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Thursday, June 3, 2021

Dear Esther,

Welcome to The Daily Briefing, where we monitor misinformation narratives on social media platforms. If you’re a new reader, thanks for joining us!
Chief immunologist Anthony Fauci testifying at a Senate hearing last month. (Stefani Reynolds/REUTERS)

Anthony Fauci’s emails spark misinformation frenzy

The recently released email correspondence of Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the US, is being used to push false and misleading narratives about the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican congresswoman and conspiracy theorist, was one of several influential figures to inaccurately describe the emails as “leaked,” in a tweet shared at least 4,000 times. Government correspondence is broadly subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act; BuzzFeed and The Washington Post had made FOIA requests for the emails. Greene’s tweet contained the Twitter hashtag #firefauci, which spiked on June 2 after the emails were published, and propelled by posts from her and fellow Republican House member Lauren Boebert and Senator Rand Paul. 

Several other commentators latched onto an email Fauci sent in February 2020, where he suggested a mask would not likely protect its wearer against coronavirus. This email was the subject of an article in The Gateway Pundit conspiracy theorist website that has been shared at least 1,200 times on Facebook. The scientific consensus around whether a mask protects its wearer, in addition to those around them, had not emerged at that point; further scientific evidence has since supported masks’ benefits. The release of that email was also far from a revelation. Fauci had already been criticized for that early mask wearing advice — which he also publicly issued weeks after the email that Greene and others characterized as a “leak” was sent. 

Others used the Fauci emails to promote the unproven lab-leak theory. Australian journalist Sharri Markson — who has advanced dubious arguments in favor of the lab-leak hypothesis — highlighted an email from virologist Kristian Andersen to Fauci which, Markson suggested, showed Andersen acknowledging the possibility that Covid-19 could have been “engineered.” Andersen yesterday dismissed Markson’s insinuation of a “massive cover-up.” — First Draft staff

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A coordinated Twitter campaign spreading anti-Muslim messages in India. Tens of thousands of posts with the #VaccineZehad hashtag have appeared on Twitter. They appear to be part of a coordinated campaign following news of a purportedly Muslim nurse charged with wasting dozens of Covid-19 vaccines. 

Many of the tweets are spreading hatred and bigotry alongside conspiracy theories and false narratives — accusing the nurse of “turning jihad into an epidemic,” calling her a “terrorist” and saying “jihadis [are more] dangerous than corona virus.” The use of “Zehad” rather than “jihad” in the hashtag appears to be an attempt to skirt Twitter’s content moderation policies. Coordinated campaigns are becoming increasingly common in India, and First Draft recently published its research into another anti-Muslim Twitter campaign around Israel and Palestine. — Ali Abbas Ahmadi 

Promoted YouTube ads of a Belarusian dissident’s ‘confession.’ A new video on ONT, Belarus’s state TV channel, about the May 23 diversion and grounding of a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, and the ensuing arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich, aired yesterday. The film promotes baseless claims that internal wrangling within the Belarusian opposition led to Protasevich’s arrest, and features excerpts from his testimony in jail, including one where he claims to have been “set up.” 

Previous videos of Protasevich and other jailed activists’ confessions continue to proliferate online, despite concerns among human rights groups and others that they were recorded under duress. One such video has also been promoted as YouTube ads, including by state outlet BelTA. YouTube said earlier that it had removed two ads featuring Protasevich’s confession. Many Twitter users, including the editor-in-chief of the Telegram channel previously run by Protasevich, say the platform is not doing enough. — Yevgeny Kuklychev

Check out the Vaccine Misinformation Insights Report.

The second installment of our new four-part monthly series brings you the latest trends, narratives and insights about vaccine misinformation to inform your reporting, campaigns and responses online.
  • More evidence emerged that the Trump administration spied on journalists. The New York Times is the latest news outlet to report that the Department of Justice secretly obtained phone records of its journalists in 2017. Last month, the department disclosed Trump-era seizures of phone logs and email records of Washington Post and CNN reporters, respectively.
  • Social media users falsely claimed Trump’s Facebook account had been restored. The confusion appears to have stemmed from the fact that Trump’s old Facebook and Instagram posts remain live. The former president was blocked from making new posts as of January. 
  • Russia’s VTimes said it will close following ‘foreign agent’ designation. One of the country’s last remaining independent news outlets is set to shutter June 12 after being designated with the status, which often entails fines, loss of advertising revenues and trumped-up charges.
  • Twitter removed a post by Nigeria’s president. The company said Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet threatened violence and violated its abusive behavior policy. Buhari is overseeing a crackdown against separatists in the southeast.
  • The UK hit a vaccine milestone, and warned about misinformation. Three-quarters of adults have received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose. But “the speed of misinformation is a deadly threat,” health secretary Matt Hancock said at a global meeting chaired by the UK.
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