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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5:20 p.m. ET, December 4, 2020

Facebook didn't label some Georgia-related election misinformation, activist group says

From CNN's Paul Murphy

Facebook failed to apply fact-check labels on some election misinformation related to Georgia, according to a report from activist group Avaaz. 

Facebook has relied on fact-checking and contextual labels as a centerpiece of its strategy for combating misinformation about elections and voting, and it uses artificial intelligence to help determine what posts should get a label. Avaaz's report highlights some of the shortcomings of these systems as Georgia heads for a contentious Senate runoff on January 5.

Researchers at the non-profit analyzed 204 Facebook posts promoting 12 different disinformation claims that had been independently fact-checked and found that only 40% of them had a fact check label applied. Meanwhile, 30% of the posts had just a generic information label about the election and 30% had no label at all. The posts were found between November 18 and 20.

In addition to stating that information is false, fact-checking labels are vital because the spread of false posts is curtailed by Facebook’s algorithm. 

“Georgia voters are just weeks away from deciding the direction of the US Senate - and the direction of the country - and their News Feeds are being overrun with misinformation that could further erode trust in the election process and suppress turnout,” Avaaz Campaign Director, Fadi Quran said in a press release.

From March 1 through Election Day, Facebook displayed warnings on more than 180 million pieces of content viewed on Facebook by people in the U.S that were debunked by third party fact checkers, the company has said.

“We remain the only company to partner with more than 80 fact-checking organizations, using AI to scale their fact-checks to millions of duplicate posts, and we are working to improve our ability to action on similar posts,” Facebook spokesperson Kevin McAllister told CNN in response to Avaaz’s report. “There is no playbook for a program like ours and we’re constantly working to improve it.”

11:01 a.m. ET, December 4, 2020

Trump Pentagon nominee spreads debunked conspiracies and tweets suggesting Trump declare martial law

From CNN's Nathan McDermott, Andrew Kaczynski and Em Steck

President Donald Trump's nominee to become a senior Pentagon official spread debunked conspiracies on Twitter that called Trump's election loss to Joe Biden a "coup" attempt and shared tweets that suggest Trump should declare martial law.

Scott O'Grady, a former fighter pilot and Trump loyalist, repeatedly retweeted tweets that falsely stated Trump won the election in "landslide fashion" and that millions of votes were stolen from the President.

On November 25, O'Grady retweeted a tweet that said, "Trump won & Biden & his Comrades will now attempt a coup," next to a photoshopped image of Biden beside Xi Jinping, the President of China.

On December 2, he retweeted an account that shared an article that said former national security adviser Michael Flynn had shared a petition that called for martial law. He then retweeted the same account which suggested that Trump should declare martial law.

"I don't know who needs to hear this," the account said, "But calling for martial law is not a bad idea when there is an attempted coup against the president and this country happening right now."

Read more here

4:09 p.m. ET, December 3, 2020

Homeland Security agency will publish 'rumor control' posts through Georgia runoff

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency will continue publishing to its election-related “rumor control” website through the Georgia runoffs, according to Brandon Wales, the agency’s top official.

CISA, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, gained prominence in 2020 for its work to secure the 2020 elections — and after President Donald Trump fired its now-former director, Christopher Krebs, in apparent retaliation for Krebs’ insistence that the election unfolded securely.

CISA launched the rumor control website in late October to debunk misinformation about the election. Since then, it has tackled over 20 rumors, including misinformation promoted by President Donald Trump and his allies. On Wednesday, the website was updated with information about two new rumors.

The agency will not be letting down its guard until at least the end of January, said Wales, CISA’s acting director, during the Aspen Cyber Summit on Thursday.

“What I’ve told our staff is that our election security missions … will continue until all the elections are complete,” Wales said. “We will keep issuing rumor control entries as we think that the situation warrants it, and where we think we can have an impact. We’ll do that through the end of this cycle.”

Wales’ remarks reflect his second public appearance since taking the reins from Krebs last month. Wales testified on Wednesday before the Senate Homeland Security committee.

3:03 p.m. ET, December 3, 2020

Facebook to remove debunked claims about coronavirus vaccines

From CNN Business' Brian Fung and Kaya Yurieff

Facebook said Thursday that it will begin removing false claims about coronavirus vaccines that have been debunked by public health officials. 

The move is an extension of Facebook's coronavirus misinformation policy and comes as experts worry that conspiracy theories and baseless claims about vaccines could limit the number of people who get them.

Facebook said in a blog post that it would potentially take action against "false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccines."

