This week’s letter will be a bit shorter, as I’ve had an unexpectedly busier week, but I’d like to start where I left off last week, talking about coronavirus disinformation.
First, I’m going to plug this piece I did today with Jeff Yates at Radio-Canada (CBC’s French service), on a screenshot circulating of a Chinese social media virus tracker, along with claims it shows much higher death numbers in China, than what the government is publicly saying. We made our own fake of this screenshot pretty quickly, and we were immediately skeptical of everything else about this story. But this one had spread pretty far across social media, I saw numerous examples posted to Reddit, and it was picked up by the Daily Mail and a few verified accounts on Twitter as well.
I think, too, this kind of story has legs because it plays into existing distrust in Chinese authorities, both domestically and abroad.
Here’s an excellence piece from the New York Times on how the coronavirus is causing a governance crisis in China:
Growing numbers of people are questioning the government’s decisions as China enters a period of virtual shutdown. As the virus spread, officials in Wuhan and around the country withheld critical information, played down the threat and rebuked doctors who tried to raise the alarm. A reconstruction of the disease’s spread by The New York Times showed that by not issuing earlier warnings, the Chinese government potentially lost the window to keep the disease from becoming an epidemic.
More on fact-checking efforts
A colleague shared a spreadsheet from the International Fact-Checkers Network, run by Poynter. The group started in 2015 and offers support to members through training, promotes standards of fact-checking, and helps promote the common goals of fact-checkers around the world. You get to learn what fact-checkers around the world are seeing, and learn about techniques they’ve used to verify news circulating where they live.
So, this spreadsheet now has over 300 entries of disinformation about coronavirus from around the world, and more are added every day. (I started this post early this morning and since that time it went from under 300 to over, so, people are busy on this).
In the past we have often thought about junk information because of revelations over the U.S. Presidential election in 2016, or the Brexit vote and the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the U.K.
But the coronavirus affects many countries around the world already, and it is primarily a health issue, which makes it more difficult to dismiss disinformation as a political problem (unless you live in China). I am keen to see how social platforms are going to keep responding to this because the speed of the spread disinformation so unprecedented right now.
And speaking of speed, a particularly good piece I read this week is from Buzzfeed:
Shoddy Coronavirus Studies Are Going Viral And Stoking Panic. It’s about the rush to publish scientific papers on coronavirus, and what happens when those papers haven’t gone through the traditional peer-review process. Here’s a quote:
“Preprint servers bypass the long, arduous timelines of traditional, peer-reviewed scientific publishing, and can lead to lightning-speed information sharing during outbreaks like this one. But the coronavirus is also bringing to light the pitfalls of this new system for the first time, as everyone from bad actors to naive ones grasp for new information in a panic-driven climate.”
I’m sure I’ll be back next week with more coronavirus. In the meantime, be skeptical and don’t share if you’re not sure!
Twitter released information about how it will remove deepfakes and other harmful media this week.
A longread in the Atlantic: The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President.
2020 is going to be a busy year.