The Sift: Outbreak of ‘Plandemic’ | Ida B. Wells’ Pulitzer | Barr clip controversy

  News Literacy Project
A 26-minute video pushing an array of dangerous and provably false conspiracy theories and other misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic ignited fringe communities last week and went massively viral before major social media companies took steps to remove it from their platforms.

Purporting to be a preview of an upcoming “documentary,” Plandemic relies on a single source — Judy Mikovits, a discredited scientist — to vaguely contend that a powerful cabal of public health officials and others is exaggerating the current outbreak and seeking to exploit it for profit. Mikovits also makes a number of demonstrably false medical statements, including that wearing a mask “activates” viruses that people might be carrying and that “healing microbes” in seawater and “sequences” in sand can boost immunity.

The video, posted May 4, garnered more than 8 million views and hundreds of millions of engagements on social media before YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook started to remove it three days later. Produced by filmmaker Mikki Willis, whose Ojai, California-based production company, Elevate Films, creates “transformative media,” Plandemic positions Mikovits as a victim-turned-whistleblower, presenting a highly misleading and one-sided account of her career that includes a number of accusations made against Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. It paves over the retraction in 2011 of a controversial study of chronic fatigue syndrome that Mikovits had co-authored two years before; it also falsifies details about her arrest in 2011 on two charges related to the theft of a computer, flash drives and other materials from the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nevada, where she had worked as research director. (The charges were dropped.)

Footage of the interview with Mikovits, who in recent years has been an outspoken critic of vaccinations, is interspersed with a number of video segments that seem to bolster her claims but are actually highly misleading or unreliable. The b-roll footage includes out-of-context clips of Fauci, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and other public figures; a portion of a report from CGTN, the Chinese state global news network; and several clips of people in medical scrubs calling into question the scientific consensus about the pandemic, including YouTube footage of Eric Nepute, a St. Louis chiropractor who suggested that the quinine and zinc in tonic water could treat COVID-19. Also prominently featured is footage from an April 22 press conference held by two physicians, Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, who own urgent care facilities in Bakersfield, California, and have made a case to reopen California based on deeply flawed statistics.
Note: While the viral spread of Plandemic was aided by its slick production values and slippery sourcing, it also stitched together a number of baseless conspiratorial claims — anti-vaccination rhetoric, misinterpretations of COVID-19 Medicare payments to hospitals, possible COVID-19 treatments such as hydroxychloroquine, and the complicity of tech platforms — that felt familiar to a broad number of people who had already seen them online.
Discuss: What made Plandemic spread so widely so quickly? Were social media platforms correct to remove it? Why might a video like this — offering a simple explanation and a focal point for blame — appeal to so many people right now? What other conspiracy theories do this?
Idea: Have students share their stories of seeing Plandemic go viral last week, and ask whether they still have questions about points it raises. Work together to seek credible sources to answer those questions.
NO: Vice President Mike Pence did not deliver empty boxes to the Woodbine Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 7, pretending they were full of personal protective equipment (PPE). YES: Pence did deliver boxes filled with PPE to the nursing home. NO: Pence was not “caught on hot mic” admitting that the boxes were empty, as this tweet from Matt McDermott, a political strategist, claims. YES: After the boxes of PPE were delivered, an aide told Pence that the remaining boxes in the van were empty, and the vice president made a joke about moving them “just for the camera.” YES: Jimmy Kimmel, host of the late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live!, aired a “selectively edited” (as a campaign spokesman for Pence put it) clip of the delivery on his show that night, then tweeted the clip the next morning. YES: The claim that Pence’s team had staged the delivery went viral — and was amplified by a number of prominent media figures — before being debunked.
NO: A woman named “Sharon” did not post this to Costco’s Facebook page. NO: None of the replies to the “post” are real, either. YES: Ben Palmer — a comedian who runs a satirical Facebook page called “Hope This Helps” and has a history of impersonating brands and other official accounts — created this fake exchange.

Note: While many viral rumors evoke fear or anger, some also inspire hope.

Discuss: Did you see this post circulating last week? Why do you think people shared it? Is it unethical to create satire that can easily be mistaken for legitimate information?
NO: This photo of flamingos in the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy, is not authentic. YES: It is a piece of digital artwork that was posted to Instagram on April 24.

Note: The verified Instagram account that shared it belongs to Kristina Makeeva, a photographer and digital artist in Moscow, who posts as “hobopeeba.” In reply to people who asked if the flamingo photo was real, she replied “no.”

Related: “The Animal Fact Checker” (Savannah Jacobson, Columbia Journalism Review).
NO: This is not a photo of London Fields, a park in London’s borough of Hackney, from this past weekend. YES: It is a stock photo from Getty Images that is at least nine months old. YES: This tweet was sent hours after the Metropolitan Police Service in Hackney tweeted a photo of people relaxing in a public park in violation of the city’s stay-at-home guidelines. YES: The tweet pictured above is satirizing the tension around the guidelines by repurposing part of a famous quote in a 2016 episode of the long-running British game show Come Dine With Me; that quote has become a joke meme. YES: The British television network ITV showed this photo on its May 9 nightly news program as evidence that people were ignoring the guidelines; the network subsequently apologized.
Ida B. Wells, who was born into slavery in 1862 and grew up to chronicle the extrajudicial killings of hundreds of African Americans throughout the southern United States, was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize on May 4 — 136 years to the day after she was forcibly removed from a train in Tennessee for refusing the conductor’s request to move from the first-class seat she had paid for. As the editor and co-owner of the Free Speech and Headlight, a Black newspaper in Memphis, and as a writer for other publications, she covered “the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching,” the Pulitzer board said in its special citation of Wells’ work, calling her reporting “outstanding and courageous.”

