told CNN Wednesday. 

The company is working with organizations that track terrorists and dangerous groups to monitor conversation on other platforms, like 8Kun (formerly 8chan) and 4chan, in an effort to prevent talk of violence from those platforms becoming popular on Facebook, the spokesperson said.

One example of work Facebook is doing on this, according to the spokesperson, is collecting and indexing promotional fliers being distributed on other sites for more demonstrations this weekend and on Inauguration Day. Indexing promotional material like this can help make it easier for Facebook to identify and remove that material from its platforms or prevent it from being posted in the first place.

The spokesperson said Facebook is monitoring and removing praise of or support for last week’s storming of the US Capitol from its platform. 

Facebook has passed on information to the FBI and is cooperating with the agency’s efforts to identify members of last week’s insurrection, the spokesperson said. 

11:32 a.m. ET, January 13, 2021

Google pauses all political ads until after the inauguration

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

Google will temporarily ban all political advertising on multiple platforms after formally designating the Capitol riots, the impeachment process and the inauguration as "sensitive events" under its policies, the company said Wednesday.

The pause will last from Jan. 14 until at least the day after the inauguration next week, the company said in a letter to marketers, which was obtained by CNN Business.

Google said in the letter that it will restrict advertising "referencing candidates, the election, its outcome, the upcoming presidential inauguration, the ongoing presidential impeachment process, violence at the US Capitol, or future planned protests on these topics."

"There will not be any carveouts in this policy for news or merchandise advertisers," Google continued in the letter.

Ads will be banned from Google as well as YouTube, according to the letter.

In a statement to CNN Business, a Google spokesperson said the ban is driven by last week's Capitol violence.

"Given the events of the past week, we will expand our Sensitive Event policy enforcement to temporarily pause all political ads in addition to any ads referencing impeachment, the inauguration, or protests at the US Capitol," Google said in the statement. "We regularly pause ads over unpredictable, 'sensitive' events when ads can be used to exploit the event or amplify misleading information. Beyond this, we have long-standing policies blocking content that incites violence or promotes hate and we will be extremely vigilant about enforcing on any ads that cross this line.”

Google imposed a similar "sensitive events" ad blackout surrounding Election Day and for several weeks after. The company lifted its election-related moratorium on political advertising on Dec. 10, indicating in a letter to advertisers obtained by CNN Business that "we no longer consider the post-election period to be a sensitive event."

But the events of the past several weeks, culminating in last week's riots, suggest that determination may have been premature.

7:59 a.m. ET, January 13, 2021

Fact check: Man in viral airport tantrum video was kicked off plane for rejecting mask policy, not because of Capitol insurrection

From CNN's Daniel Dale

A video that shows an agitated man in an airport terminal, complaining that he had been kicked off a plane and insulted, has now been viewed more than 20 million times on Twitter.

Why has the 18-second video gone so viral? In part because someone on Twitter -- not the person who actually recorded the video -- added a caption that suggested that the man had been put on a no-fly list for being part of the insurrection at the US Capitol.

"People who broke into the Capitol Wednesday are now learning they are on No-Fly lists pending the full investigation. They are not happy about this," the tweeter, who goes by the handle @RayRedacted, said in the caption. 

Facts FirstThe Twitter caption was inaccurate: The airport incident was not about the Capitol insurrection. Rather, the man in the video had been asked to get off a Charlotte-to-Denver flight for refusing to comply with American Airlines' mandatory mask policy, airline spokesman Curtis Blessing told CNN.

Read more here.

7:53 a.m. ET, January 13, 2021

YouTube is suspending President Donald Trump's channel

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

YouTube is suspending President Donald Trump's channel for at least one week, and potentially longer, after his channel earned a strike under the platform's policies, the company said Tuesday evening.

A recent video on Trump's channel had incited violence, YouTube told CNN Business. That video has now been removed.

YouTube declined to share details of the video that earned Trump the strike, but said that after the one-week timeout, it will revisit the decision. YouTube also removed content from the White House's channel for violating policy, the company told CNN Business, but the channel itself has not been suspended or been given a strike -- just a warning.

Until now, YouTube had been the only remaining major social media platform not to have suspended Trump in some fashion. Facebook has suspended Trump's account "indefinitely," while Twitter has banned Trump completely.

Read more here.