Big Tech Under Pressure, Vaccine and Covid M/Disinformation, Political Pinocchios, and Why We Fall for Fake News

Threats, Fact Checks, & Reads #5.7.21

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Key Developments

Biden’s Big Pivot: Yes to Vaccine Patent Waivers

GOAL

The Biden administration hopes to expedite vaccine doses available in poorer countries, but this is not something the US can decide alone. We require a World Trade Organization consensus, something EU nations have shown some disfavor toward. Until a proposal exists, we cannot assess the details of any possible agreement. 

PEER COUNTRIES AND INDUSTRY SAYS

  • “In closed-door talks at the WTO in recent months, Australia, Britain, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Norway, Singapore, and the United States opposed the waiver idea, according to a Geneva-based trade official who was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity. Some 80 countries, mainly developing ones, have supported the proposal, the official said. China and Russia — two other major COVID-19 vaccine makers — didn’t express a position but were open to further discussion, the official said,” per AP.

  • Moderna has indicated it has no interest in pursuing patent infringement for the duration of the pandemic, so for at least one vaccine, the opposition doesn’t exist.

  • The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America stated: “This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines.” 

COMMENTARY ON PEERS AND INDUSTRY 

The statement from PRMA does not clarify how a waiver would sow confusion or the consequences. The claim is too vague to assess, neither demonstrable nor disprovable. Put another way, it’s meaningless. 

A more valid concern noted by PRMA is the proliferation of counterfeits. Plausibility differs from happening in actuality, so we must assess the veracity of the claim. 

  • What suggests counterfeits would increase? Has it happened in the past?

  • The PRMA doesn’t support the argument or make clear what evidence supports this idea. It’s a valid concern, but PRMA has failed to do the work needed to demonstrate it’s a credible threat.

  • Already counterfeits exist. The market thrives because of inaccess to actual vaccine doses, so this seems a statement that is neither supportive nor dissuasive. It’s a reality of this situation that does not necessarily tie to intellectual property rights.  


SUPPORTERS SAY

Led by India and South Africa, dozens of developing countries argue the move would allow them to produce their own generic vaccines. Some countries have the needed facilities but lack the required waiver to avoid a patent suit. 

  • Countries in Africa and some in South America and Asia cannot currently manufacture vaccines in-country. They must wait for developed countries first to vaccinate their populations before they send doses to poorer countries.

    • Current best estimates indicate that it may take us to 2024 before the world is fully vaccinated.

The US interest in getting poorer countries vaccinated is not purely selfless.

  • Unvaccinated countries will continue to spread the virus rapidly. When a virus is spreading, it is also mutating, meaning this is likely to increase the rate at which we see mutations, any of which might outmaneuver the vaccines everywhere.

  • The burden of a persistent outbreak somewhere like India could easily affect the US.

Supporters also argue that the industry has already raked in billions off the vaccine. The NIH partially funded the research, meaning these companies did not develop it without significant government investment.

  • Consequently, those arguing in favor of IP protection may, in a way, be supporting the federal government having a say in the product it paid to create

COMMENTARY

A waiver is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the vaccine delivery timeline by the current administration’s admission. The move is largely symbolic at the moment, though it may eventually prove beneficial. We must see that in light of the costs.

Specifics of the waiver still need to be negotiated, and the administration also leaves open the possibility that deliberation might fail--something likely to be contingent on the terms. These terms would need to be accepted by other countries to get a WTO consensus. Without the other countries' cooperation, the issue is moot. The low probability of helping in the short term coupled with the predictable roadblocks to realizing a waiver raises another possibility.

Agreeing to the waiver would appease those who lobbied the White House. The White House could fairly confidently signal acceptance of the idea while knowing the obstacles to actualization were insurmountable. 

  • The stances of several countries that opposed the waiver were already well known (EU, U.K., Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Canada, Australia and Brazil) when the Biden administration reversed its stance.

  • Agreeing to waive the IP rights appeases the more extreme factions within the current Democratic party without following through while still leaving them “in debt” to the White House.

The progressive wing of the political left has grown increasingly impatient with Biden. At times they seem as eager to oust him as Trumpian conservatives.


OPPONENTS SAY 

Waivers won’t increase production in the near future and would instead deter future innovation, trigger a scramble for limited raw ingredients, and lead to counterfeit or low-quality shots. 

