You’re Wrong About Disinformation

“People believe and say things that aren’t true all of the time, of course. When false beliefs influence the outcomes of major elections or, say, decision making during a pandemic, it’s reasonable to consider ways to minimize the ill effects those false beliefs can create. But efforts by public officials to combat them—and tremendous confusion over how to identify them—may well make things worse, not better.”

Scientists Fight a New Source of Vaccine Misinformation: Aaron Rodgers

““Aaron Rodgers is a smart guy,” said David O’Connor, a virus expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Packers fan. But, he added, “He’s still vulnerable to the blind side blitz of misinformation.”

In the interview, Rodgers suggested that the fact that people were still getting, and dying from, COVID-19, meant that the vaccines were not highly effective.

Although imperfect, the vaccines provide extremely strong protection against the worst outcomes of infection, including hospitalization and death. Unvaccinated Americans, for instance, are roughly 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than vaccinated Americans, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As far as the people who are in the hospital with COVID, overwhelmingly, those are unvaccinated people,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virus expert at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan. “And transmission is being driven overwhelmingly by unvaccinated people to other unvaccinated people.”

Rodgers also expressed concern that the vaccines might cause fertility issues, a common talking point in the anti-vaccine movement. There is no evidence that the vaccines affect fertility in men or women.

“Those allegations have been made since the vaccines first came on the scene, and they clearly have been addressed many, many times over,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a vaccine expert at Vanderbilt University. He added, “The vaccines are safe and stunningly effective.”

There are a few potentially serious adverse events that have been linked to the vaccines, including a clotting disorder and an inflammation of the heart muscle, but they are very rare. Experts agree that the health risks associated with COVID-19 overwhelmingly outweigh those of vaccination.

Rodgers said he ruled out the mRNA vaccines, manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna, because he had an allergy to an unspecified ingredient they contained.

Such allergies are possible — a small number of people are allergic to polyethylene glycol, which is in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — but extremely rare. For instance, there were roughly 11 cases of anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction, for every 1 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine administered, according to one CDC study.

The public health agency recommends that people with a known allergy to an ingredient in one of the mRNA vaccines not get those vaccines, but some scientists expressed skepticism that Rodgers truly had a known, documented allergy. Even if he did, he may have been eligible for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which relies on a different technology.”

Biden Charges Facebook With Homicide, While His Surgeon General Recommends ‘Legal and Regulatory Measures’ To Suppress COVID-19 ‘Misinformation’

“”Defining ‘misinformation’ is a challenging task, and any definition has limitations,” Murthy concedes. “One key issue is whether there can be an objective benchmark for whether something qualifies as misinformation. Some researchers argue that for something to be considered misinformation, it has to go against ‘scientific consensus.’ Others consider misinformation to be information that is contrary to the ‘best available evidence.’ Both approaches recognize that what counts as misinformation can change over time with new evidence and scientific consensus. This Advisory prefers the ‘best available evidence’ benchmark since claims can be highly misleading and harmful even if the science on an issue isn’t yet settled.”

Who decides what the “best available evidence” indicates? Trusting government-appointed experts with that job seems risky, to say the least.”

“If those recommendations become commands, they would clearly impinge on the First Amendment rights of social media companies and people who use their platforms. But even if such regulations could pass constitutional muster, they would face the same basic problem as voluntary efforts to curb “misinformation”: Once you get beyond clear examples like warnings about vaccine-induced mass sterility, misinformation is in the eye of the beholder.”

Fox News has become a jobs program for some Trump family members and ex-staffers

“Fox News fancies itself, at least outside of its Hannity-style programming, as a journalistic outlet. But its recent string of hires tells a different story.

Despite the Trump administration’s legacy of unrelenting dishonesty and Trump’s recent turn against Fox, the network has hired several former Trump officials of late, basically becoming a jobs program for any former Trump aide who desires gainful employment — and ensuring that Trump’s brand of politics will have a regular, prominent place on national television.”

“While there’s ample precedent for former White House officials making the leap into news media when their tenure in government is through — George Stephanopoulos went from the Clinton White House to ABC News, for example, and Dana Perino went from the George W. Bush White House to Fox News — the volume of former Trump officials Fox News has hired is notable, particularly because Fox News staffing itself with Trump family members and former staffers will keep Trumpism relevant.”

