The Sift: Fighting COVID-19 misinformation | Press briefings update | Twitter takes action

  News Literacy Project
Just as COVID-19 is overwhelming health care systems in cities around the world, misinformation about the pandemic — including conspiracy theories and state-sponsored disinformation — is overwhelming social media moderation systems and fact-checking organizations. Journalists, researchers and fact-checkers are requesting the public’s assistance in collecting and debunking rumors about the virus, and social media platforms are racing to build tools that can mitigate viral falsehoods.

A number of pieces published last week sought to help people identify these falsehoods:
  • Alastair Reid at First Draft introduced six general types of coronavirus misinformation to watch for, along with tips for checking dubious posts.
  • BBC Trending’s Flora Carmichael and Marianna Spring summarized seven steps people can take “to stop the spread of bad information” about the coronavirus.
  • AFP Fact Check launched a coronavirus verification hub with “debunks, tips and trustworthy sources.”
  • Natalia Antonova, of the open source investigations collective Bellingcat, prepared a guide to digital verification tools that can help people sharpen their fact-checking skills.
  • Daniel Funke, of PolitiFact, identified 19 COVID-19 prevention and treatment myths, making them easier to spot online.
  • CNN’s Oliver Darcy put together a helpful set of guidelines for correcting family members who are sharing misinformation about the virus.
This rich collection of guides and resources can help you make a real difference in the battle against dangerous COVID-19 misinformation; it can also inspire and empower your students to enlist in that fight. Doing so one of the most powerful actions we can all take.
Note: The News Literacy Project has dedicated a page on its website to information and resources that can help educators, students and the public during this pandemic. We have also dropped the paywall for Premium access to our Checkology® virtual classroom for educators and parents engaged in distance learning or homeschooling as a result of school closures in the United States.
Idea: Have students review the resources linked in this item and create their own tip sheet or plan for combating coronavirus misinformation.
NO: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not say that SARS-CoV-2 — the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — can survive on surfaces for up to 17 days. YES: The CDC found genetic traces of the virus — not live samples — in cabins aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship that had been vacated by infected passengers. YES: A March 23 CNBC report about the CDC study (shown in the Facebook post above) had a misleading headline that inaccurately stated that the virus “survived” on the ship for up to 17 days after passengers had left. YES: CNBC later addressed the error by updating the headline and adding a correction to the story.

Tip: Responsible news outlets should add a correction or editor’s note when they make substantial changes to headlines. You can often spot a changed headline by checking the story’s URL, which often incorporates the original headline:
NO: The areas with the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 do not correspond to areas with the highest rates of vaccination or with mandatory vaccination policies. NO: Vaccines do not weaken or “hinder” the human immune system.
NO: Russian President Vladimir Putin did not say that Russian citizens who do not stay home for 15 days will go to jail for five years. YES: This fabricated statement was created by Nasir Chinioti, a comedian in India, who tweeted it as a joke. YES: It has gone viral on multiple social media platforms.
NO: Queen Elizabeth II did not test positive for the coronavirus. YES: UCR World News — a Kenya-based website that mixes news with false or misleading items — fabricated a report making this claim shortly after the United Kingdom’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced in a tweet on March 27 that he had tested positive for the virus. YES: That same false claim about the queen was published (with a Blogspot URL; see the Facebook post above) on Blogger, a free blogging platform owned by Google, by an anonymous writer who cited the fabricated UCR World News piece.

Note: Purveyors of fabricated stories such as these often try to capitalize on public interest about world leaders and other celebrities to generate clicks and ad revenue, especially in connection to other major events (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

Tip: Unreliable user-generated websites, like the one in the Facebook post, can blend in with credible sources on social media — so when you encounter a claim that is shocking or extraordinary, make a habit of noticing the URL of the website that published it.
NO: News organizations are not hiding the names and stories of people who have died in the current pandemic. YES: A brief review of local and national coverage — for example, this quick search using Google’s “news” tab (archived here) — disproves this falsehood. YES: Reminiscent of the “Portraits of Grief” published after the Sept. 11 attacks, The New York Times’ “Those We’ve Lost” page features obituaries of people who have died of COVID-19.

Note: Sweeping generalizations about news coverage or “the media” are often misleading or untrue. Make a habit of taking a moment to check the accuracy of such statements before reacting or sharing.
KUOW, an NPR member station in Seattle, stopped its live broadcasts of the daily White House briefings on the COVID-19 pandemic last week, citing “a pattern of false information and exaggeration.”

“We will continue to cover these briefings — but believe it is imperative that they are fact-checked, which is a challenge during a live broadcast,” the station’s staff said in a March 25 statement. Of significant concern, the statement noted, was “the potential impact of false information on the health and safety of our community.” (The first case of COVID-19 in the United States was diagnosed in Seattle in January, and the area was the center of the outbreak in February and early March.) The station added that the decision was not politically based and would be revisited on a daily basis.

