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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7:07 p.m. ET, November 19, 2020

Facebook boots large anti-vaxxer group

From CNN Business' Kaya Yurieff

Facebook confirmed on Thursday that it took down a large private group dedicated to anti-vaccine content.

The company said the group was flagged for violating its policies on recidivism -- which stops group admins from creating another group similar to the one the company removed -- as well as violating its policies against QAnon.

NBC News previously reported on the anti-vaxxer Facebook group, which it reported played up stories of vaccine deaths and targeted grieving mothers.

Still, plenty of anti-vaxxer groups remain on Facebook. 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.

One group dedicated to stories about supposed “injuries” after vaccines has nearly 50,000 members. For example, one woman linked her childhood vaccinations to her later having seizures, hearing loss, wild mood swings and vision problems. In their descriptions, these anti-vaxxer groups include false and dangerous claims that vaccines aren’t effective and some push conspiracy theories about impending Covid-19 vaccine.

Public health experts say vaccines are extremely safe, and serious adverse reactions are very rare. Scientists have repeatedly and consistently debunked the most common anti-vaccine myth, the idea that there is a link between vaccinations and the development of autism in children. Reputable organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics say that vaccination for children is crucial to public health.

Facebook groups related to vaccines all have an information box from Facebook that says: “This Group Discusses Vaccines. When it comes to health, everyone wants reliable, up-to-date information. Before joining this group, you might be interested in information that can help answer questions you may have about vaccines. Visit the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

5:41 p.m. ET, November 19, 2020

Fact checking Giuliani and the Trump legal team's wild, fact-free press conference

From CNN staff

In a wild, tangent-filled and often contentious press briefing led by President Donald Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, the Trump campaign's legal team laid out its case for widespread voter fraud in the election. The roughly 90-minute briefing was overflowing with falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

At no point did Trump's legal team offer any proof for their allegations of widespread fraud. Jenna Ellis, a legal adviser for the campaign, said the group was laying out an "introductory statement" with more to come, and called the team an "elite strike force." Also working for the campaign, attorney Sidney Powell made extreme, baseless claims about communist Venezuela and George Soros supposedly interfering in the US election. Giuliani on multiple occasions made allegations citing individuals he said couldn't be revealed for their own safety and wellbeing.

Many of their specific claims have already been refuted by federal election security experts and a wide, bipartisan array of election administrators across the country.

Read more here

1:06 p.m. ET, November 19, 2020

Fact checking misleading claims over the Georgia recount

From CNN's Holmes Lybrand and Tara Subramaniam,

The Georgia recount for the presidential election, which was scheduled to end yesterday, is expected to confirm Joe Biden's win and find no widespread fraud. But that likely won't be enough to stop President Donald Trump from spreading disinformation about the results.

Throughout the recount, Trump has continued to tweet out falsehoods around Georgia ballots and his campaign has followed suit.

On Wednesday, the Chairman of the Georgia Republican Party David Shafer tweeted that someone monitoring the recount found a "9,626 vote error in the DeKalb County hand count," giving Biden 10,707 votes instead of the correct number of 1,081 votes." He also claimed the "error" could have given Biden's numbers a significant boost in the closely-contested state had it not been caught.

The Trump campaign retweeted the post, feeding Trump's narrative that the recount is a "joke" and rife with fraud.

Within hours, Twitter added a label to Shafer's tweet saying, "this claim about election fraud is disputed," because it violated the company's civic integrity policy.

Facts First: These claims are misleading and need context. State election officials say the county accurately reported its results after Election Day but that there was a mistake made during this week's recount. The error was caught, officials say, and was never at risk of affecting the vote totals reported for either Biden or Trump.

Read more here

11:53 a.m. ET, November 19, 2020

Detroit Republican who temporarily blocked certification of Detroit's results pushed election conspiracy theories on Facebook

From CNN Business' Donie O'Sullivan

William Hartmann, a Republican member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, who temporarily blocked certification of election results in the Michigan county on Tuesday, has recently shared conspiracy theories about the election and Covid-19 on Facebook, CNN has found. He also shared racist posts about President Barack Obama during his presidency. 