There is also concern about dissuading companies from developing vaccines in future outbreaks or driving companies out of the US, per the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

Naysayers argue that countries should share doses they have and focus on fixing supply chain issues. Thus, they claim it would get the vaccines to poorer regions of the world faster and guarantee the quality, although this almost certainly ensures a longer wait. 

COMMENTARY

That vaccines might get to poorer regions sooner if we fix the supply chain issues in the US may be valid. Proponents should further examine the idea to understand whether it sufficiently expedites the vaccine’s arrival. If the timeline is comparable to that which waiving the IP rights brings, this is the most potent counter.

Pharmaceutical companies are unable to profit anywhere else in the world as they do in the US. The percentage of a given company’s portfolio that consists of vaccines usable in a pandemic that might have IP rights waived--once the cost is recovered or modest profit is made--is negligible; what isn’t negligible matters too. 

  • The US has the existing infrastructure needed to develop drugs, and corporations pay very little in federal taxes compared to other possible locations. Hungary, Latvia, and Greece seem implausible alternatives.

No other country offers them anywhere near the profit potential as the US. One could quite confidently call their bluff here.

  • Americans pay 3x the price for a drug on average compared to all other developed and some developing nations. No other country on earth could approach the profit margin offered in the US.

Even if companies only broke even on these vaccines, which they only partially funded, the positive press alone has benefited them. That said, they have made billions in profit (Nearly $2 billion for Moderna; $3.5 billion for Pfizer) too. Neither company could have made the billions they have so far without significant favor or investment from the federal government.


HISTORY 

In the 1990s, waiving drug patents stopped a different pandemic without the catastrophic consequences, some now argue. In a Foreign Policy article by Laurie Garrett, Garrett details the reasonable concerns, of which there are many, but she does not include concerns about the pharmaceutical companies among them. 

“Far from bringing chaos to the pharmaceutical industry and stifling innovation, the Clinton Foundation’s maneuver around the strict enforcement of intellectual property laws ushered in a dramatic era of HIV drug invention that improved the antiviral power of treatment, lowered drug side effects, developed new drug forms that are now taken to prevent infection, increased options for pediatric care, and greatly improved the methods for which HIV positive individuals could take their life-sparing treatments.

Despite the loss of guaranteed patent protection and pressure to transfer technology to, primarily, Indian pharmaceutical companies, wealthy nations’ drug companies have profited and continue to innovate on the HIV/AIDS front.” 

Profit continued to be made, and innovation in the realm of HIV drugs continues today. WTO members also agreed to waive patent rights so poorer nations could get generic treatments for malaria and tuberculosis in 2001, in addition to HIV medications

In no case did the waivers result in companies vacating the US, failing to recover investments or subsequent innovation cessation. 

Those arguing against the waiver have a stronger argument about raw material shorting, which could drive up the price, or the fact that the gains may not be much better than if we improve the supply chain issues in the US. 

  • Addressing supply chain issues rather than intervening in the patents would ensure vaccines are made because some countries lack the facilities needed for production. In those cases, a waiver offers little help. 

Keeping production in the US could be argued as a check on the quality. Still, we could just as quickly say that the US has problems with the quality too after an inspection in 2020 that reported severe violations in a vaccine production facility that went unattended until A year later in 2021

  • That failure cost the US millions of doses of vaccines. With losses like that, it’s harder to argue we should keep production in the US for the good of developing countries. 


When looking at an issue, it is critical to examine several well-argued stances, stances of relevant experts, relevant or analogous history, as well as the context in which the decision is being made. Currently, it seems a narrowly tailored waiver that allowed poorer countries to make vaccines for their citizens alone might be a solution.

  • This still leaves supply chain issues and could lead to a mad dash for the supplies needed to make the vaccines.

  • It also might not cause supply chain issues because the developed world will conclude mass vaccinations in 2021.

  • Without such a waiver, the rest of the world may be fully vaccinated in 2024, a situation that could threaten the US in more ways than one. 


Neither camp has yet made a compelling case

The Biden administration still leaves the possibility that negotiation may lead to no deal, and what precisely the waiver includes remains unclear. Any viable agreement must persuade the opposition, including Angela Merkel--a noted scientist in her own right and leader of Germany.