"For example, we will remove false claims that COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips, or anything else that isn’t on the official vaccine ingredient list," the company said in the blog post. "We will also remove conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines that we know today are false: like specific populations are being used without their consent to test the vaccine’s safety.”

Previously, Facebook's policies banned misinformation about coronavirus that "contributes to the risk of imminent violence or physical harm." Facebook said that its new enforcement on vaccine misinformation will happen gradually.

The company has historically struggled to handle anti-vaccine misinformation on its platform. In the wake of a measles outbreak in the US nearly two years ago, Facebook promised to take action on anti-vaxx misinformation, including making it less prominent in the news feed and not recommending related groups. But even then, anti-vaxxer information was easily searchable on Facebook-owned Instagram.

Facebook recently booted a large private group dedicated to anti-vaccine content. But many groups dedicated to railing against vaccines remain. A recent 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.

3:03 p.m. ET, December 3, 2020

These Trump supporters say big tech is biased. Here's why they're on Parler

From CNN Business' Donie O'Sullivan

After years of standing idly by, companies like Facebook and Twitter are, to varying degrees, calling bullshit on some of President Donald Trump's lies — most prominently, his false claim that he didn't lose the election.

These social media platforms are still awash with misinformation and hate — and many critics of Big Tech on the left say the platforms still aren't doing enough about it — but to Trump's supporters, the steps Big Tech has taken to slow the spread of misinformation amounts to censorship. And some have begun seeking alternative homes online.

In the days after the election, Parler topped the charts of the Apple and Android app stores, and the platform has become a hub of Trump-backed conspiracy theories casting doubt on the election of President-elect Biden. Among the top trending topics on the platform this week are #TrumpWon, #VoterFraud and #NeverQuit.

Read more here.

1:45 p.m. ET, December 2, 2020

Fact-checking claims signature audits in Georgia would uncover fraud

From CNN's Amara Walker and Tara Subramaniam

President Donald Trump has repeatedly insisted the election results in Georgia were rigged while state election officials maintain there's no evidence of widespread fraud. In an effort to promote the falsehoods, Trump and his allies have continued to call for a signature audit of the absentee ballot envelopes in Georgia, while making false or misleading claims about the potential process.

Even after Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling angrily warned that "it's all gone too far" and "it has to stop" before someone gets hurt or killed, Trump continued to perpetuate unsubstantiated claims of fraud. In response to a video clip of Sterling calling for the President and senators to "step up," Trump tweeted on Tuesday night, "Rigged Election. Show signatures and envelopes. Expose the massive voter fraud in Georgia."

A week earlier, Trump falsely claimed on Twitter that an audit would uncover "tens of thousands of fraudulent and illegal votes," and suggested that a signature audit would ultimately benefit both himself and the two Republican senatorial candidates in the state.

Despite certifying the state's election results, Georgia's Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has also joined Republicans' calls demanding the secretary of state carry out a signature audit, saying "it seems simple enough to conduct a sample audit of signatures on the absentee ballot envelopes" in order to address any lingering concerns Georgians may have about the integrity of the voting system.

Facts First: It's misleading for Kemp, Georgia's former secretary of state, to suggest that a signature audit after an election would be "simple," even if it's just for a sample of ballots. Georgia's current secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, told CNN a signature audit is outside his office's legal purview. It would need to be ordered by a court, and currently, there is no basis to conduct one.

Read more here

12:36 p.m. ET, December 2, 2020

Facebook Oversight Board to rule on removal of post promoting discredited Covid-19 treatment

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

Facebook has asked its independent Oversight Board for a ruling on how to handle misleading claims about hydroxychloroquine, which has been baselessly promoted by President Donald Trump and his allies as a treatment for Covid-19.

The referral comes as public health experts and policymakers fret about Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation about the pandemic. Experts warn that false claims about Covid-19 vaccines could hinder efforts to administer it.

The case involves Facebook’s decision to take down a user’s post that claimed the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was being used to save lives. Facebook said it removed the post under its violence and incitement policy, under which the platform may remove content that it says poses a “genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety.”

Both the National Institutes of Health and US Food and Drug Administration warn against using hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of Covid-19.

A decision by the Oversight Board, which would be binding on Facebook, could powerfully shape the platform’s handling of Covid-19 posts moving forward.

The case is among the first to be considered by the Oversight Board, an entity proposed by CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2018 and which launched this fall. The organization consists of academics and experts on human rights and ethics. It has received funding from Facebook but has stressed its independence from the company through a number of guardrails.

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