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Friday, October 2, 2020

Dear <<First Name>>,

Welcome to this week’s briefing. This week we look at a wild week in Trump-related misinformation, culminating in a deluge of false claims and conspiracy theories about his positive coronavirus test result.

It’s been quite a week for President Donald Trump and misinformation. Perhaps illustrating a theory researchers have been wanting to substantiate for some time, a Cornell University study analyzing 38 million English-language articles about the pandemic found the president was the utmost super-spreader of Covid-19 misinformation during the infodemic, appearing in almost 38 per cent of the overall “misinformation conversation.” That the report was published the day before Trump tested positive for the virus was ironic, to say the least.

Long before Trump’s test result became known, the week was already shaping up to be dominated by Trump-related stories and attendant misinformation. On Sunday the president had branded an exposé containing details of his taxes in The New York Times “totally fake news.” As it was revealed that Trump paid a meager $750 in federal income tax between 2016 and 2017, and no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years, Axios reported that the piece exploded online, becoming one of the most viral investigative news stories on social media during the Trump era. Using data from NewsWhip, a site that analyzes social media interactions (likes, comments and shares), the outlet determined that the story had far more “internet firepower” than the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, Cambridge Analytica, and a previous NYT story about Trump’s $1 billion business losses. It remains to be seen how the revelations will play with his supporters — although signs indicate that many remain staunch in their defense of the president.

Then on Tuesday, the televised debate between Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, triggered an onslaught of fact-checking articles and reports highlighting misleading and false claims from the president in what CNN fact checker Daniel Dale referred to as an “avalanche of lying.” Biden, in contrast, made few incorrect statements, said Dale. The debate nevertheless sparked a flurry of misinformation about mail-in voting and Biden’s health, as well as suggestions the Democrat was being fed debate answers via an earpiece. Building on the president’s unfounded allegations from before and during the debate, pro-Trump activist groups and right-wing media commentators on Thursday pushed an electoral fraud narrative designed to undermine November’s presidential election. Trump’s initial refusals to condemn white supremacists by name during the debate, instead name-checking and enthusing a harmful group, also sparked coverage from The Guardian on his pattern of extremist rhetoric.

But things climbed up another notch (or ten) Friday morning with Trump announcing he and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for coronavirus. After the bombshell tweet was posted at 12:54 a.m. Eastern time, the media sprang into action, outlining possible electoral outcomes and what this could mean for a leader who has repeatedly underplayed the impact of the outbreak. As much remains decidedly uncertain, social media is predictably awash with a slew of misleading claims, much of them verging on conspiracy theory. In all likelihood, the news looks set to dominate conversations leading up to November 3 and beyond — and who knows what else might happen, so better to be prepared. At First Draft, we’ve been running crisis simulations with newsrooms all over the country with great results — you can read about them and find out how to get ready in this thread.

Key to monitoring the presidential election in the US will be knowing who spends money on Facebook and Instagram ads, how much they are spending, and whom they are targeting. If you’re a journalist, a researcher or just interested in politics, this Twitter thread by Shaydanay Urbani will walk you through how to use NYU’s new Ad Observatory dashboard

Study Finds ‘Single Largest Driver’ of Coronavirus Misinformation: Trump (The New York Times) 

Health-related misinformation has been one of the core issues undermining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak, and has left the US trailing behind much of the developed world. Now a study by Cornell University researchers has established that one of the biggest drivers of such misinformation is none other than President Donald Trump. Researchers found that out of 38 million articles published from January 1 to May 26 of this year, more than 1.1 million (~3 per cent) contained misinformation. It included underplaying the severity of the virus, making baseless claims that the virus was manufactured by China or the Democrats, pushing dangerous “miracle cures” (including bleach, which was followed by a spike in poisonings) and attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The study showed that mentions of Trump made up nearly 38 per cent of the overall “misinformation conversation.” Lead author Sarah Evanega said, “That’s concerning in that there are real-world dire health implications.” This also fits a broader pattern of misleading content propagated by the president, his allies and his campaign, including ads pushing the conspiracy theory falsely accusing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden of wearing an earpiece in this week’s debate. The claim was debunked on Twitter Moments.

The first six months of the pandemic, as told by the fact checks (First Draft)

The number of fact checkers has risen dramatically since 2016 as the dangers of online mis- and disinformation have become more and more evident. So when the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, hundreds of organizations around the world were on hand. Their fact checkers set to work, producing thousands of debunks to stem the tide of seemingly infinite misleading rumors and hoaxes. While conducting research into the concept of “data deficits” (situations where there are high levels of demand for information about a topic, but a low supply of credible information), First Draft collected 9,722 fact checks about the coronavirus. These articles paint a picture of the infodemic, and how the work of those fighting it evolved during the first six months of the outbreak. The analysis also provides a moment to reflect, in order to prepare for the challenges ahead. With the prospect of “second waves” looming, and an online environment polarized over a still-hypothetical Covid-19 vaccine, the need for authoritative and accessible information about the pandemic shows no sign of abating.

“Anything that Causes Chaos”: The Organizational Behavior of RT (Oxford Internet Institute)

State-backed media is an integral tool of foreign policy for global powers, acting as a propaganda mouthpiece for governments and ruling parties intent on pushing their own agendas and narratives. In a case study, “The Organisational Behaviour of Russia Today,” a group of Oxford Internet Institute researchers, led by Mona Elswah and professor Philip N. Howard, explore the inner workings of RT, its adherence to the anti-West news agenda and its critical representation of Western government across all RT languages. The authors set out a framework for examining state-backed media operations, and RT’s role in the dissemination of disinformation and false narratives to support them. For example, they note, Russia’s Internet Research Agency made use of RT content to promote Trump during the 2016 presidential election, and to cheer on Brexit. “RT alone does not have the power to break Western democracies, and RT isn’t driving the Russian government’s disinformation strategy. But it is one of the most important content sources for disinformation campaigns of all kinds,” Howard concludes.

An a-llama-ing banana

Be well,
The First Draft Team
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