Journalists Battle the Misinformation Pandemic

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Ordinarily, when it snows in Washington D.C, hundreds of kids shuffle up Capitol Hill and tumble down the west side of the U.S. Capitol, long known to residents of Washington, D.C. as one of the best places for sledding.

Unfortunately, when several inches of snow dropped on the nation’s Capitol at the end of January, there wasn’t a sled in sight anywhere near the Capitol. Kids were kept away by fencing and heightened security following a domestic terror attack by supporters of former President Donald Trump, who were driven to violence by a toxic mix of deliberate misinformation and wild conspiracy theories.

It’s hard to blame news organizations for what happened on Jan. 6. After all, reporters had been covering online extremist groups like the QAnon and the Proud Boys for years, warning readers of a growing movement that was organizing online using the same social media platforms we innocently turn to share photos of our food or connect with our loved ones.

The militarized fencing that now surrounds the Capitol is a tangible scar left behind in the wake of deadly violence that festered and metastasized in groups on Facebook or threads on Twitter, and was hyped in a pro-Trump echo chamber on Fox News and other outlets. Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, refers to it as a  “radicalization” of Americans, led to believe an alternate set of facts than mainstream news consumers.

“Most of these people aren’t just going to suddenly start reading real news. It’s not going to happen,” said Ben Collins, who covers disinformation, extremism and the internet for NBC News.

Collins thinks with Trump out of office, some QAnon supporters have finally realized they’ve been conned by an anonymous user on an extremist message board. But sadly, for most, the internet and its tools provide a safe haven for them to simply jump to the next conspiracy theory.

“They’re going through the annals to try to find any conspiracy theory that makes sense of why Trump’s not president anymore,” Collins said. “They are very well accustomed to finding loopholes in reality to make what they think feels good into their own reality.”

What is QAnon and Where Does It Go From Here?

Everyone has heard of QAnon at this point, an online conspiracy theory that somehow linked human trafficking, child abuse, devil worshiping, and Democrats in a grand plot to take down Trump. It involves a supposed government insider named “Q” with top security clearance (the alias is a reference to Q-level security clearance) who claimed to have access to Trump’s secret plan to take down those involved and ultimately execute them.

What started as a fringe group of Trump supporters wearing “Q” t-shirts has since gone mainstream, taking bold and deadly steps into the real world. One supporter is accused of murdering a mob boss in New York City. Another was arrested after allegedly threatening to kill President Joe Biden. A number of suspected QAnon followers were arrested for their alleged roles in the insurrection at the Capitol.

Will Sommer reports on right-wing fringe groups for the Daily Beast and is working on a book about QAnon. He’s been following the group since its inception nearly four years ago, and thinks its members are at an inflection point now that Biden is in the White House, Trump is playing golf in Mar-a-Lago, and the supposed “storm” they were all promised never materialized. 

“I think we’ve seen a lot of QAnon people rally around the new take, that the deep state is so much tougher than they anticipated and maybe they’ll have to wait longer for the storm,” Sommer said. “But I think the important thing to note here is that QAnon really is not showing any signs of going away.”

Sommer began reporting on the far right and conspiracy theories in early 2016 while at Washington City Paper, and thinks there are a lot of angles of the movement for local journalists to cover. Obviously, there are the violent acts that are obviously breaking news, but there are also the more mundane but no less tragic stories about family members losing their loved ones down these online rabbit holes, and the ways these groups prey on normal people.

“Publications should be aware of ‘Save the Children’ rallies, which effectively function as QAnon front groups,” Sommer said. “When a lot of these events were going on last summer, a lot of these local TV stations were like, ‘Oh, what a nice group of people trying to stop child sex trafficking.’ And of course, the last thing you want to do is give a very flattering portrayal of QAnon on TV.”

