The Sift: ‘Othering’ COVID-19 | Bill Gates: Conspiracy theory target | Stay-at-home protests and Facebook

  News Literacy Project
Xenophobic incidents, racism and attacks against Asian Americans — based on false narratives that COVID-19 came from the “other” — are sadly predictable, says Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education and advocacy organization in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“Here is how the contagion of irrationality works,” he wrote in an April 13 column. “Someone blames it on China. By extension, the blame extends to the Chinese people. In a diverse country like America, blame — by pure ignorance — is extended to Chinese Americans (many who have never been in China); and because the ignorant do not discriminate between the varieties of Asian cultures, blame extends to all Asian Americans.”

It's a view shared by Russell Jeung, chair of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University. In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review published on April 14, he discussed the role of news organizations in reducing such attacks — by, for example, providing broader coverage of Asian Americans and using accurate terms (such as “COVID-19” instead of “the Chinese virus”). Having reporters who are culturally sensitive and can communicate in communities where English may not be widely spoken can also help, he said.

Jeung and his graduate students have analyzed xenophobia and discrimination in COVID-19 news coverage, and he has helped to collect firsthand accounts of anti-Asian violence. Among the patterns they saw in global English-language news reports about the pandemic were these: First came racialized memes about eating Chinese food (including eating bats, which were a possible source of the coronavirus) and wearing masks (a common sight in Asian countries during flu season). Those were followed by reports on cancellations of Lunar New Year events and the decline of Chinese businesses. Next came worldwide reports about racism against Asians.

Media outlets “could be contributing to the xenophobia by calling the virus the ‘Chinese virus,’ calling it the ‘Wuhan virus,’ by showing pictures of Chinese people wearing masks when they’re talking about the virus, or running stories about conspiracy theories,” Jeung told CJR. (The Jan. 27 issue of The Sift referred to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan coronavirus”; other news organizations used the same language around that time.)

But when he and his students looked solely at U.S. domestic news coverage, those anti-Asian patterns were followed by reports on elected officials, health officials and Asian Americans themselves speaking out against racism and condemning harassment and violence. Such reports, he suggested, may have been partially responsible for President Donald Trump’s tweets on March 23 that Asian Americans should be protected and that the spread of the virus was not their fault.

Still, Jeung added, Trump has “a clear ‘us’-versus-‘them’ dichotomy. We call that Orientalist language, saying that the West is different from the East. Therefore Asian Americans are considered perpetual foreigners. That language puts us in the out-group, and it’s easy to blame and attack the out-group.”
Related:
Discuss: How could associating COVID-19 with a geographic location contribute to xenophobic and discriminatory attitudes? In what ways would having a culturally and linguistically diverse newsroom staff be helpful in covering the COVID-19 pandemic? How would you rate your local news organizations’ coverage of COVID-19 as it reflects and relates to the Asian American community? How would you rate national news coverage?
Idea: Have students review COVID-19 coverage relating to Asians and Asian Americans since January from one standards-based news organization. Then have students summarize their findings, including whether terms such as “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” were used, whether any photos of Asians or Asian Americans wearing masks were used without appropriate context, and whether reports included first-person accounts from Asian Americans about how they have been affected by the spread of COVID-19 and the racial perceptions of others.
 
NO: The state of Michigan has not prohibited the purchase of American flags or infant car seats. YES: Pictures of American flags and infant car seats in cordoned-off sections of stores in Michigan circulated online with these false claims last week. YES: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order on April 9 requiring businesses staying open for in-person sales to “close areas of the store ... that are dedicated to” nonessential goods, such as carpet or flooring, furniture, garden supplies and paint. NO: A FAQ page about the order specifically states that there is no ban on the sale of American flags or infant car seats.
 
 
NO: It is not accurate to say that the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas is the only hotel in the city that has not donated food or rooms to emergency personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic. YES: Many hotels in Las Vegas, but not all of them, have donated food to local charities or rooms to medical personnel who are staying away from their homes to avoid spreading the coronavirus to their families. YES: Recent reports by ProPublica and The Washington Post found that no Trump Organization hotel is participating in local programs that offer free or reduced-rate lodging to medical personnel.
 