The benefits from a waiver would take months, at the very least putting the results in 2022. That might still be worthwhile, but the developed world must address the present crisis as well.

  • Especially if no waiver is granted, the developed world must develop an alternate plan for addressing the threat.

  • One cannot fully assess the waiver until one exists.

The opposition’s catastrophic and vague warnings of a future devoid of innovation and companies fleeing the United States seem less an actual threat and possibly political theatre. It’s a tactic that has worked in other situations in everything from health insurance to immigration. That these companies are unaware of the realities facing pharmaceutical companies seems unlikely.

  • The threat of industry revolt against the federal government need not exist so long as the public believes that it does. Should the catastrophic future concern people enough, Americans may strongly object to it.

  • This seems the only plausible explanation in view of the situation pharmaceutical companies would face in any other country, granted there may be aspects of this situation that have escaped this reviewer. 


Video: U.K. Says Under-40s Should be Offered Alternative to AstraZeneca Vaccine

Britain’s vaccine regulator advised that all adults under 40 should be offered an alternative Covid-19 vaccine, due to concerns over very rare blood clots that were possibly linked to the usage of AstraZeneca’s vaccine. There is also an availability of alternatives.


The threat of a social media ban tames a leading anti-vaccine influencer

Facing pressure from pro-science groups and digital activists, the anti-vaccine founder of one of the world’s biggest natural health websites has announced he will remove all his content about unproven cures for Covid-19. 

Last week, Joseph Mercola, the U.S.-based multi-millionaire behind mercola.com, announced his decision to remove all articles on his site that claimed certain vitamins and supplements could treat, prevent or cure the virus. 

Anti-misinformation groups see the move as an important step towards holding anti-science influencers to account. Mercola, who has over a million followers on Facebook, has promoted a number of unproven treatments or cures for Covid-19, including the inhalation of bleach.

“Joseph Mercola is a superspreader of anti-vaccine and Covid disinformation,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. “The fact that he has said he will self-censor shows the impact of penalizing anti-vaccine propagandists.” 


Just 12 people generate 65% of all vaccine disinformation

From the Center for Countering Digital Hate

DISINFORMATION DOZEN: THE SEQUEL reveals that one month after tech CEOs vowed at a Congressional hearing to crack down on the twelve main “superspreaders” of vaccine disinformation, this “Disinformation Dozen” is continuing to operate across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. False and misleading content produced by the 12 individuals and their organizations was viewed up to 29 million times in the past month. 

KEY FINDINGS: Big Tech’s failure to act on the Disinformation Dozen resulted in 105 pieces of vaccine disinformation being viewed up to 29 million times in the past month. 

• Our previous report, The Disinformation Dozen, found that up to 65% of anti-vaccine content on social media originates from just 12 individuals, was raised with social media company CEOs at a Congressional hearing on 25 March 2021. The findings of the report were also raised with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram by Senators Klobuchar and Luján, by Senator Warner, and 12 state attorneys general

• Social media platforms have not taken action on the Disinformation Dozen: ten remain on Facebook and Twitter, and nine remain on Instagram. 

• In the month since the publication of the Disinformation Dozen report, 105 posts from the accounts remaining on social media have breached the platforms’ stated policies for disinformation. They include posts falsely linking Covid vaccines to thousands of deaths, conspiracies claiming COVID was lab-engineered, posts describing masks on youngsters as “child abuse”, and posts suggesting that the vaccine makes women infertile. 

The Disinformation Dozen – including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Joseph Mercola, and Ty and Charlene Bollinger – have repeatedly violated Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter’s policies. While some have been removed from a single platform, most remain active on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. • We estimate that the anti-vaccine disinformation posted by these 12 individuals and their organizations in the past month has been seen up to 29 million times. 

Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter must do what they promised and remove the remaining accounts of the Disinformation Dozen, in order to stop the proliferation of life-threatening anti-vaccine disinformation.



Top CDC Official Resigns from Post Following Reassignment

Nancy Messonnier, the epidemiologist who inspired the protagonist in the movie Contagion and a senior Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist who was the first U.S. official to warn of the severity of the coronavirus pandemic last year, is resigning from the agency.

  • Messonnier’s resignation comes two weeks after she had been reassigned within the CDC from her position heading the agency's Covid-19 vaccine task force, as first reported by POLITICO.