Two cable news networks, CNN and MSNBC, are also wrestling with how to handle President Donald Trump’s daily briefings — part of an ongoing debate in which the inherent news value of the president’s statements are being weighed against public safety. Unnamed staffers at both networks “have acknowledged that airing Trump’s pressers live and in full likely amplifies the spread of misinformation about the disease and its potential cure,” Lloyd Grove and Maxwell Tani reported in The Daily Beast on March 25. But during an internal staff call on March 30, Tani wrote, CNN president Jeff Zucker contended that CNN’s audience should hear what the public health experts are saying and how the president answers questions from reporters. “As of now, “ he said, “we are going to continue to carry those briefings.”
Discuss: Should news organizations continue to air the president’s daily briefings live? Should news organizations provide live coverage of the president’s public statements no matter what, even if they are not accurate? Does the press have an obligation to protect the public from false information about the pandemic? Why or why not? Should news organizations cut away from the briefings once misinformation is shared or unsupported claims are made?
Twitter took action against several high-profile accounts last week for violating its recently expanded rules against “content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information.”
  • On March 25, the platform temporarily locked the account of The Federalist, a conservative commentary website, after it tweeted a link to one of its own articles promoting the idea of achieving herd immunity by intentionally infecting people with the coronavirus at “chickenpox parties.” That same day it also deleted a tweet (link is in Spanish) by Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela, in which he recommended drinking a homemade “brew” to “eliminate the infectious genes” of the virus.
  • On March 27, it deleted a tweet by Rudy Giuliani that was copied from another tweet — which Twitter also deleted — by the conservative activist Charlie Kirk, promoting the use of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 and attacking Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who Kirk and Giuliani claimed had prohibited doctors in her state from prescribing it. (Hydroxychloroquine has been touted as a treatment for COVID-19 by, among others, President Donald Trump; on March 29, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for its use against the disease “when clinical trials are not available or feasible.” Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs has warned physicians against “inappropriately prescribing” the drug to “themselves, family, friends and/or coworkers without a legitimate medical purpose.”)
  • On March 29, Twitter deleted two tweets by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro that questioned strict quarantine measures put in place by the country’s state governors.
  • On March 30, it deleted a tweet by Fox News host Laura Ingraham in which she claimed that the use of hydroxychloroquine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City had resulted in a “Lazarus”-like recovery for a “seriously ill” patient. (A physician who appeared on her Fox News program and discussed the use of the drug, and whom she identified as being “with Lenox Hill Hospital,” was actually not employed by the hospital; a hospital spokesperson told The Daily Beast that his views did not represent the hospital.)
Note: In October 2019, Twitter announced that it would not delete tweets by world leaders unless they violated the platform’s rules with no room for interpretation. Last month it broadened its definition of “harm” to “address content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information.”
Related: “Please, Let’s Stop the Epidemic of Armchair Epidemiology” (Tim Requarth, Slate).
Discuss: Should social media platforms remove posts containing misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic? Should they develop separate guidelines for public officials — such as heads of state — and for other users? Why or why not? Could public officials’ posts s — including those that contain falsehoods or other potentially damaging comments or claims — be an important part of the public record? Should such posts be preserved? Is anyone currently preserving such posts?
  • Politwoops is a website run by ProPublica that stores tweets deleted by public officials.
  • is a searchable archive of tweets, speeches and other statements by Trump and other officials.
  • Trump Twitter Archive is an archive of Trump’s tweets organized by themes and a searchable archive of tweets by more than 50 other public officials and figures.
The news industry continues to be hit hard by the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly local news, which was struggling well before the coronavirus began to spread. Despite the great need, and perhaps even greater demand, for credible COVID-19 news coverage (in response, a number of news organizations have removed their paywalls for articles about the pandemic), newsrooms have announced layoffs, cut journalists’ salaries and even stopped printing. Advertisers are “pulling back what they are spending, and refusing to allow their ads to be placed next to stories that report on the pandemic,” BuzzFeed News reported.
Discuss: How do local news organizations serve their communities? Why is local news coverage important in a time of crisis? What can be done to assist newsrooms that are suffering economic hardship because of the pandemic? Should news organizations continue to offer their COVID-19 coverage outside a paywall, even though they may be struggling financially? Why or why not? How can this kind of coverage be made sustainable?
Your weekly issue of The Sift is put together by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams) and Suzannah Gonzales of the News Literacy Project.
You’ll find teachable moments from our previous issues in the archives. Send your suggestions and success stories to [email protected].
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