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Thursday, December 17, 2020

Dear <<First Name>>,

Welcome to today’s briefing. Coming up we look at narratives around French president Emmanuel Macron testing positive for the coronavirus, plus an intelligence report about US election security due tomorrow. 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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Macron’s positive Covid-19 test fuels criticism and baseless claims

French President Emmanuel Macron tested positive for the coronavirus today, sparking a wide range of narratives online. Reports that he attended a working dinner that ran past midnight with other government members yesterday is leading to claims of hypocrisy, as France is in strict lockdown and has an 8 p.m. national curfew. (Indoor gatherings are permitted in some circumstances, and reports say that physical distancing measures were followed.) One account wrote, “The kings of the world, they do whatever they want...” in a Facebook post that attracted at least 14,200 interactions, including 6,600 shares. 

Other accounts are suggesting without evidence that Macron will be treated with hydroxychloroquine, initially touted as a Covid-19 treatment and whose most visible French proponent remains Dr. Didier Raoult, despite evidence it doesn’t work. A small number of social media users are also baselessly claiming that Macron’s announcement is a publicity stunt to get people to accept a Covid-19 vaccine. A Facebook Page dedicated to poetry and humor posted: “Do you believe it?? Not me, this is yet another Macron strategy to be better able to persuade people to get vaccinated ... !!!” in a post with at least 2,300 shares. — Bethan John

Conspiracy theories spread ahead of US election security report

Promoters of false claims that the US election was stolen from President Donald Trump are speculating that he will order extreme measures when he receives an intelligence report, due tomorrow, on foreign interference in the vote. One unverified Twitter user with over 69,000 followers asked, “Can we just go ahead with The insurrection Act, 2018 EO and round up and arrest those working against our Country?????” referencing the 2018 order mandating the report by the intelligence community. Another unverified user tweeted that the order “IS ABOUT TO BLOW THE LID OFF EVERYTHING!!” in a post with at least 1,300 interactions. Pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell suggested to the far-right The Epoch Times that the intelligence report could trigger unprecedented presidential powers for Trump, with commentator Cesare Sacchetti citing the interview and adding that “Trump can foil the coup by next Friday.” 

Contrary to the idea of Friday as a day of reckoning, the executive order mandating this report does not give Trump “unilateral authority to take action” such as ordering arrests or military action, but instead could be used to sanction foreign entities accused of interference. There is also reason to doubt that the report will be issued on time. John Ratcliffe, Trump’s director of national intelligence, is reportedly considering turning it in late because he believes it downplays China’s involvement. — Madelyn Webb

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 more. Read all about First Draft’s end-of-year series here

Combating misinformation in under-resourced languages: lessons from around the world (First Draft)

Countering misinformation is hard enough when one has access to facts, but what about communities that do not? Speakers of thousands of languages have little access to fact-checking services and verified information, so First Draft’s Marie Bohner and Global Voices spoke to experts from around the world to learn about their experience in countering information disorder. Endalkachew Chala of Halime University in Ethiopia explained that internet blackouts left the country with “two universes of information” concerning the Tigray conflict, while in India coronavirus-related misinformation from Europe infiltrated several linguistic minority communities that soon became echo chambers of false information, according to Rahul Namboori of Fact Crescendo. Individual organizations are attempting to counter the problem by employing native speakers of under-resourced languages and closely monitoring groups that spread misinformation, but as the webinar revealed, meaningful solutions must involve broader measures such as improving literacy rates and internet access.

Twitter bans harmful false claims about COVID-19 vaccinations (Reuters)

A spike in health-related misinformation amid Covid-19 vaccine rollouts is pushing social media companies to take extra steps. Twitter this week announced it will force users to remove new tweets that advance false or misleading claims about Covid-19 vaccines, following similar recent moves by YouTube and Google. The new policy will specifically cover posts that claim vaccines are “used to intentionally cause harm to or control populations,” Twitter said in a blog post. Facebook is also rolling out similar measures. Users who share misinformation will receive a notice that reads, “We removed a post you liked that had false, potentially harmful information about COVID-19,” and will be led to a landing page that features links to Covid-19 educational resources — encouraging them to unfollow the Group that posted the misleading content. The measures, which are some of the most far-reaching in the platform’s history, might help fight harmful content, but many wonder whether it’s too little, too late.

Algorithms Behaving Badly: 2020 Edition (The Markup)

As the massive amount of online information created, shared and monitored every day becomes unmanageable, AI-based algorithms are becoming an important feature of data analytics. But automating our decision making also carries risks. Crucial decisions — from insurance applications and medical care to self-driving cars trying to minimize accidents — are being outsourced to non-sentient beings and can result in bias. “An algorithm is only as good as the data and principles that train it,” The Markup’s staff write in an editorial voicing these concerns. The issue of racism — which hit the headlines earlier this month with Timnit Gebru’s accusations against Google — looms large and touches many other issues, including predictive policing. With a Pandora’s box of AI-based algorithms swung open, perhaps a frank discussion about its inherent vices and threats is in order.


Be well,
The First Draft Team
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