  • Following her reassignment, Messonnier went on leave, which senior administration officials described as an unplanned vacation.

  • CDC Director Rochelle Walensky offered well wishes for Messonnier on Friday but did not elaborate further on the circumstances of her departure

Covid

Global Numbers

  • 156,153,255 cases

  • 3,258,514 deaths

  • 1,236,122,090 vaccine doses administered

—Source: Johns Hopkins University here and here.

Highlights

Doctors at a Delhi hospital are reporting a rise in a lethal “black fungus.”

An infection called mucormycosis in COVID-19 patients with diabetes, cancer, or other comorbidities.

The Pfizer vaccine provides strong protection against variants

The New England Journal of Medicine study documented just 6 B.1.351 infections among 800 people studied in Qatar.

Indonesian police have arrested 5 pharma employees in a scam

The sham led 10,000 passengers to be tested with reused nasal swabs.

A California bar owner was charged with 3 felonies after being arrested for selling fake coronavirus vaccination cards.

Vaccination Against COVID 'Does Not Mean Immunity’ For People With Organ Transplants


The US CDC reported 32.4 million cumulative cases and 576,238 deaths. Daily new cases are the lowest they have been since October 7, 2020.

  • Daily mortality has increased over the past week or so, up from a recent low of 631 deaths per day on April 27 to 674 on May 4—a 7% increase over that period—before decreasing to 656 on May 5.

  • Over the course of the US epidemic, trends in daily mortality have generally lagged 3-4 weeks behind trends in daily incidence; however, since early April, the trends appear to be slightly disconnected.

  • For example, following the brief surge in daily incidence from mid-March to mid-April, we did not observe a similar surge in mortality, as we would have expected based on historical trends.

US Vaccination

The US has distributed 325 million doses of SARS-CoV-2 vaccine and administered 252 million doses. Daily doses administered* continues to decrease, down from a high of 3.3 million (April 11) to 2.1 million.

  • Approximately 1.3 million people are achieving fully vaccinated status per day, down from a high of 1.8 million per day on April 12.

A total of 149 million individuals have received at least 1 dose of SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, equivalent to 45% of the entire US population and 57% of all adults.

  • Of those, 109 million are fully vaccinated, which corresponds to 33% of the total population and 42% of adults. Among adults aged 65 years and older, progress has largely stalled at 83% with at least 1 dose and 70% fully vaccinated.

  • In terms of full vaccination, 56 million individuals have received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, 45 million have received the Moderna vaccine, and 8.6 million have received the J&J-Janssen vaccine.

*The US CDC does not provide a 7-day average for the most recent 5 days due to anticipated reporting delays for vaccine administration. This estimate is the most current value provided.
SOURCE: The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
NOTE: Johns Hopkins reported 32.6 million cumulative cases and 580,076 deaths in the US as of 10:15 am EDT on May 7.

Official COVID-19 Deaths = Massive Undercount

Global COVID-19 deaths are more than twice as high as official estimates, according to a new University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation analysis that raises the death toll to more than 6.9 million.

Why the vast undercount? Limited testing capacity in many countries is a key reason, but it doesn’t explain why only a fraction of COVID-19 deaths are being reported in some countries. 

  • IHME estimates Russia had more than 593,000 deaths as of May 3, while only 109,334 had been officially reported.

  • Likewise, deaths in Mexico were calculated to be nearly 494,000 and not 174,000.

IHME’s analysis shows that wealthy countries, too, have severe undercounts at least partly because of COVID-19 deaths that went unattributed in the pandemic’s early days: 

  • The US has had 905,289 COVID-19 deaths as of May 3, far above the official number of 574,073.

  • Germany’s death toll is 120,079—45% higher than the official number.

The Quote:

“…Covid is going to rival Spanish flu at the global level in terms of the count, likely before we see the end of this epidemic,” IHME director Christopher Murray told STAT reporter Helen Branswell and others. 675,000 Americans were believed to have died in the 1918 pandemic.

Case in Point: India

When a local newspaper in Rajkot published 240 obituaries on a late April day, the official death count for the city and its surrounding district was 12, The Washington Post reports.

 Post reporters comparing crematorium statistics in 3 Indian cities to official counts found only a fraction of deaths were being reported.


Can Companies Make Employees Get Vaccinated?