The award includes “a bequest by the Pulitzer Prize board of at least $50,000 in support of her mission.”

Another Pulitzer winner this year, for commentary, was Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes about racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine. She was honored “for a sweeping, provocative and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.”

In a Twitter thread, Hannah-Jones paid tribute to Wells:
Hannah-Jones is also a co-founder of The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which works to develop, recruit and retain investigative journalists of color.
Note: The Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, widely considered the most prestigious of the awards, went to the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica for a series revealing that more than a third of Alaska’s villages — including areas with numerous incidents of sexual assault — did not have local police protection. Among the other winners were:
  • Brian M. Rosenthal of The New York Times (investigative reporting). He revealed how predatory lenders profited from loans to vulnerable taxi drivers in New York City.
  • The staff of The Baltimore Sun (local reporting). They exposed financial relationships between the University of Maryland Medical System and members of its board, including Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. Pugh resigned from office, pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and tax evasion, and was sentenced to three years in prison.
  • The staff of the (Louisville, Kentucky) Courier Journal (breaking news reporting). They examined hundreds of pardons and commutations issued by Gov. Matt Bevin during his final hours in office — including pardons to convicted murderers and rapists — and determined that Bevin’s actions showed “opacity, racial disparities and violations of legal norms.”
Resource: “Democracy’s Watchdog” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).
Idea: Let students explore the full list of 2020 Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists in the journalism categories. Then, individually or in groups, have students choose one entry to read closely and summarize in some way for the class. For example, you might have students give a brief oral summary or write a longer examination of the reporting's impact. What changes came about as a result of it? Whose interests did it protect? What long-term changes might it lead to?
Discuss: How is a free and independent press like a “watchdog”? Why is a free press so vital to a robust democracy? Did this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists “give voice to the voiceless”? Did they protect the public’s interest? If this reporting didn’t exist, whose lives would be impacted?
NBC’s Meet the Press and its moderator, Chuck Todd, have come under fire over edits to a clip of U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s May 7 interview with CBS News about the Justice Department’s decision to drop its case against Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s first national security advisor. Flynn had pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about conversations with a Russian diplomat following Trump’s election in 2016; he asked to withdraw that guilty plea earlier this year.

During his May 10 show, Todd played a clip of Barr responding to a question from CBS’s Catherine Herridge (start at 43:35 of the video): When asked how he thinks history will look back on the decision to drop the charges, Barr replied, “Well, history’s written by the winner. So it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”

Todd said he was struck “by the cynicism of the answer” and said that the attorney general “didn’t make the case that he was upholding the rule of law.”

This was Barr’s unedited quote: “Well, history’s written by the winner. So it largely depends on who’s writing the history. But I think a fair history would say it was a good decision because it upheld the rule of law. It helped, it upheld the standards of the Department of Justice, and it undid what was an injustice.”

Within hours after the Sunday talk show aired, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec expressed disappointment in Meet the Press, calling the editing of the clip and Todd’s commentary “deceptive” and noting that Barr had said what Todd said he hadn’t.

Later that evening, Meet the Press responded to Kupec by tweeting: “Earlier today, we inadvertently and inaccurately cut short a video clip of an interview with AG Barr before offering commentary and analysis. The remaining clip included important remarks from the attorney general that we missed, and we regret the error.”
Note: On May 10, President Trump tweeted that Todd should be fired. The next day, over 1,900 former Justice Department employees published an open letter calling on Barr to resign; that number has now reached more than 2,100.
Discuss: Why is context important when using quotes? Should Meet the Press address this on its May 17 broadcast, or is its May 10 tweet sufficient? Why or why not? What else could the network do to help maintain its viewers’ trust?
Facebook has announced the first 20 members of its new oversight board, an independent body that will review users’ appeals of moderators’ decisions to remove content from the platform. It also will set policy for the most challenging content moderation issues.

In a joint op-ed in The New York Times on May 6, the group’s four co-chairs — two U.S. law professors, a former prime minister of Denmark and a former special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the Organization for American States — wrote that among the initial questions to be considered are “the line between satire and hate speech, the spread of graphic content after tragic events, and whether manipulated content posted by public figures should be treated differently from other content.” The board, whose other members are selected by the co-chairs, is funded by an irrevocable $130 million trust; as many as 20 more members will be selected next year, and the board’s charter states that Facebook cannot remove any of them.

Critics worry that by creating a body solely focused on appeals of content that has been removed, the platform is effectively sidestepping the thornier issues of what it decides to leave up and how its algorithm promotes specific pieces of content to specific users.
Discuss: Is Facebook’s oversight board a genuine attempt by the company to make better decisions about content moderation, or is it a clever public relations ploy? Have you ever had a post removed from a social media platform for reasons that you felt were unfair? Should Facebook broaden the powers of the oversight board to include consideration of appeals to remove — rather than restore — posts?
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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