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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Dear <<First Name>>,

Welcome to today’s briefing. Coming up we look at the misinformation narratives amid the US rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, plus a new Covid-19 variant in southern England. 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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Pfizer/BioNTech US rollout revives vaccine misinformation

As the US began immunization against Covid-19 yesterday following FDA approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, misleading information spread online. Some posts drew on fears of the novel messenger RNA (mRNA) technology behind the vaccine, citing baseless claims that it’s capable of altering DNA. In the “r/Conspiracy” subreddit, which has over 1.4 million members, one post suggested the vaccine could be “used to basically program a body to do anything you want.” 

After a preprint study — a scientific paper that has not been peer-reviewed — claimed to provide evidence that RNA from Covid-19 can be “integrated into the human genome,” Dutch scientist Pieter Borger posted a tweet that read in part, “Stop all RNA vaccination experiments now!” Although scientists cautioned against making premature judgements based on the preliminary study, social media users posted links to it making unevidenced DNA-altering claims. 

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine rollout in the US also revived some other familiar misinformation tropes about vaccines. Right-wing influencers, such as Eric Matheny and Melissa Tate, advanced the conspiracy theory that the vaccine is a tool for population control in posts that received at least 5,600 shares. Others, including conservative commentator Matt Couch, drew misleading parallels between the vaccine’s reported 95 per cent efficacy rate and the “99.6 percent survival rate” of Covid-19 patients. — Keenan Chen

A new variant of Covid-19 emerges in the UK

UK Health Minister Matt Hancock told parliament yesterday that a new variant of Covid-19 has been discovered, predominantly in the south of England, as several areas in the country including London prepare to enter the highest tier of lockdown restrictions on Wednesday. Hancock’s comments and subsequent media reports are fueling unevidenced claims on social media that the new variant is being used by the government to push its agenda. One account with over 27,000 followers tweeted a fictional conversation suggesting the new variant has been fabricated entirely, with one character saying: “They won’t buy it,” to which the other responds: “Trust me. These people wear masks, alone in their cars.” The post attracted at least 8,700 interactions, including 1,600 retweets. Ivor Cummins, an Irish engineer who regularly posts anti-lockdown content and conspiracy theories, shared a meme on Twitter depicting Hancock and Prime Minister Boris Johnson laughing with an apparent suggestion that the new variant was invented to mislead a gullible population. 

The World Health Organization said on Monday that it was aware of a new variant of Covid-19 in the UK and that there is no evidence as of yet that it behaves differently to other strains. Mutations are common among viruses including Covid-19, which has caused some journalists and scientists to raise legitimate concerns over recent media coverage. Others such as David Kurten, a former Ukip member who regularly shares conspiracy theories, used these concerns to call for the end to lockdown rules in a post with at least 1,100 retweets. — Bethan John 

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: 

Last week, we looked at how online influencers have become powerful vectors in promoting false informationmisinformation flows through diaspora communities, and much more. Check out First Draft’s end-of-year series here

TikTok steps up fight against Covid-19 vaccine misinformation (The Irish Times)

With the US Covid-19 vaccination program underway, TikTok today became the latest social media platform to toughen its stance on vaccine-related misinformation, wheeling out a range of new measures and tightening moderation. Among the key updates, the company promised to direct users searching for vaccine-related content to trusted information and sources via special banners, and to tag videos with Covid-19 vaccine-related hashtags and keywords. The platform also vowed to improve its existing policy of removing misinformation on vaccines, noting that “Keeping our community safe is a commitment with no finish line.” TikTok’s latest move is part of a wider push to strengthen community policies on everything from self-harm to hate speech to vaccines. Similar initiatives have also been announced in recent weeks by Big Tech firms Twitter, Google and Facebook.

AI can predict Twitter users likely to spread disinformation before they do it (University of Sheffield — study)

University of Sheffield researchers, led by Yida Mu and Dr. Nikos Aletras, have developed an AI-based algorithm that can accurately predict in advance which Twitter users are likely to share false or misleading content. With a reported accuracy rate of 79.7 per cent, the analytical tool considers a range of factors including topics that the accounts tweet about (with politics and religion most commonly mentioned by disinformation-spouting users), as well as the type of sources previously referenced by them. The research, based on analysis of over 1 million tweets from about 6,200 Twitter users, could shed some light on the dynamics behind the spread of disinformation and aid efforts to clean up the information ecosystem. 

Mapping Worldwide Initiatives to Counter Influence Operations (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

As information disorder proliferates online, so does the number of projects and organizations around the world tasked with monitoring, fact-checking, exposing and countering all types of influence operations. To help align these efforts and maximize their impact, the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations (PCIO) created a catalogue of 460 such counter-disinformation initiatives — categorized by location, type of organization and focus area — that builds on other resources, including the Credibility Coalition’s CredCatalogue and RAND’s list of tools for fighting disinformation online. But even as the dataset highlights the scale and breadth of such initiatives, it also reveals existing gaps in geographic coverage, governmental leadership and terminological consistency. “Better collaboration across initiatives can improve their effectiveness and help identify new types of solutions,” Carnegie’s Victoria Smith writes.


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