Factually: Tools for a shifting debate

While governments say they are relying on science to keep the public safe, they are also watching sales and income taxes plummet and groups of protesters demand more freedom.

This week we’ve seen examples of how governments are trying to balance those competing pressures.

President Donald Trump announced in a tweet Wednesday that the White House Coronavirus Task Force would continue its work indefinitely, though its focus would be on, “safety and opening up our country again.”

As India begins to slowly open parts of its economy, The New York Times is reporting fractures among different Indian states over how to properly proceed.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing ever louder calls to lift his country’s lockdown.

In the meantime, individuals still need reliable information to help them make their own decisions about interacting with others. We want to highlight a few resources that track the spread of COVID-19 locally.

  • In early April, researchers at Harvard University developed the How We Feel app to crowdsource data about COVID-19 infections in the United States. The app gives users anonymized data about how many people in their town or city are not feeling well, and connects them to resources for testing and ways to protect from the virus. It also gives users the option to contribute data by asking for their zip code, asking how they are feeling, as well as a few questions about possible symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus map has become a mainstay of people tracking the pandemic, but it now also includes a tab called “Critical Trends” that gives the public detailed charts about how the virus spreads, which states are collecting detailed data on how different racial groups are affected by the virus, plus guidance on understanding the mass of COVID-19 information.
  • Instagram’s co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger launched Rt.live, a website that tracks the spread of COVID-19 in U.S. states. It uses a calculation called the Rt (pronounced R naught) to show the average number of people that COVID-19 carriers will infect. If the number is less than 1, that means the disease spread is currently declining. If it’s above 1, that means the disease is actively spreading.

Ultimately each person decides how much risk they can tolerate. These resources can help avoid partisanship and misinformation.

– Harrison Mantas, IFCN 

. . . technology

  • Anti-quarantine protesters are moving their organizing efforts to MeWe after Facebook cracked down on coronavirus-related content, Business Insider reported.
    • MeWe, a subscription-based social platform, is now hosting groups with names that are iterations of some on Facebook. Some examples from the Business Insider story: Ohioans Against Excessive Quarantine, Open Texas Now!, and #ReOpenFL, among others.

  • Misinformation researchers cited by Facebook are worried the company may have misinterpreted their findings.
    • Stat News reporter Erin Brodwin spoke with authors from two of three studies cited by Facebook as key to the company’s approach on misinformation.
    • The study authors suggested the company could label misinformation as false without provoking a “backfire effect.”

. . . politics

  • The debate over whether Americans should cast their votes through the mail during a pandemic is provoking online disinformation and conspiracy theories that could undermine trust in the results, The Associated Press reported.
    • Users on social media “are already pushing grandiose theories casting doubt on the method,” reported Eric Tucker and Amanda Seitz. They added that President Trump has encouraged the doubts, saying recently that “a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting.”
  • Press freedom advocates and journalists in Singapore say that two laws designed to block false news and criticism of the courts are being used to silence and harass independent news outlets, the Voice of America reported.

. . . science and health

    • What kind of a person would share misinformation about the new coronavirus? Actually there are seven types, the BBC reported this week. Disinformation reporter Marianna Spring wrote that she came up with the personas after investigating hundreds of misleading stories during the pandemic.
    • Amid a rash of conspiracy theories tying 5G wireless technology to the new coronavirus, businesses are now running ads on social media to sell products that supposedly “protect” against the electromagnetic waves. Media Matters found five examples on Facebook.

Ever since the coronavirus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province has been a fascination for the rest of the world. But what does the place actually look like? A video circulating on social media purports to show us. It features aerial shots of sophisticated skyscrapers and other architectural wonders.

Except it isn’t Wuhan. AFP’s fact-checking group, employing reverse-image search tools and maps, isolated all the images in the video and determined their actual locations. They were all in China, but not in Wuhan. One image could not be pinpointed, prompting AFP to ask readers for help.

The video, which has been shared widely on social media, is “actually a compilation of aerial shots from across China and taken from multiple sources,” reported AFP’s Robert Barca in Slovakia. “Some of the footage was taken from the Chinese version of the video-sharing platform TikTok, called Douyin, while other parts were taken from Twitter or from years-old YouTube videos.”

What we liked: Barca’s fact-check shows extensive use of verification tools to isolate and identify a broad range of images. He’s also transparent that he couldn’t identify one image, so he turned to crowd-sourcing to see if readers could contribute.

— Susan Benkelman, API 

  1. The IFCN’s WhatsApp chatbot is live. It connects users of the popular messaging service to the over 5,000 fact-checks about COVID-19 compiled from fact-checking networks in over 70 countries.
  2. An analysis by the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University found that nearly half of fact-checkers operate in places where legal protections and the safety of the press are rated by the World Press Freedom Index as “problematic,” “difficult” or “very serious,” Duke’s Mark Stencel wrote for Poynter.
  3. Researchers with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab found evidence of two separate coordinated misinformation campaigns that used a network of Facebook groups to profit from COVID-19 fears.
  4. A journalist who does visual investigations shared one of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes. Malachy Browne is on the New York Times team that won the international reporting prize for a series detailing Russia’s influence operations abroad, including bombings in Syria. For background, Browne’s team in December wrote about their verification process.
  5. The Red Cross said it will collaborate with social media influencers around the world to combat the spread of misinformation surrounding the coronavirus, NBC reported.

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.

Harrison and Susan

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