“It’s as if a nuclear information bomb exploded on social media,” says Watts, a longtime researcher of influence operations, who is already starting to track and log various conspiracy theories related to the news.
“Make no mistake — regardless of your politics — the President and first lady contracting covid-19 is a significant national crisis compounding on the pandemic that has taken over 200,000 Americans,” said Graham Brookie, the director and managing editor of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab. “We’re going to see a lot misinformation — and disinformation — about this in the coming days and weeks.”
Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis could be an ideal target for foreign adversaries seeking to sow discord among the American public.
“Any time the President of the United States is at risk is an opportunity to foreign adversaries,” Brookie told me. “It’s why the United States has contingency and continuity plans in place across the government before a crisis happens. Those continuity plans need to account for the low likelihood for things like military attacks but a near guarantee of foreign adversaries adjusting ongoing influence operations to the event.”
There is broad evidence that Russian actors frequently seize on major news events to spread information and amplify divisions on social media, as they did to help Trump during the 2016 presidential race. With a month until the 2020 election, and intelligence agencies already tracking Russian influence operations to denigrate Biden, adversaries could seize on the chaos to undermine Americans’ faith in the election process.
Watts said he’s already seeing Russian media sources, including the Russian state-backed English language outlet RT, spread speculation about Joe Biden’s health and spread photos of him coughing.
“I would expect Russia to amplify, heavy, the uncertainty and play up disastrous scenarios,” he said. “Or speculate about Biden.”
Trump’s own falsehoods about the pandemic and integrity of the election process could further complicate matters.
That’s created an information environment that’s already ripe for chaos. Just yesterday, researchers at Cornell University published a report that found Trump is the “single largest driver” of coronavirus misinformation.
The falsehoods could make it difficult for many Americans to trust updates about the shocking situation directly from the president and his allies.
“Right now the source of our awareness is the President’s Twitter feed, which is the largest vector of disinformation in the world,” Watts said.
The news could also test social media companies that are already scrambling to address an explosion of misinformation this year.
The companies have been expanding their policies to address threats to undermine the legitimacy of the election and an “infodemic” of falsehoods about covid-19. But this diagnosis puts them in uncharted territory.
“The larger social media platforms have taken steps to be more aggressive against misleading information about the pandemic, but have struggled to get ahead of being reactive to political disinformation about the election and by President Trump,” Brookie said. “This is exact convergence of both.”
Facebook began tracking potential misinformation related to the diagnosis immediately after Trump’s announcement, company spokesman Andy Stone said. The company has expanded its policies throughout the last year to address coronavirus misinformation, and it also has partnerships with fact-checking organizations to limit or remove the spread of misleading health information.
Twitter and YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Experts have been warning for months that a candidate testing positive for coronavirus is a “potential disinformation disaster.”
Watts authored a report in July in which he sounded the alarm about such a situation. He warned that if a presidential candidate is hospitalized or dies, it could lead to an explosion in conspiracy theories that would degrade trust in U.S. institutions.
“We’ve already seen a milder version of this situation with former presidential candidate Herman Cain, who was hospitalized for several weeks before succumbing to covid-19 — speculation currently runs amok on social media,” Watts wrote at the time. “Should this occur for Trump or Biden, surely we’d see stories alleging a political party’s replacing a candidate without a voting process, the substitution made by elites instead of voters … the list conspiracies could go on for pages.”
At this time, Trump is showing only mild, cold-like symptoms of coronavirus, per the New York Times. First lady Melania Trump said they are “feeling good” in a tweet last night.
Experts warned the public to take precautions to ensure information is factual.
“I hope the President and first lady have a speedy recovery, and I hope we can all stick to facts in the meantime,” Brookie said.
Our top tabs
Scrutiny of the tech industry is heating up in Washington in the final weeks before the election.
The House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee yesterday held its final hearing in its more than year-long investigation into competition in Silicon Valley.
Remarks from Rep. David Cicilline, the subcommittee chairman, signaled the lawmakers’ final report could be a scathing indictment of the industry. He accused the companies of acting as gatekeepers and abusing their control to expand their power.
“These once-scrappy underdog start-ups have grown into the kind of monopolies that we saw more than a century ago during the time of oil barons and railroad tycoons,” Cicilline said.
Meanwhile, Senate lawmakers subpoenaed the chief executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter as lawmakers from both parties criticize their content moderation practices — though for very different reasons, as Tony Romm reported.
“These CEOs can make time to spend a few hours with the committee,” said Republican Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), the committee’s chairman, citing the need for oversight of the tech companies efforts to address “Americans’ speech at a critical time in our democratic process.”
Yet there are persistent partisan divides over which issues lawmakers think should take priority. Republican lawmakers focused on accusations that Silicon Valley companies are biased against conservatives, a charge they’ve brought with limited evidence that the tech companies deny. After the last presidential debate, the majority of most-shared articles on Facebook came from conservative news outlets.
