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Friday, October 2, 2020

Dear <<First Name>>,

Welcome to today’s briefing. Coming up, we break down the disinformation contained in mail-in voter fraud claims, explore the Graphika exposé of the latest Russian-led influence op, and assess the pros and cons of Facebook Groups in countering misinformation. And, as always, we bring you some of the key online narratives from the monitoring team at First Draft.

Mail-In Voter Fraud: Anatomy of a Disinformation Campaign (Berkman Klein Center)

As one of the most polarized election campaigns in recent history comes to a head, mail-in voting is becoming an increasingly divisive issue. President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited his (largely unfounded) concerns over mail-in voting, even going as far as to state that it could be a reason for him not to accept the outcome if he loses in November’s election. This study by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center concluded that Trump’s comments are part of an organized disinformation campaign that was “an elite-driven, mass-media led process,” rather than a grassroots social media movement, as we have seen in past disinformation campaigns. The authors claim that the president, Fox News and the Republican Party helped reinforce the same message at key moments in this election year, “suggesting an institutionalized rather than individual-led disinformation campaign.” How do we counter this kind of top-down information disorder? Instead of Facebook hiring more moderators to monitor thousands of posts, the authors argue that traditional media houses must push back against the false narratives and “educate their audiences about the disinformation campaign the president and the Republican Party have waged.”

Step Into My Parler: Suspected Russian Operation Targeted Far-Right American Users on Platforms Including Gab and Parler (Graphika) 

Just weeks after the revelations about PeaceData, a subversive Russian-linked influence campaign targeting the American left, journalists and researchers discovered another US-focused operation mirroring those tactics, but with conservatives in its sights. “Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens,” or NAEBC (homophonous with a Russian vulgarity), was exposed as a Russian front, in the mold of previous Internet Research Agency “projects” that posted a mix of original, freelance and plagiarized content, used fake personas with GAN-generated profile pics, and worked to exacerbate general tensions in the US with inflammatory rhetoric. “The overall strategy looks unchanged: Energize Trump supporters, depress support for [Joe] Biden, and target both sides with divisive and polarizing messages,” Graphika’s head of investigations, Ben Nimmo, commented. But there were tweaks to the strategy. NAEBC was more adept at utilizing niche “far-right friendly” social networks, and while the three-month-old operation’s reach was largely negligible (NAEBC’s various assets attracted around 3,000 followers on Gab and 14,000 on Parler), it serves as a warning that, if left unchecked, these operations can grow enough to become a pernicious and malign presence.

Facebook Fights to Clean Up Groups While Pushing Them on Users (Bloomberg)

Facebook has made a big show of its efforts to tackle misinformation. And yet that mission has always been in conflict with its core goal — to increase engagement with its platform, and make money from that engagement. Facebook’s pivot toward Groups, in particular Private Groups, has already left investigators and researchers concerned about the vast sea of misinformation they have difficulty accessing. Now Facebook has revealed the latest stage of its plans to boost Groups, and there are good reasons for worrying that it could make things a lot worse. The company is planning to begin putting posts from Groups into users’ feeds even if they aren’t members of those groups, based purely on their interests. Facebook reassures that it proactively polices Groups, and won’t recommend ones focused on topics such as health misinformation and conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, past experience suggests that the company’s best attempts to ensure its engagement-boosting tactics don’t have unforeseen and damaging consequences often fall short.

First Draft teams in New York, Sydney and London, as well as across Europe and India, are monitoring social media and closed messaging apps. We won’t link out to specific content here to prevent amplification but we do share them in our CrossCheck community, which you can apply to join.

Trump’s positive coronavirus test prompts deluge of misinformation

The diagnosis of Trump with Covid-19 has sparked a dizzying array of misinformation narratives that are rapidly circulating despite a paucity of evidence. Some anti-Trump voices suggested that the diagnosis, which came after the news that Trump’s aide Hope Hicks had been infected, might have been faked to garner political capital, either through sympathy or to discredit the notion that Covid-19 is a dangerous illness upon Trump’s “recovery.” Others suggested a faked illness would create a pretext for Trump to resign. Social media users also circulated an image, apparently falsified, of a purported Trump campaign email aiming to raise money off the diagnosis. Members of the QAnon community are suggesting Trump is using the diagnosis to lay low for the anticipated “Red October.” A large number of copy-pasted tweets directed at the announcement feature Amharic text apparently celebrating the positive result and images related to Satan, which appear to be a coordinated trolling effort, also sparked claims in QAnon circles that the diagnosis is part of a satanic plot. 

Given that Hicks’s diagnosis cannot yet be directly linked to Trump’s, a prominent category of misinformation narratives concerns how he may have become infected. Former congressional candidate and Newsmax personality DeAnna Lorraine suggested Trump may have been deliberately infected by “the left” at the presidential debate. Another prominent narrative suggested Trump had been infected by the Chinese government, while others say Hicks deliberately infected Trump at the behest of financier George Soros.

Trump is reportedly experiencing mild Covid-19 symptoms. A number of voices are recommending Trump take hydroxychloroquine (which he promoted in the past), citing unproven claims the drug has a 100 per cent effectiveness rate against Covid-19. Australian MP Craig Kelly and former White House advisor Sebastian Gorka both suggested Trump take a cocktail of hydroxychloroquine, zinc and azithromycin. As the US Food and Drug Administration notes, no approved drug treatment options have been proven safe and effective in randomized controlled trials.

An a-llama-ing banana

Be well,
The First Draft Team

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