“Donald Trump, meanwhile, can self-promote by calling in to friendly hosts who will let him opine about Biden’s purported failures on national TV, even if he can no longer post tweets.

It won’t be good journalism, but that’s rarely the point with Fox. What it will do is help Trump maintain control over the Republican Party heading into the 2022 midterms — and beyond.”

The fantasy-industrial complex gave us the Capitol Hill insurrection

“American insurrectionists, for the first time in the history of this country, stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday. Offices were vandalized. Windows were broken. Statues toppled. A woman was shot and killed. Four others have reportedly died, including a Capitol Police officer. It was ugly, embarrassing, and seditious.

But it wasn’t surprising.

We’ve been inching, inexorably, toward this moment for years. I know this because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the course of this presidency thinking and writing about what you might call the “epistemic crisis” or the “post-truth crisis” or the “misinformation crisis” — it all refers more or less to the same thing.

The American mind, or a sizable chunk of it at least, has been deranged by a poisoned information system. The way millions of citizens learn about the world, the way they form core beliefs, is irredeemably broken. And because the media environment has been blown apart by digital technology, “there is no longer any buffer between mainstream thought and the extreme elements of our politics,” as Politico’s Tim Alberta put it recently.

If the depth of that crisis wasn’t apparent before Wednesday, it sure as hell is now.”

“The road to this dark place was paved by lots of hands over many years. But the evolution of right-wing media into a fantasy-industrial complex is at the center of the story.

Propaganda has always been a bipartisan game, but media-driven polarization has become more asymmetric in recent years. The left mostly receives its news from organizations like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or cable news networks like MSNBC or CNN. However biased some of this reporting can be (and there’s plenty of bias), most of it is anchored by basic journalistic ethics.

This just isn’t true on the right. A 2018 book called Network Propaganda by three Harvard researchers is probably the best survey on this disparity, and it shows that American conservative media functions very much like a closed system, with Fox News at the center (at least until recently). The people who inhabit this system rarely collide with information beyond it, and the competition within it — on the supply side — is continually intensifying in order to meet the demand from audiences consuming the high-stakes narratives. As Brian Stelter, longtime media reporter and author of Hoax, told me in November, anchors at Fox are now struggling “to keep up with their viewers’ demand for propaganda.””

“Consumers of this stuff have been fed a daily diet of conspiracies and panicked claims about the death of the republic and the plot to steal the election.”

“If you watch Newsmax and OAN every night, if you listen to talk radio hosts like Mark Levin claim that “Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are being destroyed by the Democratic Party and the media,” if you hear Sean Hannity (whose show pulls in 4 million viewers a night) insist, “We have a duty to investigate every legitimate claim of fraud and abuse,” if you’re inhaling QAnon fantasies online, you’re likely extremely deluded about the state of the world. Is it any surprise that we’re living in a golden age of conspiracy theories?

The president himself is the most consequential consumer of this stuff. Listen to his leaked hour-long call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and you’ll hear a hodgepodge of familiar conspiracy theories about hacked voting machines and forgeries and collusion among various election officials. It’s all laid out and distilled, just as you’d hear it on Newsmax or read on 4chan or Parler, the right-wing alternative to Twitter.

All these fictions have coursed through the conservative media ecosystem, and the insurrectionists who flooded the Capitol have imbibed it for months. It’s why they chanted, “Stop the steal,” and it’s why you can hear them saying, “They don’t get to steal it from us, they don’t get to tell us we didn’t see what we saw.” And it’s why something like 70 percent of Republicans do not believe the 2020 election was free and fair.

So we reached this precipice because millions of Americans have had a firehose of falsehoods blasted into their brains for months on end. They believe the election was rigged and stolen. And they believe that because they’ve been told exactly that, not just by the president but by a vast network of grifters and online provocateurs and political entrepreneurs who have cultivated and reinforced conspiracy theories about the election and god knows what else.

And all of this is facilitated by social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, both of which, as Warzel told me last year, pretend they’re not “arbiters of truth” and insist they “don’t want to weigh in at all” — but they’re already in that position and have been for a long time. These tech companies may not be putting their thumbs on the scale in the conventional sense, but as Andrew Marantz, author of Antisocial, pointed out to me in a recent interview, they’re “outsourcing those decisions to algorithms” that continually push users into blackholes of mutually reinforcing content. Whatever their intentions, these companies helped lead us to this moment.”