Read more here

12:46 p.m. ET, November 19, 2020

Disappearing 'Fleets' bring new misinformation challenges for Twitter

From CNN Business' Kaya Yurieff

Twitter launched its own version of disappearing posts this week, called Fleets, to some fanfare (and eye rolls). But it's had to pause the rollout as the feature has been plagued with glitches, calling into question whether the product was fully ready.

Unlike typical tweets, Fleets do not receive retweets, likes or public replies, with Twitter hoping they will reduce the pressure many people feel on social media. But ephemeral content will bring fresh challenges for Twitter, such as how it will effectively moderate misinformation, harassment and abuse on content that disappears after 24 hours.

The timing of Twitter's launch is curious – not only because it's adopting "stories" so many years after rivals – but also as it comes in the wake of a contentious election in the US. Ahead of the election, Twitter made several changes to its platform and created new policies to try to minimize the harmful impacts of misinformation. Though Joe Biden has been projected President-elect, that hasn’t curbed the flow of online misinformation or baseless claims of voter fraud, which are being pushed by President Trump and his allies on Twitter.

The company said it labeled about 300,000 tweets for content that was disputed or potentially misleading during a two-week period covering the election, and its aggressive efforts to provide context on such content continue.

How effectively and consistently Twitter will tackle misinformation or abuse in Fleets is an open question. Twitter spokesperson Aly Pavela said Fleets will be subject to the same rules as regular tweets. For example, if President Trump decides to Fleet misinformation, the Fleet would receive a similar fact-check label as a tweet would.

Twitter will rely on user flags to manage abuse on Fleets, as well as its automated systems. Users can report a Fleet as abusive or harmful, misleading about a political election or other civic event or say it expresses intentions of self-harm or suicide.

Extremism researcher Marc-Andre Argentino experimented with sharing a variety of misinformation and hateful content in Fleets, and most were not marked with a warning label.

For example, a Fleet that falsely said "Vaccines don't work" and one containing an untrue conspiracy theory about Covid-19, were left untouched. Meanwhile, Argentino's Fleet saying "5g causes covid" -- another baseless conspiracy theory -- had a warning before it.

The warning label said: "Some or all of the content shared in this Fleet conflicts with guidance from public health experts regarding COVID-19." Users had to click through the warning before viewing the Fleet.

It's unclear why Twitter took action on the latter conspiracy theory, but not the former. Twitter's lengthy policies about Covid-19 misinformation say: "We will continue to remove demonstrably false or potentially misleading content that has the highest risk of causing harm."

"We are always listening to feedback and working to improve Twitter to make sure it’s safe for people to contribute to the public conversation," Pavela said. "We’ll take enforcement action against any Twitter rule violations in Fleets accordingly."

It's worth noting a lot of content beyond Fleets goes unmoderated on Twitter, even when it violates its rules, but because Fleets disappear so quickly, it will likely be harder for the company to take action fast enough. The company said its systems will store Fleets for a limited amount of time past their 24 hour expiration to give it more time to review user flags and potentially take action. However, by that point it would be too late to label misinformation.

There are also other concerns with Fleets raising questions about whether the product was ready to be fully rolled out. Beyond general glitches and lag, there is a loophole which allows someone to tag you in a Fleet even if you've blocked them, opening the door for potential harassment. (Twitter said it's working to fix this).

Late Wednesday, Twitter said it was "slowing down" the rollout of Fleets to fix "performance and stability problems."

When asked on a call with reporters earlier this week about how the company will approach moderation as it rolls out Fleets and tests new audio-focused features, Christine Su, senior product manager at Twitter said: “It’s really important for us to be building controls and features that people can take with them to feel more comfortable and safe as they move through the variety of spaces that we’re building.”

She added that the company is doing “a ton” behind the scenes with expanding its rules and policies to prevent abuse and harassment before it happens, although she didn’t elaborate further. “We’re going to continue to do that with every space that we’re working on," Su said.