 
NO: Donald Trump did not send a tweet on Nov, 23, 2009, criticizing President Barack Obama’s handling of the H1N1 pandemic. NO: Twitter did not allow tweets this long (more than 140 characters) until 2017. NO: This tweet does not appear in Trump’s Twitter feed or on two websites — trumptwitterarchive.com and Factba.se — that archive Trump’s tweets. (He sent his first tweet on May 4, 2009.)

Note: Be wary of screenshots of social media posts that can’t be found in a person’s account, especially if they are controversial or too perfect.
 
 
NO: The Pentagon did not confirm that the virus that causes COVID-19 got into the “chemtrail fluid supply.” NO: Chemtrails are not real. YES: The white, cloud-like streaks from airplane engines are streams of condensed water vapor called “contrails.” NO: There is no secret government program or conspiracy to control the weather or people through the use of chemicals sprayed from airplanes. YES: A 2016 survey found that 10% of Americans “completely” believe that there is a “chemtrails” conspiracy; an additional 20% to 30% believe that these widely debunked theories are “somewhat” true. YES: This item originated with Aviation Daily, a satirical website for aviation buffs (its “About” page states: “This site publishes satire”) and was picked up by sites that promote conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation, such as the one that appears over the headline in the image above.

Related: “‘Chemtrail’ conspiracy theorists: The people who think governments control the weather” (Chris Bell, BBC Trending).
 
 
NO: These headlines are not faked or engineered to exaggerate the number of COVID-19 fatalities. YES: They are two authentic headlines from two news outlets in two cities. YES: Lenard Wells served in the Milwaukee Police Department for 27 years; after he retired, he spent seven years as an instructor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.
 
 
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Conspiracy theories falsely linking Bill Gates to the COVID-19 pandemic were mentioned 1.2 million times on TV and social media from February to April, according to an investigation published April 17 by The New York Times. These falsehoods — tracked by Zignal Labs, a media analytics company — include YouTube videos (the 10 most popular have racked up almost 5 million views) and more than 16,000 Facebook posts that have accumulated almost 900,000 “likes” and comments.

The theories — which selectively and inaccurately knit together quotes from Gates’ speeches and interviews, his connections with people such as Jeffrey Epstein and Bill Clinton, and details from grants and other activities of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — advance wildly false schemes accusing the Microsoft co-founder of having foreknowledge of the pandemic, actually engineering the pandemic, and using the pandemic for profit or to institute population surveillance and control mechanisms. As an example, a YouTube video posted on March 21 by the Law of Liberty Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, pairs a quote from Gates’ 2010 TED Talk with a comment he made during a Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) last week to advance the apocalyptic theory that Gates is the Antichrist and is using the pandemic to usher in the End Times. As of April 20, it has almost 1.9 million views.

The theories have also gotten traction among antivaccination activists, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who have seized on the moment as an opportunity to air their longstanding opposition to Gates’ vaccination advocacy efforts. Influential partisans have also amplified aspects of the false theories. Laura Ingraham, host of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, and Emerald Robinson, a correspondent for the conservative website Newsmax, have both repeated conspiratorial claims on Twitter, and former Trump advisor Roger Stone (who has been ordered to report to federal prison by the end of this month) invoked a number of them in an April 13 radio interview with Joe Piscopo on New York City’s AM970 The Answer, part of the conservative Salem Media Group. Stone’s baseless comments were then repeated, unchallenged, by a report in the New York Post that has been shared almost 7,000 times on Facebook.
Discuss: Are some conspiracy theories more dangerous than others? Should social media companies allow conspiratorial content to spread on their platforms? What has made Bill Gates a target for such widespread conspiracy theories? What is the impact on the national conversation of news coverage that repeats false claims without challenging them? What impact might these conspiracy theories have on the public reception of a vaccine for COVID-19, should one be developed?
 
