Factually: A game called ‘Truth or Dare the Platform’

Last fall, then-presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren ran an ad on Facebook falsely claiming that the tech giant’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, had endorsed President Donald Trump for re-election. It was an obvious stunt.

Anyone paying attention knew Zuckerberg hadn’t endorsed Trump. Warren, a fierce critic of Facebook, wanted to call attention to the company’s policy of not fact-checking political ads, and she even admitted in the ad that the Zuckerberg endorsement hadn’t happened. She was just goading the platform to take her ad down. It didn’t.

Warren wasn’t the only one to play the game, which might be called “Truth or Dare the Platform.” At about the same time a marketer and political activist in San Francisco filed to run for governor of California just to protest the platforms’ policies.

This happened before the deadly serious COVID-19 pandemic, which has, for good reason, motivated the platforms to take a harder line on misinformation. Their tough stance hasn’t always extended to politics, though, and some experts argue that it shouldn’t.

But, inevitably, misinformation about the coronavirus and the election have converged. Last month, Democrat Joe Biden’s campaign tweeted a video edited to make it appear as if Trump called the coronavirus the Democrats’ “new hoax.” That wasn’t right, concluded fact-checkers from PolitiFactThe Washington Post’s Fact-Checker and FactCheck.org. The president was accusing Democrats of politicizing the virus, and said this politicization was the Democrats’ new hoax.

The Trump campaign objected to the Biden tweet. But Twitter never removed the video. So now the president’s campaign is playing Truth or Dare the Platform in retaliation. Trump’s re-election campaign last week released a manipulated audio to make it sound as if Biden was calling the virus a hoax. Much like Warren last year, the Trump campaign was essentially daring Twitter to take it down.

The Trump campaign’s communications director told Axios: “Turnabout is fair play. If the Biden campaign objects to manipulated video, they should take theirs down.”

The upshot is that we now have a presidential re-election campaign releasing a manipulated audio to retaliate against a challenger who released a manipulated video. Is your head spinning yet?

By now it’s clear to everyone (well, almost everyone) that the coronavirus is no hoax, and, presumably, that no candidate for president believes it is one.

But the point of this game is not to hold politicians to the truth. It’s to test the platforms’ policies and dare them to take down false content. And it now appears to be a game we’ll all be watching until November.

— Susan Benkelman, API

. . . technology

  • WhatsApp has limited message forwarding to slow the spread of coronavirus misinformation. Now its 2 billion users will only be able to forward a piece of content to one chat at a time.
    • Fabricio Benevenuto, a professor at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, in Brazil, said the company essentially found a way to promote a digital form of social distancing. The IFCN’s reporter, Harrison Mantas, also talked to fact-checkers around the world to get their reactions to this announcement.

. . . politics

  • Five Brazilian fact-checking organizations (Agência Lupa, Aos Fatos, Boatos.org, e-Farsas and Estadão Verifica) co-signed an open letter to national authorities asking them to stop distorting facts about the pandemic. The article was published by two major newspapers (Folha de S.Paulo e O Estado de S.Paulo) and also has an English version.
    • Posts from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro were among thousands of COVID-19 videos removed by YouTube for violating policies related to the spread of medical misinformation, the company’s product chief told Axios. Bolsonaro has been skeptical of the virus and the importance of social distancing and other safety measures.
  • Since the term “fake news” was popularized by Trump, repressive regimes have used the concept to pass draconian new speech laws, Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, wrote in The Guardian.
    • In Hungary, for example, anything Prime Minister Viktor Orbán deems “fake news” will be punishable by up to five years in prison, which Mudde wrote would be “a death sentence for independent media.”

. . . science and health

  • Pagella Politica, in Italy, has launched Facta, a new site focused on viral hoaxes and coronavirus misinformation. The new page has been active since last Thursday and has a WhatsApp channel. In one week, it has already received more than 1,000 requests to assess COVID-19 content.

  • The Coronavirus Fact-Checking Grants announced the first batch of recipients: 13 organizations were approved and will receive more than $500,000 to develop projects to fight COVID-19 mis/disinformation.

  • COVID-19 is “a case study in the interplay between contagion, information, misinformation, and behavior,” a computer scientist and a mathematician wrote in Stat this week.
    • “The spread of information — and misinformation — has been playing a crucial role throughout the unfolding coronavirus outbreak and should serve as a wake-up call for scientists who model epidemics,” wrote Laurent Hebert-Dufresne and Vicky Chuquiao Yang.

To prevent the spread of misinformation about the new coronavirus pandemic, 22 fact-checking organizations in Latin America launched two very useful databases.

The project, from chequeado.com/latamcoronavirus, allows not only the fact-checking community but also researchers and interested citizens to find verified content regarding official prevention measures in 16 countries.

And, on the same page, users can also read the latest COVID-19 fact-checks that have been published in the region. This content has been extracted from the international database maintained by the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance and translated into Spanish.

Each day, fact-checkers in Peru, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Cuba, Guatemala, Uruguay and Nicaragua are updating the website. As of April 8, it had 500 pieces of information regarding governmental measures and about 700 fact-checks.

What we liked: Coordinated by Chequeado, in Argentina, Latin American fact-checkers took the collaboration to a new level. Working together, they built databases that not only inform people about the latest hoaxes but also help them know what authorities are doing is nothing less than brilliant.

— Cristina Tardáguila, IFCN

  1. Telephone towers were set on fire in the UK in recent days, reportedly by people who believe that 5G phone technology is linked to the coronavirus.
  2. Some African countries are pressing criminal charges against and threatening to imprison people spreading falsehoods about COVID-19, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail.

  3. COVID-19 testing scams are popping up in the United States. In Kentucky, officials described a flagrant attempt to prey on people’s fear and take their money and personal information.

  4. Les Décodeurs, in France, launched a new service on WhatsApp to inform people about the coronavirus situation and answer their questions.

  5. LeadStories, in the United States, “is no longer the ugliest fact-checking website in the world,” said its co-founder Maarten Schenk, in an email.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org. And if this newsletter was forwarded to you, or if you’re reading it on the web, you can subscribe here. Thanks for reading.

Cristina and Susan

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