Senate Democrats expressed uneasiness with this focus as they voted to subpoena the tech executives.
“This appears to me like an attempt to work the refs coming up to the election, and I sincerely hope to be proven wrong,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who along with fellow Democrats urged the committee to focus its attention a broader range of issues, including antitrust and privacy.
Amazon says nearly 20,000 employees tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The retail giant disclosed the infection rates after broad criticism from workers, labor groups and lawmakers over its lack of transparency about its infection rates, Rachel Lerman reports. Critics and workers accused Amazon of failing to keep its promises to institute proper safety measures during the pandemic.
The total, which also includes grocery store workers at Whole Foods, accounts for about 1.44 percent of Amazon’s more than 1 million front-line workers. The number does not include Amazon’s thousands of contract delivery drivers. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).
The highest infection rates were in Minnesota, where warehouse employees have staged multiple protests demanding safer working conditions. Amazon, which is gearing up to hire tens of thousands of seasonal employees for the holidays, said it conducts “thousands” of tests each day at its 650 locations.
Amazon encouraged its rivals to also share infection rates. “We all have a vested interest in returning to some version of normal and safely helping our communities and the economy,” the company wrote in a blog post.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the anti-Amazon Athena coalition called for Congress and other public officials to investigate the reported cases.
“Amazon’s confession that nearly 20,000 of its workers have been infected by COVID-19 is the most damning evidence we have seen that corporate America has completely failed to protect our country’s frontline workers in this pandemic,” said Marc Perrone, UFCW International president. “The lives of America’s essential workers are on the line and we will not rest until Amazon and Jeff Bezos are held accountable.”
Tech companies missed early warning signs about the threat of QAnon.
Tech companies who were under scrutiny by Republicans for alleged bias against conservatives considered the pro-Trump conspiracy authentic political speech, people familiar with internal discussions at the companies say. QAnon supporters, who launched online harassment campaigns managed to skirt policies around incitement and spam as well.
QAnon believers follow an unfounded conspiracy theory that alleges Democrats and celebrities are members of a deep-state bureaucracy marked by Satanism and pedophilia. They believe that only President Trump can stop the “deep state.”
A lack of action allowed the conspiracy theory to attract tens of thousands of more followers, using Twitter’s and Facebook’s own engagement tools to do it. “I don’t think QAnon gets as big as it is without the platforms as an essential piece of the infrastructure holding these communities together,” said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. “Early intervention does matter.”
Social media companies have acknowledged that they were slow to act on the threat and have since taken steps to remove QAnon content. “Whenever we introduce a change to our policies, we can look back and wish that we’d introduced it earlier,” said Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity. “And I think in the case of QAnon in particular, there were signals that I wish we and the entire industry and the world had responded to sooner.”
Despite recent efforts to crack down on the content, violent themes and harmful disinformation continue to pop up in private groups. Just recently, QAnon reports spread false claims that members of the antifa movement had started wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.
Facebook moderators forced to return to in-person work are expressing safety concerns.
“The majority of the employees are in extreme distress over this news and worried for their safety,” one employee told the Verge.
The employees had been working from home since March because of health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Facebook cited the shift as one reason it’s been slower in moderating some forms of content — and as a reason for the sudden return. “A lot of the work done by the Accenture Austin team involves work streams that can’t be done from home,” Facebook said in a statement.
Employees are demanding an increase in pay and benefits to compensate for the risks associated with returning to the office.
The return to work comes in contrast to Facebook’s treatment of corporate employees during the pandemic, who are not expected to return to the office until July 2021. Facebook agreed in May to a $52 million settlement with current and former moderators who sued the company over the mental health toll of the work.
Rant and rave
Facebook is pushing its Groups content into News Feeds.
The feature has been a breeding ground for some of the platform’s most violent and toxic content, raising concerns that the new feature could surface that content to a wider audience.
Facebook is hoping to head off some of the concerns by introducing new automated moderation features that allow administrators to restrict some keywords and posts, the company announced in a blog post. The company is also hoping to attract more users to Groups with new real-time chat options and Q&A features. Groups will also be able to now partner with brands for sponsored content.
Facebook’s push to highlight Groups’ content raised concerns about ongoing disinformation and violent content in its private groups. BuzzFeed News’s Ryan Mac:
The New York Times’s Mike Isaac:
Inside the industry
Amazon pulled merchandise featuring comments by the president that have been embraced by right-wing extremists.
Merchandise with the phrases “stand back” and “stand by” featuring the Proud Boys logo surfaced on the website shortly after Tuesday’s presidential debate. Amazon said it removed the items Thursday, CNN reported.
- The Brookings Institution will hold an event on what to expect on tech policy in the next presidential administration on Tuesday at 2 p.m.
Before you log off
Covid ‘long haulers’ have nowhere else to turn — so they’re finding each other online, Kelsey Ables reports.