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
121 Posts
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7:13 a.m. ET, December 9, 2020

Twitter says Arizona GOP tweets asking if supporters are ready to die for Trump do not violate its policies

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

A pair of tweets by the Arizona Republican Party asking supporters if they are willing to sacrifice their lives to challenge the official presidential election results do not violate Twitter’s rules, a company spokesperson told CNN Tuesday. 

In the early morning hours of Dec. 8, the Twitter account @AZGOP quote-tweeted an activist associated with the so-called #StoptheSteal movement, which is devoted to opposing the election outcome — despite statements by many election officials that the 2020 election was among the most secure in history. 

“I am willing to give my life for this fight,” tweeted Ali Alexander, an organizer of the movement. 

 Arizona Republicans then followed up by quoting Alexander’s tweet.

“He is. Are you?” @AZGOP tweeted. The account then shared, in a now-deleted tweet, a quote and video clip from the 2008 film “Rambo IV:” “Live for nothing, or die for something.”

“The Republican Party of Arizona condemns all forms of violence in the strongest terms," Arizona GOP spokesman Zachery Henry told CNN Business. "Fictional movie scenes should be weighed in their proper context. However, due to concerns about copyright and fair use law, this clip has been removed.”

The tweets by the Arizona Republican Party sparked immediate horror from some critics. 

“You're asking people to die for this conspiracy theory? What in the living hell is wrong with you people?” tweeted Arizona state senator Martín Quezada. 

Some Twitter users who replied to the @AZGOP tweets claimed to have reported the account to the FBI and to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich for incitement to violence.

But others appeared to take the account’s suggestion as a serious proposal. 

 “I agree. This is the hill to die on,” one respondent said. “IM WILLING TO GIVE MY LIFE,” wrote another. 

According to Twitter’s policies, glorification of violence is prohibited on the platform, as well as specific threats of violence and wishing death on an individual or group of people. Twitter’s rules also prohibit the promotion of violent extremism and suicide.

"This includes celebrating any violent act in a manner that may inspire others to replicate it or any violence where people were targeted because of their membership in a protected group,” the policies say. 

Asked about @AZGOP’s specific tweets, however, Twitter confirmed to CNN that the tweets are not in violation of the rules. The company spokesperson did not elaborate on the company’s reasoning. 

7:04 p.m. ET, December 8, 2020

Social media bet on labels to combat election misinformation. Trump proved it's not enough

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

Around the election, social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter were praised for how quickly and widely they applied warning labels to misinformation.

But President Donald Trump's 46-minute video last week, which was riddled with election misinformation and conspiracy theories discredited by his own officials and the courts, has made unmistakably clear what many digital democracy experts have been warning for months: labels are not enough.

Social media platforms' misinformation labels, they've said, are inadequate and ill-matched for the torrent of false claims that continue to divide Americans and jeopardize their faith in democratic processes.

Within minutes of Trump's posts going up on Facebook and Twitter, the social media platforms sprang into action. Beneath the video, Facebook reminded users that Joe Biden "is the projected winner" of the election, citing Reuters and other reporting agencies. Twitter applied a warning label beneath the tweet containing the video clip, saying "This claim about election fraud is disputed." Google's YouTube informed users in a label that the Associated Press had called the race for Biden.

Read more here

5:25 p.m. ET, December 8, 2020

Fact checking Trump's month of shifting, consistently baseless claims for why he lost the election

From CNN's Tara Subramaniam

In the month since the election, President Donald Trump has grasped for seemingly any theory to explain why he lost to Joe Biden, no matter how outlandish -- dead people voted, poll watchers were illegally removed, foreign countries influenced the tabulation of the votes! Yet as his explanations have changed, they remain consistently untrue.

Over the course of the four weeks following the election, Trump sent around 500 tweets, 171 of which were flagged by Twitter for containing false or misleading information about the election.

Despite repeated denials of any wrongdoing from federal and state officials, there's evidence Trump's onslaught is having an effect. A recent Pew survey found only 35% of Trump voters say they are "very confident" their vote was counted accurately, much lower than the 82% of Biden voters.

