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Friday, November 13, 2020

Dear <<First Name>>,

Welcome to today’s briefing. Coming up, we look at a busy week of deceptive narratives about voting in Pennsylvania and pro-Trump posts spreading anti-vaccination narratives in sub-Saharan Africa. And, as always, we bring you our digest of top articles, media investigations and scientific research centered around the theme of information disorder.

First Draft teams in New York, Sydney and London, as well as across Europe and India, are monitoring social media and closed messaging apps. For more in-depth information about the content highlighted here, you can apply to join our CrossCheck community.

False claims about Pennsylvania vote gain steam

Deceptive narratives continue to spread about the swing state of Pennsylvania, where the vote tally pushed Joe Biden past the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the US presidential election. One US Postal Service worker last week claimed to have overheard instructions to illegally backdate ballots, only to recant those claims Monday. The postal worker has subsequently denied his recant and launched a fundraising effort on the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo, after GoFundMe put two of his campaigns on hold for violating its terms of service. News of GoFundMe’s decision pushed the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., to accuse GoFundMe of political bias and “flagging a whistleblower” in a post that attracted more than 10,000 retweets, with calls to abandon GoFundMe being made on Parler. As of Friday morning, $225,000 has been raised by more than 5,400 donors for the postal worker on GiveSendGo.    

On Tuesday, false claims of destroyed ballot envelopes in Philadelphia were spread on Twitter by David Chapman, a prominent Trump supporter. They received more than 8,000 retweets. Al Schmidt, a Republican and one of the city’s top election officials, explained that ballot envelopes are removed in front of Democratic and Republican poll watchers to certify that all required voter registration information is present and accurate. 

On Thursday, President Donald Trump, who has yet to concede, tweeted false information about the Dominion Voting System. The debunked claim asserted that the election software switched more than 221,000 Pennsylvania votes from Trump to Biden, echoing a recent story by the far-right The Gateway Pundit website that regularly shares misinformation. The Trump campaign continues to fight legal battles and push false voter and election fraud narratives ahead of a November 23 deadline for Pennsylvania to file and certify election results.  

Pro-Trump posts promoting anti-vaccination narratives spread across sub-Saharan African online communities

In the wake of Biden winning the election, more than 200 identical Facebook and Twitter posts that promote Africa-specific anti-vaccination narratives on the back of other common pro-Trump, anti-establishment narratives were published, according to a First Draft analysis, from November 6-9. The posts build on the highly popular claim that Trump is “confronting” established media outlets and the “new world order,” and in these specific cases that Trump is fighting against nefarious “vaccine producers'' and “immunization promoters in Africa.”  

The messages, whose spread exhibits indicators of potential inauthentic and coordinated activity, has been predominantly shared across African social spheres and has resonated in particular with Nigerian and African Christan online communities. Several of the earliest posts have generated hundreds of interactions. The content, tone and visual imagery used in many versions of the posts mirror those of previous Trump memes shared widely around the globe. Those featured misleading and false claims, including explicit references to the network of QAnon conspiracy theories. 

In a similar vein, another French-language message circulating in Africa portraying Biden and Barack Obama as “more racist than Trump” and wanting to promote the “Bill Gates and Soros vaccine” was spread through identical posts on multiple large Nigerian and Malian Facebook Groups in a simultaneous manner. These narratives could further erode trust in public health institutions and immunization programs in sub-Saharan Africa, where — like elsewhere — vaccine hesitancy is thought to be an increasingly significant threat to public health. 

First Draft report

US 2020 Election

First Draft is providing journalists with updates on our investigations and other tools to help report on the aftermath of the US election:
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    • First Draft’s office hours have concluded. We will announce additional live support with our investigative research team after Thanksgiving.

Trump Won Florida After Running a False Ad Tying Biden to Venezuelan Socialists (ProPublica)

Recent GOP victories in Florida may have come as a surprise to some, but probably not to those monitoring the tide of disinformation targeting the Latinx community in recent months. An aggressive ad campaign and targeted fear-mongering about socialism struck a nerve with much of the community, giving Trump the state’s widest victory margin — 375,000 votes — in a presidential election since 1988, Jeremy B. Merrill and Ryan McCarthy write. “We saw a huge number of WhatsApp messages being shared in Venezuelan, Cuban groups, saying the governments of these countries that we escaped, [they] want Biden — so we should vote Trump,” First Draft’s Daniel Acosta-Ramos told ProPublica. These kinds of misinformation campaigns are not an overnight success – they are part of a long game that often involves “priming” the electorate, as this FiveThirtyEight feature shows. It’s the same sort of strategy Trump, who alleged rigged elections before the vote even happened, has employed to much success.

Misinformation Is Threatening Brazil’s Elections, Too (Americas Quarterly)

A vast country with hundreds of millions of people, a right-wing president who dismissed Covid-19 as a fake and a highly polarized election shrouded in misinformation. Sound familiar? Brazil, with its 140 million active social media users, has been a ripe target for disinformation, Robert Muggah and his co-authors note. Since Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 election, several public institutions embarked on a mission to “clean up” the information highway, including a parliamentary committee that recently exposed a network of pro-Bolsonaro blogs and accounts run by one of the president’s sons. The National Congress is also planning a federal “fake news bill,” but in a highly polarized nation, the state’s intervention could do more harm than good, Muggah et al. argue, and needs to be counterbalanced by social media companies’ own anti-disinformation measures, which so far have been very US-centric. 

The drip, drip, drip of misinformation on COVID-19 vaccine (The Boston Globe) 

To tackle vaccine misinformation, it is not enough to debunk individual social media posts containing falsehoods, but address larger narratives that form the backbone of these claims. This was the goal of First Draft’s latest research report, “Under the surface,” that looked at the English-, Spanish- and French-language information ecosystems. From conspiracy theories about Bill Gates using vaccines to microchip and track populations to a misleading article about people dying from vaccinations, these distinct strands form a sprawling online tapestry that fuels mistrust in vaccines. With a Covid-19 vaccine on the horizon, it’s vital that these narratives are taken seriously, or we risk “sleep-walking into a situation that will be impossible to reverse, no matter how safe the eventual COVID-19 vaccine is,” First Draft’s Claire Wardle told the outlet. 

No meowing over spilt milk

Be well,
The First Draft Team
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