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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Dear <<First Name>>,

Welcome to today’s briefing. Coming up we look at misleading claims about the first at-home Covid-19 test approved by the FDA, plus parts of England entering the highest level of lockdown restrictions. 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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Misleading claims about the FDA-approved at-home Covid-19 test

The FDA yesterday granted emergency authorization for an at-home Covid-19 test, sparking misleading claims in some online spaces. The swab test, made by Australian company Ellume, uses a “Bluetooth connected analyzer” that provides results in as little as 20 minutes. Although these types of antigen tests have a higher rate of false results than PCR tests, misleading claims about false positives were fueled by two viral videos that show a glass of Coca-Cola and a tub of applesauce turning up such a result. The videos attracted at least 702,000 views and 70,700 views, respectively, on Twitter alone. 

The German journalism nonprofit Correctiv looked into the Coca-Cola test and concluded that it was carried out incorrectly, adding that rapid antigen tests are designed exclusively for humans. The FDA had previously warned of potential for false positive results due to incorrect handling. Nevertheless, the FDA approval has resurfaced conspiracy theories of a “Testing Industrial Complex” in the US. One post by prominent anti-lockdown activist Jordan Schachtel on the subject attracted at least 3,600 interactions, including nearly 1,000 retweets. — Stevie Zhang

London enters “Tier 3” lockdown measures

As some regions of southern England, including London, enter “Tier 3” measures — the highest level of lockdown restrictions — misinformation is spreading online. One anti-lockdown Twitter user attracted more than 2,400 retweets in a post falsely claiming that death data from funeral homes and coroners shows there is “no pandemic.” The account also posted a screenshot purportedly showing a lower number of overall deaths for England and Wales in 2020 compared with previous years. While the screenshot appears to be based on 2017-2019 figures from the Office for National Statistics, the UK’s statistical body, this year’s data indicates that the age-standardized mortality rate in England has been “statistically significantly higher” than in all years between 2009 and 2019. Another Twitter user, who shares anti-immigration content, made similarly false claims about death rates, writing: “I’ve spoken to various people who work at different crematoriums. They’ve not noticed an increase in deaths.”

A post from Toby Young’s blog Lockdown Sceptics has also touched on Covid-19 deaths. The blog cited a Daily Mail op-ed stating that daily Covid-19 deaths in London are lower now than they were during the first wave in April. Although Covid-19 deaths in London are indeed lower, they have risen since late September.  — Lydia Morrish

Welcome to our series of articles that each share an important lesson learned about the challenges of disrupting misinformation in 2020. This week, First Draft looked at: 

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

Identifying ‘data deficits’ can pre-empt the spread of disinformation (First Draft)

As Covid-19 vaccine rollouts accelerate, subjects long considered niche — including mRNA technology and vaccine-derived poliovirus — are coming to the fore and resulting in “data deficits” that malicious actors are exploiting, writes First Draft research analyst Seb Cubbon. Unlike data voids, where search engine queries turn up few to no results, deficits are situations in which demand for information on a topic is not being adequately met by a supply of credible information. Misleading messages are disseminated and amplified online through a combination of information laundering techniques, including cross-pollination, automated translation and source obfuscation. But identifying and “pre-empting” these vulnerabilities is a key goal for researchers, and doing so “can be used to prioritize responses and in turn maximize impact,” Cubbon concludes.

French and Russian Influence Operations Go Head to Head Targeting Audiences in Africa (Graphika)

What happens when two covert online influence operations come head to head? A somewhat absurd online shouting match that Graphika dubs “More-troll Kombat.” On December 15, Facebook announced that it had taken down three separate “coordinated inauthentic behavior” networks targeting various communities across Africa. One, centered on the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, was linked to individuals associated with the French military. The other two, centered on CAR and Libya, were connected to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Internet Research Agency, dubbed the “Trolls from Olgino.” The French and Russian operations in CAR even tried to expose each other, repeatedly clashing in comments and cartoon wars — perhaps a glimpse into a worrying future facing online discourse. “Covert influence operations like those that targeted CAR are a problem for the health and credibility of democratic debate. Setting up more covert influence operations to counter them is not a solution,” the report concludes.

Right-Wing Embrace Of Conspiracy Is ‘Mass Radicalization,’ Experts Warn (NPR)

What happens when conspiracy theories go mainstream? Domestic terrorism researchers in the US are warning that it is leading to a rapid and dangerous radicalization of the American public. Although some evidence of radicalization can be observed on the left, Hannah Allam writes, right-wing extremism has led to frequent physical violence. And many Americans — including former DHS official Elizabeth Neumann — are watching their family or loved ones spiral down into conspiracy theory rabbit holes. “Unless we help them break the deception, we cannot operate with 30% of the country holding the extreme views that they do,” Neumann told NPR earlier this year. Though the dissemination of falsehoods from the top echelons of power is a contributing factor, the radicalization won’t stop when President Donald Trump leaves office — the erosion of trust in public institutions runs deep, and requires long-term, multipronged solutions.

They see me rollin. They hatin

Be well,
The First Draft Team
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