The Sift: Conspiracy outbreak | Location data and COVID-19 | Local news in peril

  News Literacy Project
A baseless conspiracy theory about the COVID-19 pandemic migrated from fringe internet communities into more mainstream conversations last week, spreading dangerous doubt about the seriousness of the pandemic in cities across the United States and around the world.

The theory — that the pandemic is a staged hoax or “false flag” event — had emerged among anti-vaccination and QAnon communities online by mid-March. But the idea was galvanized on social media following a powerful March 25 New York Times report featuring video of Colleen Smith, an emergency room doctor at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, who provided a firsthand account and video of conditions at the hospital the day before, when 13 people died of COVID-19.

Three days later, on March 28, Twitter user @22CenturyAssets tweeted: “#filmyourhospital Can this become a thing?” Hours later, the far-right talk radio host Todd Starnes tweeted (archived here) a video of “not much happening” at the Brooklyn Hospital Center — his neighborhood hospital, he says — to highlight “what’s really going on out here instead of what the mainstream media is telling you.”

By the following day, more than a dozen photos and videos said to have been shot outside hospitals across the U.S. and around the world had been tweeted with the #FilmYourHospital hashtag. In posts on April 1 and 2, influential QAnon adherents attempted to discredit Smith on Twitter and YouTube, falsely claiming that she did not actually work at Elmhurst Hospital, misinterpreting her background in medical simulation training, and picking apart the video she provided to the Times.

Also fanning the flames of the #FilmYourHospital conspiracy movement was a March 30 acknowledgment by CBS News that it had erroneously used several seconds of footage of a crowded hospital in Italy in a March 25 report (go to 0:45 for the clip) about the impact of COVID-19 on hospitals in New York City. CBS News has offered no further explanation about its mistake.
Note: Safety and patient privacy concerns have largely prevented the press from providing the public with photos and videos from inside hospitals, where the realities of the pandemic are most apparent. That may help explain why this has become such a focal point of conspiracy communities online.
Also note: Another widespread conspiracy theory falsely connecting 5G cell towers to the COVID-19 pandemic spiked online last week, leading to a spate of viral rumors — including a variety of false claims that governments are faking the public health crisis to distract the public and push through dangerous new technologies.
Discuss: Why are people drawn to conspiracy theories? In what ways could these conspiracy theories about COVID-19 be dangerous? What can we learn from the way the false notion that the pandemic is a hoax went mainstream with the #FilmYourHospital hashtag? How can we work to stop such theories from spreading? Can people be inoculated against conspiratorial thinking? How?
NO: The video in this tweet was not shot at a hospital in New York City. YES: It was captured at the Hospital General del Norte de Guayaquil IESS Los Ceibos in Guayaquil, Ecuador. YES: The same video clip has previously been taken out of context to make false claims about conditions in hospitals in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain.

Note: The fact check linked above, published by the Spanish fact-checking organization, is a good example of using digital forensics tools and methods to verify the location and other details of a piece of content. This tweet thread by Mark Snoeck, an open source investigator, provides additional evidence that the video was shot at IESS Los Ceibos by comparing interior photos of the hospital (from Google Maps and Flickr) with stills from the video:
    An image from Snoeck’s tweet thread compares two stills from the viral video (far right, top and bottom) with a photo of the interior of the Hospital General del Norte de Guayaquil IESS Los Ceibos in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to match details such as signage, electrical outlets, trim and door. used similar methods in its fact check.
Also note: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent several members of his cabinet a video clip of soldiers dumping bodies in landfills, claiming it was proof that Iran was concealing the number of COVID-19 deaths, Axios reported on April 1. According to the item by Barak Ravid, a diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Channel 13 News who also writes for Axios, the video had been circulating in Iran and was sent to Netanyahu by his national security advisor, Meir Ben-Shabbat. Netanyahu talked about it during a conference call with his cabinet on March 31, and several people asked to see it, Ravid wrote. The video was actually a clip from a 2007 Hallmark Channel mini-series, Pandemic. The prime minister’s office told Ravid that the cabinet members who received the video were told that its authenticity had not been confirmed.
NO: Medical masks are not intended to be worn two different ways — one if you’re sick (and trying to avoid infecting others) and the other if you’re not sick (and trying to avoid being infected). YES: The white side is absorbent; it should always be worn next to your mouth to stop droplets from passing through the mask and into the air. YES: The colored side faces out. YES: A number of graphics circulating on social media make this same false claim.