Pfizer Seeks Full FDA Approval for Its Covid-19 Vaccine


The term ‘double mutants’ doesn’t mean much

With reporting of the impact of the current wave of Covid-19 in India, there has been interesting the B1.617 variant of Covid-19 which was first identified there, and has been dubbed the ‘Indian variant’. 

It has often been described as a ‘double mutant’ but this terminology is unhelpful and doesn’t actually carry much scientific meaning.

It is normal for viruses to develop genetic mutations over time, and so mutations of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) are to be expected. The number of mutations that a variant has is less relevant than what characteristics the mutation effects, and if the mutations could enhance each other's impact 

We have previously written about genetic mutations of Covid-19 and how they are classified here



Threats

Scientists OK Plan to Release One Million Tonnes of Waste Water from Fukushima

Japan’s proposal to discharge more than one million tonnes of contaminated water from the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station into the ocean off its east coast has been strongly opposed by neighbors including China and South Korea. But scientists say the risks are likely to be minimal if the release is carried out as planned.


Taliban would roll back Afghan women's rights -U.S. intelligence report

An assessment from intelligence analysts at the U.S. National Intelligence Council that was declassified and released this week predicts that if Islamic extremists regain power in Afghanistan, the Taliban “would roll back much” of the progress made by women. In other news, the NIC predicted that Afghans who stand out in the rain are likely to get wet.


Senate Bill Threatens Sensitive US Diplomacy


Members of a Taliban-linked criminal network in Afghanistan worked closely with Russian operatives from the notorious Unit 29155o of Russia’s military intelligence service, the G.R.U. —bolstering the C.I.A.’s assessment that Russia privately offered and paid bounties for attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, particularly because members of the criminal network interrogated by the C.I.A. were the first to reveal the alleged bounties. 

  • “The involvement of this G.R.U. unit is consistent with Russia encouraging attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan given its leading role in such lethal and destabilizing operations abroad,” the National Security Council (NSC) said in a statement provided to The New York Times. 

  • “We have independently verified the ties of several individuals in this network to Russia,” the NSC statement said, adding, “Multiple sources have confirmed that elements of this criminal network worked for Russian intelligence for over a decade and traveled to Moscow in April 2019.” 

  • Russian Spy Team Left Traces That Bolstered C.I.A.’s Bounty Judgment


The U.S. expands effort to allow in vulnerable migrants at the Mexico border

The U.S. has begun rolling out a new system that seeks to identify the most vulnerable migrants at ports of entry and allow them entry on humanitarian groups, according to three people briefed on the matter. 


Fact-Checks

CLAIMS

Tucker Carlson misrepresents government data on Covid-19 vaccines

Fox News host Tucker Carlson claims US government figures show the “apparent death rate” from Covid-19 vaccines. But the statistics he refers to come from a system that warns reports it contains may include information that is “incomplete” or “inaccurate,” and says they alone cannot be used to determine if deaths or other adverse events were caused by immunization.


Deaths after vaccination don't prove that the COVID-19 vaccine is lethal


No, the CIA does not control Facebook

A decade ago, The Onion created a satirical video that joked that Facebook was secretly run by the CIA. Since not everyone using the internet has a sense of humor, a TikTok user recently discovered the 2011 video, reposted it, and asserted it as fact.  Two weeks later, nearly a million people have heard the bogus claim on TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram.  USA Today’s fact-checkers however assure us that the assertion that Facebook is a CIA front – is false.

No, Red Cross isn't warning vaccinated people not to donate blood


Covid-19 vaccine does not cause impotence, health experts say


Video of vaccination error in Mexico shared in misleading posts about Covid-19 surge in India


'Coronavirus myth': Why the COVID-19 jab can't shed like other vaccines to infect others


POLITICAL PINOCCHIOS

Yes, Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn Forgot the Words to the Pledge of Allegiance at Lin Wood Rally


Prince William is not leading a global depopulation agenda


Chris Christie exaggerates about Joe Biden capital-gains tax proposal


‘I’m Sick Of People Saying Cops Need More Training’ – Did Ron DeSantis Make This Statement?


Biden didn't mistake elementary students for high schoolers. He was joking.


DISINFORMATION


What Is VAERS? Why the CDC Database Is Crucial to Vaccine Safety—And How to Use It Responsibly

There's one resource that's been getting a lot of attention lately. It's the CDC's Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a national early warning system to detect possible safety problems in vaccines licensed in the US.