The balancing act comes in deciding how and when to cover a fringe group with extremist views. While reporting is obviously meant to educate and inform the community, the flipside is the inadvertent publicity it provides to potentially dangerous groups looking for oxygen. Sommer suggests focusing on the real-world impact in the community of these internet groups.

One example came in 2019, when an innocuous tweet by former FBI Director James Comey was twisted and interpreted by QAnon supporters as a planned attack on a California school’s fundraiser. Officials ultimately canceled the event out of an abundance of caution, afraid right-wing vigilantes would show up armed looking to prevent the “false flag” event.

“When you’re talking about crime, or families, or public health, I think that’s all great stuff to cover,” Sommer said. “If you’re just hanging out in the QAnon chatroom and saying, ‘There’s a news event and here’s what the QAnon people think of it,’ I think that has more limited value.”

When QAnon Becomes Mayor

About the most interesting thing that happens every year in the quiet little town of Sequim, Wash. is the annual Lavender Festival, billed as the largest in North America.

Needless to say, QAnon wasn’t on the radar of Michael Dashiell, a reporter and editor at the town’s weekly newspaper, the Sequim Gazette. So, when William Armacost, the town’s mayor, called the conspiracy theory a “truth movement” during a radio interview and urged residents to watch QAnon videos on YouTube, it caught Dashiell’s attention.

“I watched the video, which YouTube has since taken down. It wasn’t your typical right-wing screed, it was just alien to me,” Dashiell said. “That was the trigger for our initial story. It’s not just his own personal political views, now he’s talking about these things while representing the city.”

The Gazette’s reporting on Armacost has since drawn national attention. Even CNN sent a news crew into town to speak with the mayor, who backtracked a bit on the conspiracy theory’s fringe views with the national spotlight locked on him. The challenge for Dashiell and his staff remains covering a mayor who may believe in a dangerous movement doing normal mayor stuff, like handing out certificates to firefighters and cutting ribbons when new businesses open.

“It’s tough. Life still goes on, and we’ll still quote him when it comes to performing the normal tasks of his office,” Dashiell said. “I don't know if we need to mention QAnon every single time. We'll just see where it goes from here.”

One change Dashiell plans to make is to be more mindful of the beliefs and social media postings of future political candidates. With Armacost, reporters were aware of some of his views prior to running for mayor due to posts on Facebook, but considered them the personal beliefs of a private citizen that didn’t really come up before taking office.

“I don't necessarily want to put someone on trial for their beliefs,” Dashiell said. “But this maybe has changed my mind about that. We definitely need to take a closer look at candidates and what they espouse on social media.”

Behind Closed Doors

As journalists, we tend to focus most of our attention on the large social media platforms, like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Rightfully so, since their large audiences provide the oxygen for fringe conspiracy theories to thrive.

Take QAnon. It began on a relatively obscure platform called 4Chan before leaping to YouTube, where a recommendation algorithm built for engagement kept feeding victims a straight and study diet of related videos with little to no pushback until the platform cracked down on QAnon content.

But lesser known or used platforms and apps have the same ability to spread misinformation, especially on the local level. Nextdoor, an app most people turn to when trying to find a decent contractor or are looking for a local teenager to mow their lawns, has become a hot bed of misinformation on topics ranging from COVID-19 to local elections.

Basically, when a user signs up for Nextdoor, they join (or create) an online community of users in and around their own neighborhood. On the one hand, having a limited audience of readers limits the potential for misinformation to be spread widely. Unfortunately, it also creates dark corners of the internet where there is little oversight from journalists or even local officials, allowing rumors and conspiracy theories to thrive.

In Newark, Del., misinformation that was spread about a local school district contributed to a failed referendum that forced the elimination of 63 jobs. Will Oremus, a senior writer for Medium’s OneZero, is a local resident and had a front row seat for misleading claims about the district’s supposedly corrupt administrators and finances.

“Nextdoor is structurally opaque. You can only view the posts that are from your neighborhood or surrounding neighborhoods,” Oremus said. “So, if you have a local paper with a handful of reporters, they're not even going to see a lot of discussions about local issues on Nextdoor.”