“If you believed — I mean really believed — that the president you supported won a landslide victory that was systematically undermined by seditious Republicans and Democrats, and that that conspiracy was being covered up by a crooked and compromised media, and at the same time you saw over 100 Republican House members and multiple senators questioning the validity of the election, and the president was telling you to do something about it, it’s not hard to see how quickly you might move from shitposting online to storming the Capitol.”

“Everyone who participates in this system of misinformation shares responsibility for what happened at the Capitol on Wednesday. We are reaping what they sowed. Still, Tucker Carlson goes on Fox News primetime hours after a violent assault on the Capitol and, naturally, casts blame elsewhere: “We got to this sad, chaotic day for a reason. It is not your fault; it is their fault.””

“It was obvious when a man walked into a DC pizza shop in 2017 with a gun because he believed a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring. It was obvious when armed protesters occupied the Michigan Legislature to protest Covid-19 lockdowns after an incendiary Trump tweet. It was obvious when we learned the Nashville bombing suspect reportedly believed in various conspiracy theories about aliens and lizard people. As this Wall Street Journal report shows, it was obvious in recent weeks as various watchdog groups warned of growing threats online. And it’s painfully obvious now after we saw the Capitol ravaged by rioters who believed, without any evidence, that an election had been stolen from them.”

“Every member of the Republican Party — from senators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz to the toadies working in the Trump White House — bear special responsibility for this crisis. They’ve known exactly who and what Trump is from the start, and they rode the tiger straight into the abyss.

And so many of them performed this ridiculous two-step, parroting Trump’s nonsense in one breath and winking quietly while doing it. Even on Thursday, before the dust has settled at the Capitol, Republican House members like Paul Gosar (AZ) and Matt Gaetz (FL) are spreading baseless conspiracy theories suggesting the assault was some kind of “false flag” perpetuated by antifa. And despite everything that happened in the past 48 hours, nearly 150 Republican lawmakers formally objected to the election results anyway.

If the fantasy-industrial complex churning out lies and conspiracy theories wasn’t bad enough, we’re also dealing with a much more pervasive problem in the press. As I tried to explain last year, we’re facing a new form of propaganda that wasn’t really possible until the digital age, something known as “flooding the zone with shit.” It’s less about perpetuating alternative realities and more about overwhelming the public with so many competing narratives, so much misinformation, that even well-intentioned people don’t know what to believe.”

“Without some kind of reckoning in right-wing media, there is no sustainable path forward for the country. And even if the complicit pull back from the brink, it’s probably too late anyway. So much of the damage is already done. The conspiracy theories that radicalized that mob are already out there, already implanted in millions of minds. Like some kind of political pathogen, they will keep working their will on the body politic.

That is our hell for the foreseeable future.”

How fake news aimed at Latinos thrives on social media

“Democrats are increasingly worried about the influence of misinformation on social media aimed at Latino voters in the runup to the election. The misleading narratives continue to spread on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as in closed chat groups like WhatsApp and Telegram, in addition to the more traditional platforms like television, radio, and talking points coming directly from elected officials.

Several misinformation researchers told Recode that they’re seeing alarming amounts of misinformation about voter fraud and Democratic leaders being shared in Latino social media communities. Biden is a popular target, with misinformation ranging from exaggerated claims that he embraces Fidel Castro-style socialism to more patently false and outlandish ones, for instance that the president-elect supports abortion minutes before a child’s birth or that he orchestrated a caravan of Cuban immigrants to infiltrate the US Southern border and disrupt the election process.

“What I’ve seen during this election looks to be a multifaceted misinformation effort seeking to undermine Biden and Harris’s support amongst the Latino community,” said Sam Woolley, a misinformation and propaganda researcher at the University of Texas Austin. “I think that political groups understand that the Latino vote matters and they are showing they are willing to use any and all informational tactics to get what they want.””

“Some of the misleading messages — like that Biden is a radical socialist — aren’t uniquely aimed at the Latino community; Trump often made this claim during his campaign. But these comparisons take on a new intensity with some immigrants from countries like Cuba or Venezuela who have lived under socialist governments and may be deeply opposed to them.”

Obama: The internet is “the single biggest threat to our democracy”

“you have a situation in which large swaths of the country genuinely believe that the Democratic Party is a front for a pedophile ring…I was talking to a volunteer who was going door-to-door in Philadelphia in low-income African American communities, and was getting questions about QAnon conspiracy theories.”

“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work.”