Alternatively Pro-Russian: How NASH Operates

The NASH news network controlled by Yevhen Murayev has taken the place of the banned TV channels of Viktor Medvedchuk. It mostly features the same guests and spreads very similar messages.


A growing number of governments are spreading disinformation online


Gregory Wrightstone article in The Washington Times presents a list of false and misleading statements about the impacts of CO2 and climate change

Temperature trends from the past 65 million years before present and potential geohistorical analogs of the future climate system. From Burke et al. (2018)

Research

Highlights

  • Survey data from 40 countries finds a strong association between perceived believability of misinformation and vaccination hesitancy. The study also finds that only half of the online users exposed to rumors have seen the efforts of fact-checking to correct the false information.

  • A survey of US participants studied how anxiety causes people to believe in and share misinformation. This anxiety is especially heightened for people who self-identify as Republicans, who are more likely to believe and share false claims.

  • Following conservative media is associated with holding conspiracy beliefs, according to research from the US. The study points to the need for commentators and journalists on conservative media to report verifiable information about the pandemic.

  • A study by Andrew Chadwick et al. from Loughborough University divides people into six groups based on their media diet, and analyses whether they are likely to endorse or question vaccines online. The study emphasizes the need for direct contact, through the post, workplace, or community structures, for people who otherwise don’t follow the news or public communication.

  • A study by Gordon Pennycook et al. from the University of Regina looks into the effect of warnings attached to news content by social media platforms. It shows that such warnings will increase the trust people place on news without such a label, even when they are from questionable sources.

  • A study by the Digital Forensic Research Lab and the Associated Press looks at social media in four countries – China, the United States, Russia, and Iran – early in the pandemic. The governments of these countries accused each other of being the source of the virus, and these accusations weakened the trust in the policies to fight the coronavirus worldwide.

  • A few simple tricks make fake news stories stick in the brain


How to detect, resist and counter the flood of fake news

Although most people are concerned about misinformation, few know how to spot a deceitful post. Misinformation is tough to fight, in part because it spreads for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s bad actors churning out fake-news content in a quest for internet clicks and advertising revenue, as with “troll farms” in Macedonia that generated hoax political stories during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Other times, the recipients of misinformation are driving its spread.

Participants tended to rate the video version as more credible than the audio or text versions. 

  • The effect diminished for users who were highly involved with the topic of the false story, suggesting that video is a particularly compelling medium for those who may not be knowledgeable on the topic at hand.

One of the most insidious problems with fake news is how easily it lodges itself in our brains and how hard it is to dislodge once it’s there. “Sometimes that information is aligned with the values that we hold, which makes us more likely to accept it.”

Compounding the problem is that people can process the facts of a message properly while misunderstanding its gist because of the influence of their emotions and values, psychologist Valerie Reyna of Cornell University wrote in 2020 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Prebunking still has value, they note. But providing a quick and simple fact-check after someone reads a headline can be helpful, particularly on social media platforms where people often mindlessly scroll through posts.


What history tells you about post-pandemic booms

People spend more, take more risks—and demand more of politicians.


American economic confidence has returned to pre-pandemic levels


International COVID-19 trial to restart with focus on immune responses


Recommended Reads

Misinformation, disinformation, and hoaxes: What’s the difference?

By Michael J O’Brien and Izzat Alsmadi

Sorting through the vast amount of information created and shared online is challenging, even for the experts.

Just talking about this ever-shifting landscape is confusing, with terms like “misinformation,” “disinformation” and “hoax” getting mixed up with buzzwords like “fake news.”

Misinformation is perhaps the most innocent of the terms – it’s misleading information created or shared without the intent to manipulate people. An example would be sharing a rumor that a celebrity died, before finding out it’s false.

Disinformation, by contrast, refers to deliberate attempts to confuse or manipulate people with dishonest information. These campaigns, at times orchestrated by groups outside the U.S., such as the Internet Research Agency, a well-known Russian troll factory, can be coordinated across multiple social media accounts and may also use automated systems, called bots, to post and share information online. Disinformation can turn into misinformation when spread by unwitting readers who believe the material.

Hoaxes, similar to disinformation, are created to persuade people that things that are unsupported by facts are true. For example, the person responsible for the celebrity-death story has created a hoax.

