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    Senior Member JohnDoe2's Avatar
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    Fact-checkers inundated by the coronavirus' ongoing 'infodemic'

    Fact-checkers inundated by the coronavirus’ ongoing ‘infodemic’

    [A 5g mobile phone mast on April 04, 2020 in Cardiff, United Kingdom. There have been isolated cases of 5G phone masts being vandalized following claims online that the masts are responsible for coronavirus.
    (Matthew Horwood / Getty Images)

    Snopes tries to weather storm of increased demand amid financial uncertainties

    APRIL 12, 2020 5 AM

    Lucy at the chocolate factory — that’s what it’s like these days at Snopes, the 25-year-old fact-checking website headquartered in San Diego.

    They can’t keep up with everything coming down the conveyor belt of news and information running non-stop amid the coronavirus pandemic. So like Lucille Ball in that iconic 1952 episode of her TV sitcom, they’ve had to scramble.

    “We’re frustrated by how much there is to do, and how little resources there are to do it,” said Vinny Green, vice president of operations for the 17-person Snopes team.

    The global pandemic and its attendant restrictions have left hundreds of millions of people sheltered at home, where many of them go online or watch cable TV, anxiously looking for answers and comfort, and find themselves awash in what the World Health Organization has called “an infodemic.”

    One result: Dozens of pieces of telecommunications equipment in Britain, including cellphone towers, have been set on fire or vandalized in recent days, attacks that authorities believe were fueled by a false conspiracy theory linking the spread of the coronavirus to 5G wireless technology.

    In California, a virtual meeting of the California Fish and Game Commission got overrun Thursday by hundreds of angry listeners who believed untrue rumors about government officials preparing to cancel the upcoming fishing season statewide or maybe use the virus as an excuse to ban the sport entirely.

    “Unlike the pandemic itself, there is no single root cause behind the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus,” researchers from Oxford University said in a new report. “Instead, COVID-19 appears to be supplying the opportunity for very different actors with a range of different motivations and goals to produce a variety of types of misinformation about many different topics.”

    The researchers said that during the first three months of this year, because of the pandemic, there was a 900 percent increase in the number of fact checks by groups like Snopes, which started in 1994 to investigate urban legends, hoaxes and folklore and now bills itself as “the oldest and largest” site of its kind on the internet.

    [“We’re frustrated by how much there is to do, and how little resources there are to do it,” said Vinny Green, vice president of operations for Snopes.
    (Union-Tribune file)

    Traffic to has gone up 50 percent in the last 30 days, according to Green. “So many people are trying to find answers to their questions about the virus,” he said.

    They’ve looked at memes claiming pandemics happen every 100 years (misleading), reports that President Donald Trump will benefit financially if hydroxychloroquine becomes an established treatment (mostly false), and whether fabric masks should be sanitized in a microwave (false), among others.

    Its fact-checkers are assigned topics based on a variety of factors, including email sent to the site, the level of attention different issues are getting on social media platforms, and the potential harm to public health if a falsehood isn’t debunked.

    “We always try to address popular stuff that people are asking about,” Green said. “But let’s be honest: Right now, nothing else is being asked about.”

    Analyzing the spread

    The University of Oxford study, released Tuesday, looked at 225 pieces of content about the pandemic, all deemed false or misleading by independent fact-checkers. The items appeared from January through the end of March and were found for the most part on social media platforms.
    The largest single category of misinformation (39 percent) involved claims about the actions or policies of public officials and agencies, including government leaders and groups such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

    Second largest (24 percent) was false or misleading claims about how the virus is spreading, including misinformation about causes and cures and misinformation that blamed certain ethnic groups.

    Despite public pronouncements by various platforms that they are fighting misinformation, it persists, according to the study. It said that 59 percent of the debunked claims remained up or lacked warning labels on Twitter; 27 percent remained up on YouTube; and 24 percent were still on Facebook.

    Politicians, celebrities and other public figures were powerful sources of misinformation. Although they were the source of 20 percent of the false or misleading claims, the study found, they generated 69 percent of “total social media engagement,” a measure of how far and wide the content traveled.

    “Ordinary people” generated far more misinformation, but their posts got less traction — with a couple of exceptions. False claims that saunas and hair dryers prevent COVID-19 generated “large volumes of engagement,” the study said.

    Although it is difficult to assess motivation for the claims from the content itself, the researchers offered several possibilities: a desire to “troll,” the legitimate belief that the information is true, and political partisanship.

    They found that most of the misinformation (59 percent) reconfigured existing or true information rather than fabricating it outright (38 percent). Despite recent concerns about “deepfakes,” which use artificial intelligence to create videos, photos and audio of real people saying things they never said or doing things they never did, none of the misinformation in the study fit that bill.

    Dan Hallin, a communication professor at UC San Diego, said it’s not uncommon in crises for misinformation to flourish, but he said it’s important not to over-exaggerate how much people may be falling prey to it. In past epidemics, he said, most people relied on traditional media outlets and public health officials for information.

    But he does see some differences this time. Elected officials are taking control of televised press conferences instead of letting doctors and epidemiologists talk, and they haven’t always been spot-on factually, he said. And politics is playing a role.

    “One of the most striking things is the partisan divide in how seriously people are taking the virus, and what they believe to be true about it,” Hallin said. “That’s not something you normally see in a public-health crisis, and that’s being driven by partisan media. It’s had an effect that continues on to today.”

    A Pew Research Center survey last month of cable television viewers asked them whether they believed (correctly) that the virus originated in nature and not in a laboratory. Among MSNBC viewers, who tend to be liberal Democrats or lean that way, 66 percent attributed it to nature. Among Fox News viewers, who tend to be conservative Republicans or lean that way: 37 percent.

    ‘No silver bullet’

    The increase in demand for fact-checkers comes amid financial uncertainties for many of them.
    Snopes, like newspapers and magazines, has seen its advertising revenue decline and is ramping up efforts to attract more customers willing to pay for digital content. It launched a crowd-funding drive in December to raise money and is asking users to buy memberships.

    “We’re seeing record web traffic as people educate themselves on the coronavirus,” Snopes said in an open letter to readers last month. “We are doing everything we can to respond: to get the facts, to amplify voices of credible experts — to reach over the side of our tiny boat and offer a hand.

    “But who will keep the fact-checkers afloat?”

    The company said it was taking steps to prevent its workers from getting overwhelmed — giving them cash bonuses and additional paid leave, and scaling back on “routine” content and special projects.

    It encouraged readers to check public health sites for reliable information on how to protect themselves from the virus; to support local news publications; and to press companies like Facebook and Google to shut down misinformation on their platforms.

    Green, the Snopes vice president, said readers also need to be careful on social media.

    “Don’t share what you don’t know,” he said. “The share button is not your friend, or anyone else’s. If you haven’t taken the time to figure out whether it’s legitimate, amplifying it is never a good option.”

    The researchers at Oxford had a similar message.

    “Our findings suggest there will be no silver bullet or inoculation — no ‘cure’ for misinformation about the new coronavirus,” they wrote. “Instead, addressing the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 will take a sustained and coordinated effort by independent fact-checkers, independent news media, platform companies, and public authorities to help the public understand and navigate the pandemic.”
    Last edited by JohnDoe2; 04-12-2020 at 02:32 PM.

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    Senior Member JohnDoe2's Avatar
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