10:31 a.m. ET, November 19, 2020

Trump baselessly claims Georgia will 'flip Republican'

From CNN's Betsy Klein

President Donald Trump continues to baselessly claim that the election results will shift in his favor in Georgia, where the state plans to announce the results of the statewide audit around noon on Thursday.

Trump baselessly claimed the results would change after signature matching in a tweet and made accusations of widespread fraud, despite no credible evidence, in another tweet, both aimed at Gov. Brian Kemp, a Trump ally.

But Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger told CNN’s Jake Tapper Wednesday that once the audit ends, he believes Biden will carry the state and that they have “not seen widespread voter fraud.”

The Republican leader also intimated that Trump lost Georgia because he questioned the mail-in ballot process in the fall, saying: “24,000 Republicans that actually voted absentee in the June primary did not come out in the Fall and vote. They did not vote absentee nor did they vote in early voting or the day of the election. 24,000… that’s the margin right there.”

The Secretary of State plans to post county-by-county tallies with timestamp, so the public can view the results of the audit. Georgia’s voting systems implementation manager Gabriel Sterling said that the state has finished auditing virtually all ballots from the presidential race. About 5 million Georgians voted. The Secretary has until Friday to certify the results.

Trump would have two business days after state certification to ask for a recount. Trump called on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to “get it done!”

Trump tweeted: "Thousands of uncounted votes discovered in Georgia counties. When the much more important signature match takes place, the State will flip Republican, and very quickly. Get it done! @BrianKempGA

In a separate tweet, he said: "Almost ZERO ballots rejected in Georgia this election. In years past, close to 4%. Not possible. Must have signature check on envelopes now. Very easy to do. Dems fighting because they got caught. Far more votes than needed for flip. Republicans must get tough! @BrianKempGA"

As of 10:30 am ET on Thursday, neither tweet was labeled by Twitter.

5:57 p.m. ET, November 18, 2020

Republican who temporarily blocked certification of a Michigan county’s results shared election conspiracy theories on Facebook 

From CNN's Donie O'Sullivan and Annie Grayer 

William Hartmann, a Republican member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, who temporarily blocked certification of election results in the Michigan county on Tuesday, has recently shared conspiracy theories about the election and Covid-19 on Facebook, CNN has found. He also shared racist posts about President Barack Obama during his presidency. 

On Tuesday, he was one of two Republicans on the four-person Wayne County bipartisan canvassing board to temporarily block certification of votes based on dubious claims of voting irregularities in Detroit.

The initial vote against certification drew the attention of the President, who posted a series of tweets praising the GOP members of the canvassing board for "having courage." 

After a few hours, however, Hartmann and his Republican colleague voted to certify the votes. 

On Saturday, November 7th, the day major news outlets projected Joe Biden President-elect, Hartmann posted on Facebook, “I'm reading the news on how great things are now that Biden and Harris are in as declared by the MSM. What will happen if it doesn't happen once the official results are tallied? I wouldn't sell the farm yet.” 

Later that day, he wrote, “I’m not really one to promote conspiracy theories” but told his Facebook friends to look up “hammer and scorecard” a conspiracy theory that has been widely debunked but did go viral after the election. 

On November 9th, Hartmann furthered a conspiracy theory pushed by some Trump supporters that suggested the timing of the announcement of a Covid-19 vaccine was politically-motivated. “As predicted: Not even a week after the election and they've now got a covid vaccine that's 90% effective.”

CNN has reached out to Hartmann for comment through social media, email and though phone numbers listed as being associated with him.

In October, he shared a link to an OAN video that pushed a widely debunked conspiracy theory that claims hospitals are inflating the Covid-19 death-toll by falsely reporting deaths from the virus. 

“Eye Opener. Do the math. How much were Hospitals overpaid by falsely reporting?” Hartmann wrote. 

That post was labeled as false by Facebook’s fact-checkers.

Hartmann has shared multiple videos from OAN on Facebook over the past few weeks. OAN is a conservative cable network that the President has been promoting heavily in recent days as it continues to share misinformation undermining the integrity of the election. 

