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Friday, December 11, 2020

Dear <<First Name>>,

Welcome to today’s briefing. Coming up we look at the false claims that Australia’s homegrown UQ/CSL vaccine is causing HIV infection, plus yet more unevidenced claims of fraud in the US election. And, as always, we bring you our digest of top articles, media investigations and scientific research centered around the theme of information disorder.

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Australian vaccine candidate termination sparks false HIV claims

Today’s decision to abandon Australia’s homegrown UQ/CSL Covid-19 vaccine candidate due to false-positive HIV results is leading social media users to falsely suggest that HIV was being injected into trial participants. Scientists who developed the vaccine explained that its signature “molecular clamp” technology, formulated with parts of an HIV protein that cannot lead to an HIV infection or AIDS, generated additional antibodies that led to false positives. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent anti-vaccine figure and nephew of the late US President John F. Kennedy, shared a video misleadingly captioned “COVID vax volunteers test positive for HIV” in an Instagram post with at least 164,000 views. Australia-based anti-vaccine Facebook Page Australians vs. The Agenda and conspiracy theorist Naomi Cook shared a similar false claim, with the latter adding: “Now they reveal the HIV virus was spliced INTO the vaccine??” in a post with nearly 150 shares.

A possible link between an increased risk of contracting HIV and some Covid-19 vaccines was raised by researchers in The Lancet in October. The researchers’ concerns centered on efforts over a decade ago to create an HIV vaccine that used an adenovirus (a modified virus) to transport parts of HIV’s genetic makeup. It reportedly increased some people’s risk of contracting HIV (scientists are unsure why). Some Covid-19 vaccines use the same adenovirus as a vehicle to transport the surface protein gene of SARS-CoV-2, but according to Science: “There’s no evidence that any of those adenoviruses increases the risks of an HIV infection.” The conspiracy theory Page “Block the EU Brexit Fee” shared it on Facebook without this context, sparking comments that referenced the conspiracy theory that Covid-19 vaccines are a route to depopulation. Anti-vaccine Facebook user Morgan C Jonas also shared news about The Lancet article without such context, asking the Australian health minister if he “cared to comment” in a post with at least 400 shares. — FD staff  

Misleading claims about Dominion Voting Systems in Georgia

Georgia’s House Governmental Affairs Committee met yesterday to hear complaints about the November election, including several debunked conspiracy theories and a pair of misleading videos about Dominion Voting Systems software that are garnering thousands of shares on social media. In the videos, Coffee County elections supervisor Misty Martin shows how the voting machine software could allow officials to change votes during the ballot adjudication process. While it is technically possible to change votes using the software, the video does not account for the fact that ballot adjudication — the process by which absentee ballots are reviewed because they contain errors or the voter’s intent isn’t clear — is bound in Georgia by a strict bipartisan process typically made up of a three-person panel appointed by Democrats, Republicans and county election supervisors. Nonetheless, one YouTube video featuring Martin’s claims has received over 100,000 views. A tweet from @anonpatriotq citing the video’s claims received at least 1,900 shares. It reads, “The Elections Official is showing how she can change votes and even add votes that weren’t there before. B0MBSHELL!!” The videos can also be found on Red State Nation and a link to a version of the video on Streamable was posted to, but removed from Streamable for violating that site’s terms of service. 
Coffee County is the subject of an investigation by Georgia’s Secretary of State’s office after a 51-vote discrepancy emerged in a recount of the vote there. While Martin said Dominion Voting Systems was responsible, she did not provide evidence for this claim. A press release from the Secretary of State’s office said it was a “likely possibility” that the discrepancy resulted from human error on Martin’s part. — Shaydanay Urbani

Welcome to our series of articles that each share an important lesson learned about the challenges of disrupting misinformation in 2020. This week, we looked at how online influencers have become powerful vectors in promoting false information, misinformation flows through diaspora communities, the disappearance of the line between online misinformation and offline action and the need for independent platform oversight in 2021, plus what the impact of prioritizing political disinformation over health misinformation has led to. 
Stay tuned next week for more. 

What Russia is really up to with its bold Covid-19 vaccine plan (Wired)

The race to deliver Covid-19 vaccines isn’t just a Big Pharma competition, but also a geopolitical one. Perhaps keen to project the geopolitical soft power of a “first in line” vaccine, Russia has embarked on a major promotion campaign since it approved Sputnik V in August, reports David Cox. It remains the most-discussed vaccine in parts of the globe including African media, even though it was surpassed in the perception ratings by its Western rivals there. Russia’s own scientists are questioning some of the data and the process behind the vaccine, but that has done little to detract interest from international buyers across several continents. One risk is that “vaccine nationalism” — Russian or otherwise — could come at the expense of ensuring the successful rollout and uptake of vaccination efforts across the globe.

The Lawfare Podcast: The Vaccine Misinformation Cometh (Lawfare Podcast)

Back in 2017, in the aftermath of the 2016 US election, First Draft’s Claire Wardle co-authored a paper drawing attention to the problem of terminology around misinformation: proposing the use of “information disorder” instead of “fake news” as a more accurate catch-all term amid the latter’s weaponization by President Donald Trump. So how has our perception of information disorder evolved in the past four years? What are the dangers of misleading narratives crossing the English-language barrier? Where is the line drawn between an innocent meme and a dangerous falsehood? What do policy makers and social media companies need to do to stem the tide of conspiracy theories and misinformation? Wardle addressed some of these questions and more in Lawfare's Arbiters of Truth podcast, along with highlighting the current “infodemic” — the prevailing data and knowledge gaps in our information ecosystem. 

After his pardon, Michael Flynn appears to be deepening his ties to the QAnon conspiracy theory (Insider)

Although once seen as an American hero, Michael Flynn has emerged as one of the most controversial figures within the Trump administration. After serving as the president’s national security adviser for just 22 days, he pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russia’s ambassador to the US (though he later withdrew his plea). While Flynn is no stranger to conspiracy theories and scrutinized media appearances — he was lambasted in 2015 for attending a Russia Today gala dinner in Moscow — he appears to have further embraced the QAnon “deep state” narratives since Trump pardoned him on November 25. The former general has since supported Trump’s many election-related falsehoods and repeated conspiracy theories about the Dominion voting machines. The QAnon movement has taken note: Some see Flynn as a martyr or Q himself, even if his confirmation of guilt implied in accepting Trump’s pardon didn’t sit well with many supporters. 


Made it, hoofray!

Be well,
The First Draft Team
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