Though many people are just paying attention to these problems now, they are not new – and they even date back to ancient Rome. Around 31 B.C., Octavian, a Roman military official, launched a smear campaign against his political enemy, Mark Antony. This effort used, as one writer put it, “short, sharp slogans written on coins in the style of archaic Tweets.” His campaign was built around the point that Antony was a soldier gone awry: a philanderer, a womanizer, and a drunk not fit to hold office. It worked. Octavian, not Antony, became the first Roman emperor, taking the name Augustus Caesar.

The University of Missouri example

In the 21st century, new technology makes manipulation and fabrication of information simple. Social networks make it easy for uncritical readers to dramatically amplify falsehoods peddled by governments, populist politicians, and dishonest businesses.

Our research focuses specifically on how certain types of disinformation can turn what might otherwise be normal developments in society into major disruptions.

One sobering example we’ve reviewed in detail is a situation you might remember: racial tensions at the University of Missouri in 2015, in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. One of us, Michael O'Brien, was dean of the university’s College of Arts and Science at the time and saw firsthand the protests and their aftermath.

Black students at the university, just over 100 miles to the west of Ferguson, raised concerns about their safety, civil rights, and racial equity in society and on campus. Unhappy with the university’s responses, they began to protest.

The incident that got the most national attention involved a white professor in the communication department pushing student journalists away from an area where Black students had congregated in the center of campus, yelling, “I need some muscle over here!” in an effort to keep reporters at bay.

Other events didn’t get as much national coverage, including a hunger strike by a Black student and the resignations of university leaders. But there was enough publicity about racial tensions for Russian information warriors to take notice.

Soon, the hashtag #PrayforMizzou, created by Russian hackers using the university’s nickname, began trending on Twitter, warning residents that the Ku Klux Klan was in town and had joined the local police to hunt down Black students. A photo surfaced on Facebook purporting to show a large white cross burning on the lawn of the university’s library.

A Twitter user claimed the police were marching with the KKK, tweeting: “They beat up my little brother! Watch out!” and a picture of a black child with a severely bruised face. This user was later found to be a Russian troll who went on to spread rumors about Syrian refugees.

These were a rich mix of different types of false information. The photos of the burning cross and the bruised child were hoaxes – the photos were legitimate, but their context was fabricated. A Google search for “bruised black child,” for example, revealed that it was a year-old picture from a disturbance in Ohio.

The rumor about the KKK on campus started as disinformation by Russian hackers and then spread as misinformation, even ensnaring the student-body president, a young Black man who posted a warning on Facebook. When it became clear the information was false, he deleted the post.

The fallout

Undoubtedly, not all of the fallout from the Mizzou protests was the direct result of disinformation and hoaxes. But the disruptions were factors in big changes in student numbers.

In the two years following the protests, the university saw a 35% drop in freshman enrollment and an overall enrollment drop of 14%. That caused campus university officials to cut about 12% – or US$55 million – from the university’s budget, including significant layoffs of faculty and staff. Even today, the campus is not yet back to what it was before the protests, financially, socially or politically.

The take-home message is clear: the world is a dangerous place, made all the more so by malevolent intent, especially in the online age. Learning to recognize misinformation, disinformation and hoaxes help people stay better informed about what’s really happening.


How a brutal assault led a woman to one of the CIA's most valuable Russian spies

On a warm day in late September nearly 10 years ago, Lisa Sales was in the basement of her Virginia home, going through files belonging to her former tenant, a man who had just been arrested and would later plead guilty to assaulting her.

Sales, then in her early 40s, picked up a flash drive in a small glass dish where she kept odds and ends by the printer. She assumed, she later recounted, that it was hers and inserted it into her computer. Instead, she realized the flash drive belonged to her former tenant, and it contained an investment report listing total assets of more than $16 million, a seemingly inexplicable sum for someone who had been paying $2,000 a month to rent a basement room in her house.

Her interest piqued, she started digging for more among the belongings left behind after he was arrested. She came across a handwritten letter in Cyrillic and other financial documents in the recycling bin.

It had been a little over a week since Dmitry Mikhaylov had attacked her. Mikhaylov, a Russian immigrant attending graduate school, had not immediately struck Sales as a multimillionaire. Now she began to wonder about his real background. Could he have ties to the Russian mafia?


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