Read more here

12:24 p.m. ET, December 7, 2020

Another debate earpiece conspiracy theory emerges. This time targeting Kelly Loeffler

From CNN's Donie O'Sullivan

Following Sunday’s Georgia Senate run-off debate, some social media users falsely claimed that Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler was wearing an earpiece, implying that she may have been fed answers. 

It’s a truly unoriginal conspiracy theory. The same baseless claim was lobbed at President-elect Joe Biden during his first debate with President Donald Trump and has circulated about different elections, even those before the social media age. 

Peddlers of the conspiracy theory pointed to a lock of Loeffler’s hair on Sunday night to claim it was a wire. 

The Atlanta Press Club, which hosted the debate, responded to the online claims Monday morning, tweeting that the candidates “had no audio assistance from their campaigns.”

Some of the accounts that pushed the nonsense racked up thousands of retweets overnight and at least one online outlet uncritically echoed the conspiracy theory in a headline. But there is a stark difference between who is pushing this baseless allegation compared to the similar claims made about Biden.

The Trump campaign peddled the idea that Biden would wear an earpiece prior to the first presidential debate as did Trump-friendly media outlets like Fox News. One video on Twitter promoting the conspiracy theory after the debate had 4 million views alone. 

While the conspiracy theory about Loeffler’s hair is circulating among some social media users, it is not a Democratic Party talking point, and it is not being pushed and embraced by influential Democrats in Georgia or around the country. 

But it does demonstrate how misinformation is not an entirely partisan affair, even though a barrage of baseless and false claims since the election have disproportionately come from the right. People on the left can be duped or eagerly embrace misinformation if it fits their biases. 

Stephen Lawson, Loeffler’s deputy campaign manager, responded on Twitter to one person who pushed the conspiracy on Sunday night. “You’re literally too dumb to insult,” he said. Loeffler's campaign declined to comment to CNN.

On the debate stage Loeffler refused to disavow a different baseless conspiracy theory pushed by President Trump that he didn’t lose the election in Georgia. “The President has the right to pursue every legal recourse to make sure that this was a free and fair election in Georgia,” she said.

The false claim that Trump didn’t lose Georgia has gotten a great deal of traction as it’s been propped up by a huge eco-system of hyperpartisan online outlets and TV networks with little regard for the truth. But it could backfire, some Republicans fear, as Georgia voters who believe the presidential election was rigged may not turn out to vote for Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue in the Georgia Senate runoff in January. 

CNN's Kyung Lah contributed reporting.

5:35 p.m. ET, December 4, 2020

Tweets about Georgia are rife with misinformation, report finds

From CNN Business' Kaya Yurieff

Twitter conversations about Georgia are full of unsubstantiated claims that the state’s upcoming runoff election will be fraudulent as well as other misinformation about the 2020 election, according to a new report from non-partisan research organization Advance Democracy.

From November 26 through December 2, four of the top five posts on Twitter about Georgia made baseless allegations about the election, according to the research.

Advance Democracy determined that Twitter posts included in the analysis were about Georgia if they contained at least one of a long list of terms and hashtags, including “Georgia,” “#gapol,” run-offs, #Dems4GA,” and the names of the candidates in the race.

"Citizens of the State of Georgia, who are about to decide what party controls the US Senate, are being bombarded by election-related disinformation on social media," said Daniel J. Jones, a former FBI analyst and Senate investigator, who is president of Advance Democracy. "Much of that disinformation revolves around the idea that the election is pre-ordained or 'rigged.' It’s hard to imagine that the prevalence of this rhetoric and the outright lies about voting will not have real-world consequences on January 5th."

Other key findings from the research:

  • Five of the top 10 hashtags used in tweets about Georgia in the last week implied voter fraud, including “#stopthesteal,” “#fightback” and “#dominionwatch,” the latter two referring to fighting back against election fraud and watching Dominion voting machines for election fraud, respectively.
  • Seven of the top 10 most shared links in tweets about Georgia in the last week were links to websites promoting election fraud, including right-wing sites.
  • Twitter accounts related to the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory continue to appear and helped amplify hashtags insinuating voter fraud.
  • As of Thursday, there are more than 97,200 active QAnon-related accounts on Twitter, despite the platform’s crackdown on such content, per the new report.

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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.