The same is true on Facebook, where extremism breeds and festers in private groups that are walled off from journalists. Several people were killed during a series of incidents in India in 2018 based on false information shared on WhatsApp, a messaging application owned by Facebook. As a result, Facebook put a limit on the number of people a message on WhatsApp could be forwarded to, an attempt to stop misinformation from going viral.

While it may seem hard for local journalists to add more to their plate, Oremus suggests they join Nextdoor, find local Facebook Groups, and generally try to keep an eye on the online world their community inhabits. There also may even be opportunities to chime in on a thread with a story you’ve written that injects facts into a discussion and promotes the credibility of your news organization.

“It’s easy to see all the garbage on a site like Nextdoor or Facebook and think, ‘Well, I just don’t want to deal with that,’ I’m just going to stay above that fray,” Oremus said. “But those are your readers. That’s your community. And if that’s where they’re spending time, I think it’s worth being on there.”

It’s a Problem Tech Companies Need to Tackle

Journalists aren’t going to fact check our way out of this misinformation pandemic, especially when true believers are conditioned to mistrust news outlets as biased or agenda driven. So, it’s largely up to the tech companies themselves to stop the rampant spread of misinformation on their platforms, something they seem more prepared to do in the wake of the Capitol riot.

Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube all banned Trump from their platforms in the waning days of his administration, and by most accounts, it had a dramatic impact on the amount of misinformation spread across their platforms.

By one measure, done by the research firm Zignal Labs, misinformation about election fraud dropped 73 percent in the week after Trump was banned from Twitter and other platforms.

“There’s no tip of the spear, no guy at the top to guide (the misinformation),” Collins said. “Trump was like a clearinghouse…any weird conspiracy theory, and he would just shoot it out there. And that gave news outlets like Newsmax, OAN, and Fox News tacit approval to cover it.”

Experts say there’s plenty these platforms can do to prevent misinformation from going viral, and though they may be late, many do appear to be taking the threat seriously. Twitter is testing a new feature called “Birdwatch” that will allow users to review and moderate tweets, while Facebook has created an Oversight Board comprised of 20 experts from around the world that make content moderation decisions on the platform.

“I think we're finally in a position where these companies have had enough of this and they don't want their entire brands associated with ruining democracies,” Collins said. “We’ll find out if it works.”

Local Reporting is the Most Important Thing

Conspiracy theories morph, adapt and take on new forms. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed an important and dangerous strain of this extreme trend, whether its people refusing to wear a mask or really ludicrous ideas vaccines containing microchips for the government to track people.

Collins said that for his reporting on disinformation and extremism for NBC News, he often focuses on the impact these outlandish ideas have on real people, whether it’s a loved one getting lost down the rabbit hole of a conspiracy theory or someone dying needlessly after getting infected by COVID-19.

In one 2020 story, Collins spoke to several doctors who were dealing with a reoccurring problem—treating patients who sought care too late because of conspiracy theories they read online. One doctor said a patient came into the emergency room after ingesting bleach just days after Trump suggested doctors should look into disinfects as a possible COVID-19 treatment.

“There are these victims everywhere in various different capacities. You lose a friend or a family member, whether that's from death or you just can't talk to them anymore because they're invisible,” Collins said.

On the local level, Collins thinks there’s a huge space for reporters to dig around their communities to figure out where people are getting their information in this detached news ecosystem. Are people reading text chains for information, or is it coming from friends at the bowling alley or at church? And how much disinformation is floating around in your town?

“We can’t look at those trends the way a local journalist can if they source up their community,” Collins said. “The way out of this is local reporting, identifying what happens versus what people say is happening.”

“And trust your gut,” he added. “Even if it sounds super ludicrous, people might actually believe it, so chase it down to figure out where they got that information from.”

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