Factually: Truth-tellers in white coats

When Brad Pitt played Dr. Anthony Fauci on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, the “doctor” promised that as long as he isn’t fired, he would “be out there puttin’ out the facts for whoever’s listening.” The parody contained a biting truth: These days medical professionals are often default fact-checkers to politicians.

Fauci is in a class by himself, of course. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has been called “America’s Doctor.” When he’s not at the White House’s coronavirus task force briefings, the hashtag #wheresfauci circulates on Twitter.

His popularity reflects the public’s desire to hear from health care professionals right now, more than from politicians looking to spin their way through the crisis. A recent Reuters Institute survey of consumption of news about COVID-19 in six countries found that scientists, doctors and health experts were more trusted than other sources, including politicians. In the United States, 80 percent trusted these professionals, compared with 27 percent who trusted politicians.

This may be one reason videos from doctors and nurses on social media have drawn so much attention, or that photos of nurses counter-protesting against “reopen” activists are so powerful. That now-viral image of a nurse in scrubs and a face mask shows her quietly using her authority as a medical professional to, in essence, fact-check protesters who say it’s time to reopen.

People have been looking to these doctors and nurses for the facts on the ground – what they can do to prevent contracting the virus, who is most susceptible and what treatments are working – and in real time.

Medical professionals have become such a staple of truth-telling that the most prominent ones – like Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House task force on the pandemic – are criticized when they don’t intervene on behalf of the truth.

“Birx, a physician and diplomat, came under scrutiny Thursday when she failed, in real time, to correct Trump’s assertion at the White House briefing that injecting disinfectant into the body might combat the virus,” Stephen Collinson and Maeve Reston wrote this week on CNN.com.

Birx likely stayed quiet out of self-preservation, and even that might not have been enough. Axios on Tuesday quoted a White House official as saying Fauci and Birx will “take a back seat to the forward-looking, ‘what’s next’ message.”

That existing tension between political and medical messages will only become more pronounced as the “reopen” debate continues. That’s because, ultimately, society’s reopening will be driven by how comfortable people feel circulating in public places again. Who they listen to will be key to deciding their comfort level.

– Susan Benkelman, API

. . . technology

  • The IFCN and Facebook are distributing another $300,000 in Coronavirus Fact-Checking Grants to support eight projects in Australia, France, Indonesia, Canada, Jordan, Kenya, Taiwan and Ukraine.
  • YouTube announced Tuesday it is partnering with the IFCN to distribute $1 million in Fact-Checking Development Grants. Applications with detailed eligibility and selection criteria will be announced May 20, and the winners will be announced in August.
  • A GIF of Joe Biden with his tongue out was widely circulated on social media recently as a deepfake, but it was not one – despite tweets to the contrary, Vice News reported. It was made with an animation app called Mug Life. “It’s a video editing job that a six year old with an iPhone could do,” wrote Samantha Cole.
    • It may not have been a deepfake, but it went viral. The GIF gained traction on Twitter when President Trump retweeted it on Sunday.

. . . politics

  • People who see headlines paired with alerts about their credibility from fact-checkers, the public, news media and even artificial intelligence can reduce users’ intention to share them, according to a new study by professors at New York University and Indiana University. However the alerts’ effectiveness varied according to political orientation and gender, Science Daily reported.
    • The indicators had an impact on everyone regardless of political orientation, but Democrats were less likely to share content flagged as false than were independents or Republicans. The study surveyed 1,500 U.S. news consumers.

    • The study had good news for fact-checkers. News items with flags by fact-checkers were less likely to be shared than those flagged by the news media, the public or by AI.
  • The Fact-checkers Legal Support Initiative called attention to the increased threats fact-checking organizations around the world are facing in the midst of the COVID-19 infomedic.
    • Fact-checking networks in Spain and Greece have faced harassment from political parties, and a network in Latvia has been besieged by attacks from conspiracy theorists.
    • The group, which is a collaboration among the IFCN, the Media Legal Defense Initiative and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, released a one-page document outlining its services connecting fact-checking networks to pro-bono legal defense.

. . . science and health

  • Rohit Khanna, executive editor of Indian fact-checking network The Quint, released this video with five lessons Indians can take away from the country’s experience with COVID-19. It runs the gamut from India’s testing rate to inefficiencies in the healthcare system to addressing how Indians have handled racism and xenophobia.

  • Ugandan pop star-turned opposition leader Bobi Wine has used his popularity to circulate the message – in a song – that the coronavirus needs to be taken seriously. The song launched a larger #DontGoViral campaign aimed at mobilizing artists across Africa to combat misinformation through their creativity, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Radio-Canada’s Décrypteurs looked at a claim by European scientists that runners and cyclists could potentially exacerbate the spread COVID-19.

Two teams of engineering researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium used mathematical models to show that runners and cyclists could aid the spread because of their speed.

The researchers recommended runners and cyclists stay farther apart than the recommended 6 feet to prevent exposure to potentially harmful droplets.

What the researchers didn’t take into account, and what Décrypteurs correctly assessed, was how much virus would exist in these droplets. Décrypteurs spoke with virologists who pointed out that runners and cyclists would produce smaller aerosolized particles that would not contain enough of the virus to get someone sick.

What we liked: This fact-check serves as a good example of why it is important to consider a source’s expertise. The researchers in this study are engineers who are qualified to tell us about the aerodynamics of droplets, but not qualified to say whether those particles lead to increased transmission. Décrypteurs’ fact-check reminds us to be mindful of a source’s expertise when evaluating its quality.

— Harrison Mantas, IFCN

  1. The European Journalism Centre has published a new Verification Handbook for Disinformation and Media Manipulation. Its editor, BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman, walked through its chapters in this tweet thread.

  2. Also in the book department: Disinformation experts Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner have released “You Are Here. A Field Guide for Navigating Polluted Information.”

  3. The Trump-aligned vloggers Diamond & Silk are no longer associated with Fox News. The Daily Beast reported that the network cut ties with them because they had been spreading conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.

  4. A Facebook page called Energy Therapy, popular with alternative medicine adherents, has been identified as a misinformation “superspreader,” BuzzFeed reported.

  5. Climate scientists and activists are calling a new documentary by Michael Moore about the “hypocrisy” of the environmental movement “dangerous, misleading and destructive” and are urging online platforms to take it down.

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.

Susan and Harrison


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