Note: This is a good example of how serious misinformation can be; a sick person who believes it could infect others.
NO: A doctor in Italy was not arrested and charged with murder for mistreating — and “killing” — more than 3,000 people with COVID-19. YES: This is a piece of “fake news” — a fabricated blog post designed to look like news to get clicks and generate ad revenue.
NO: You won’t find out anything about the check you may be receiving as a result of the recently enacted coronavirus stimulus legislation by calling the numbers in these tweets and Facebook posts. NO: You won’t find out anything about emergency food assistance, either. YES: The phone number 281-330-8004 is from rapper Mike Jones’ 2005 hit song “Back Then,” and the 800 number (which has been intentionally obscured) is a phone sex line. YES: Many people who shared these numbers did so as a joke; many others thought that the numbers were legitimate.
NO: There has been no confirmation that Joe Maldonado-Passage (also known as “Joe Exotic”), the star of the Netflix reality series Tiger King, has tested positive for COVID-19. YES: In an April 1 interview on Andy Cohen’s SiriusXM radio program, Maldonado-Passage’s husband, Dillon Passage, said that Maldonado-Passage was recently transferred and placed “on COVID-19 isolation” at the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, because “there were cases” at the facility where he had been housed. NO: None of the inmates at that facility — the Grady County Jail in Chickasha, Oklahoma — have tested positive for the virus, Grady County District Attorney Jason Hicks told The Oklahoman on April 2. YES: An April 2 post on Maldonado-Passage’s Facebook page says that he does not have COVID-19.

Note: The Daily Mirror’s headline and article have been revised (to say he “could have contracted” COVID-19), but some previews of the piece on social media still show the false claim (above).

Also note: Commenting on a loss of any kind — in the Facebook post above, a presumptive COVID-19 diagnosis — with “Press F” or “F” is an internet slang expression for paying respects. It originated in the video game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare — in which players are prompted to “Press F to Pay Respects” in a particular scene — and is a popular response used to mourn the suspension of social media accounts in extremist communities (see this recent example) online.
Google announced on April 3 that it had started publishing “aggregated, anonymized” data to help public health officials better understand how to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The company’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports portal provides a snapshot of activity (for example, pings from cellphones and other mobile devices that have Location History services turned on) based on this data for six general location categories — including parks, transit stations, workplaces and residences — compared with baseline activity on a corresponding day between Jan. 3 and Feb. 6.

A number of countries have used such data to track and combat the spread of the coronavirus — some in aggressive ways that overtly infringe on individual privacy. South Korea, for example, sends text messages sharing the location history of individuals who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. In Taiwan, the government has instituted an “electric fence” that notifies the police when someone in quarantine leaves their residence or turns off their phone.
Note: In addition to Google, several other companies have released location data and analyses. On March 24, Tectonix, a data visualization firm, tweeted a map it had created with X-Mode, a location tracking services company, showing where vacationers went after visiting Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for spring break. New York Times reporters analyzed a location dataset of 15 million cellphone users provided by Cuebiq, a data intelligence company, and published their findings on April 2 and April 3.
Related: “Governments around the world are increasingly using location data to manage the coronavirus” (Kim Lyons, The Verge).
Discuss: How do privacy laws differ around the world? Is it ethical for advertisers to use location data to target consumers? Should governments make exceptions to privacy laws to fight the spread of COVID-19? Is the release of aggregated, anonymized data — meaning that that the tracked movements and contacts are not linked to an identifiable individual — ethical? Why or why not?
Two events last week highlighted the issue of press freedoms. On March 30, the Committee to Protect Journalists launched a campaign, #FreeThePress, calling for all governments to “immediately and unconditionally” free all imprisoned journalists amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They “have no control over their surroundings, cannot choose to isolate, and are often denied necessary medical care,” CPJ said in a statement, adding: “For journalists jailed in countries affected by the virus, freedom is now a matter of life and death.” CPJ estimates that more than 250 journalists are currently behind bars.

On April 2, a court in Pakistan’s Sindh province acquitted four men who had been convicted of murder and kidnapping for ransom charges in the 2002 abduction and death of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl. The next day, before the men could be released, provincial authorities ordered their re-arrest, and Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said on April 4 that the acquittals would be appealed to the Supreme Court. Pearl had traveled to Pakistan following the Sept. 11 attacks to investigate militants’ links to Al Qaeda. He was abducted in Karachi on Jan. 23, 2002; his death was confirmed on Feb. 21.
Discuss: What leads some governments to jail journalists? Which countries have the most journalists in jail? Should all countries free imprisoned journalists, as the Committee to Protect Journalists has called for?
Resource: “Press Freedoms Around the World” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).
The news industry, especially at the local level, is continuing to suffer blows from the economic fallout of COVID-19. Even though demand for news about the pandemic has surged and subscriptions have risen (even as paywalls are lowered for coronavirus coverage), advertising revenue — which news organizations depend on — is declining. As a result, during the last week alone, a growing number of news organizations have slashed pay, laid off or furloughed staff, devised new ways to generate revenue, cut production of print editions and announced that they were shutting down. Some local newsroom leaders are even considering applying for coronavirus relief loans from the federal government — a move that would signal an ethical shift in journalism.
Note: In Chicago, the move to digital platforms for public meetings has hindered journalists’ ability to cover those sessions. (In addition, many regularly scheduled meetings have been canceled or postponed.)
Your weekly issue of The Sift is put together by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams) and Suzannah Gonzales of the News Literacy Project.
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