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A spate of Facebook groups coordinating opposition to stay-at-home orders in cities and states across the country have been established in the last week alone. At least four of them — targeting New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — were created by three brothers who also manage a number of hard-line gun advocacy organizations and websites, The Washington Post reported on April 19. The next day, NBC News added a fifth group (targeting Minnesota) and a fourth brother to the list.

Some of the groups are sharing advice and even Facebook event descriptions with each other as they organize protests against what they consider “excessive” measures undertaken by states to fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus. At least 13 protests to “reopen America” have been held in the last week, with more planned in several states this week.

The protests have drawn a significant amount of news coverage and produced a number of shocking images, including provocative signs, Confederate flags and armed demonstrators. At the same time, much of the coverage has noted that these events do not represent the views of most Americans about the pandemic response.
Note: A Facebook spokesman told the Post that promotions of protests in New Jersey and California had been removed from the platform, saying that “events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook.” On April 20, a CNN reporter tweeted that Facebook had also removed events in Nebraska and was checking with officials in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin “as to whether anti-quarantine protests breaks those states’ social distancing measures.”
Related:
Discuss: Are these protests newsworthy? Why or why not? Are news organizations giving them too much attention? What could be the inadvertent effects of reporting on movements like these? Are members of this movement exercising their rights or endangering others? Should Facebook take action against the groups where many of these protests are being organized? Why or why not?
 
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Bloomberg News’ decision in late October 2013 to not publish a months-long investigation about the ties between one of China’s wealthiest men, Wang Jianlin, and the families of top Communist Party officials was back in the news last week after NPR’s David Folkenflik obtained an audio tape of remarks by Matthew Winkler, then Bloomberg News’ editor in chief, on a conference call with other Bloomberg editors and the China investigative team.

During the call, Folkenflik reported, Winkler expressed concerns that publication would “invite the Communist Party to, you know, completely shut us down and kick us out of the country.”

"So I just don't see that as a story that is justified,” Folkenflik quoted Winkler as saying about the report on Wang. "There's a way to use the information you have in such a way that enables us to report, but not kill ourselves in the process and wipe out everything we've tried to build there."

In 2013, Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, was attempting to recover from a substantial drop in leases of its flagship product, the Bloomberg Terminal, in China following a series of Bloomberg News reports in 2012 about the hidden wealth of the families of Communist Party officials (PDF). The terminal — the source of Michael Bloomberg’s multibillion-dollar fortune — provides real-time market data, analytics, news feeds and other services to financial professionals; in 2013, the price of an annual lease was more than $20,000. Ordering the country’s many state-owned companies not to renew their terminal subscriptions (or start new ones) was one way the Chinese government retaliated against Bloomberg for that reporting.

At the time, a Bloomberg spokesman said that the Wang investigation was “not ready for publication.” Last week, both Winkler and Bloomberg News declined to comment on Folkenflik’s reporting.
Related:
Note: Michael Forsythe, a co-author of the 2013 investigation of Wang and a lead reporter on the 2012 series, was suspended shortly after news outlets reported on the company’s decision not to publish; he left Bloomberg soon thereafter. In January 2014 he joined The New York Times, which published his investigation of Wang in 2015 after he re-reported large parts of it.
Also note: At a standards-based news organization, leaders should strive to maintain the independence of the newsroom. This includes ensuring that the business interests of the publisher or parent company do not influence news coverage.
Discuss: Do you think Bloomberg News’ decision not to publish the investigation of Wang Jianlin was the right one? Why or why not? Why is it dangerous for a news organization’s business interests to affect its coverage, including what it considers to be “newsworthy”?
Also discuss: What types of sources were used as the basis of NPR’s report? (See “Practicing Quality Journalism” in NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom.)
Idea: Have students review Folkenflik’s reporting (both the piece linked in the first paragraph and the link under “Related”) and The New York Times’ investigation of Wang Jianlin (link in “Note” above). Ask students to take on the role of a Bloomberg editor deciding whether to publish the report about Wang. Then ask them to write a short email explaining what they think should be done and why. Have them send their emails to their teacher or share them with the entire class.
 
 
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 thesift@newslit.org.
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