The relevance of Hartmann’s Facebook posts in light of the deadlock in Michigan were flagged earlier on Twitter by Del Quentin Wilber, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times. 

When President Obama was in office, Hartmann’s shared a series of racist posts about the President on Facebook that were still online on Wednesday.

The images in the posts equated Obama to a criminal and an Islamic terrorist.

Facebook removed one of the posts – which equated Obama to an Islamic terrorist – after the company was contacted by CNN on Wednesday. Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said the post was removed under Facebook’s hate speech policies. The company did not immediately provide comment about the other posts. 

CNN's Mi Seon Lee contributed reporting

2:21 p.m. ET, November 18, 2020

Google gets a pass from Senate hearing on content moderation

From CNN Business' Rishi Iyengar

Facebook and Twitter have faced immense scrutiny for their content moderation practices and efforts to clamp down on disinformation, including at Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee where the CEOs of both companies were questioned for over four hours.

But another big tech rival grappling with many of the same issues has been relatively absent from the conversation.

"Google has been given a pass from today's hearing," Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said on Tuesday. "It's been rewarded by this committee for its timidity, doing even less than [Facebook and Twitter] have to live up to its responsibilities."

Google-owned YouTube was criticized for not doing enough to deal with misinformation during the election, applying a far less aggressive strategy than Facebook or Twitter did.

The video platform placed an information panel at the top of search results related to the election, as well as below videos that talked about the election, but allowed some videos containing misinformation to stay online without labeling or fact-checking it.

Blumenthal argued that tech companies have only taken "baby steps" to combat harmful misinformation on their platforms.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Blumenthal's remarks.

This isn't the first time Google has escaped — or avoided — scrutiny from lawmakers, though CEO Sundar Pichai did testify alongside his counterparts from Facebook and Twitter last month.

Back in 2018, the Senate Intelligence Committee set up an empty chair with a placard for Google next to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg during a hearing about foreign use of social media to influence US politics, in a swipe at the company's refusal to offer up Pichai or another high-level executive to testify.

1:27 p.m. ET, November 18, 2020

Trump continues to claim he won the election. He did not.

From CNN's Betsy Klein

President Donald Trump continued to baselessly claim he won the election, re-upping the assertion in an all-caps tweet, on Wednesday morning.

“...AND I WON THE ELECTION. VOTER FRAUD ALL OVER THE COUNTRY!” he wrote, along with a link to a New York Times story that said he received 10.1 million more votes across the US than he received four years ago. 

That may be true, but amid unprecedented turnout, Joe Biden won by well over 5 million votes. And there is no credible evidence of widespread voter fraud. 

More misinformation from Trump in morning tweets:

Trump continued to spread more blatant misinformation on Twitter Wednesday morning, and multiple tweets have been flagged by Twitter.

Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump is too “hard at work” to spend Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago. He’s been bunkered at the White House with no public events firing off tweets, 12 as of 1:20 pm ET.

For example, Trump tweeted: "THEY WOULD’NT [sic] LET REPUBLICAN POLL WATCHERS INTO THE COUNTING ROOMS. UNCONSTITUTIONAL!!!" The tweet is presumably referring to Pennsylvania, where the commonwealth’s Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that a Trump campaign ballot processing observer in Philadelphia had no right to stand any particular distance away from election workers, and it's up to counties to decide where poll watchers can stand.

This claim on the Georgia recount, Twitter says, is disputed. Trump tweeted: "The Georgia recount is a joke and is being done UNDER PROTEST. Even though thousands of fraudulent votes have been found, the real number is in matching signatures. Governor must open up the unconstitutional Consent Decree and call in the Legislature!"

Quoting a tweet on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, he also writes: "They didn’t even allow Republican Observers into the building to watch. A terrible insult to our Constitution!"

Trump also baselessly claimed the election was rigged with these false assertions: "This was a rigged election. No Republican Poll Watchers allowed, voting machine 'glitches' all over the place (meaning they got caught cheating!), voting after election ended, and so much more!"

Twitter labeled all of the above tweets saying the claims about election fraud were "disputed."