Factually: Threats real and imagined

It would be easy if we could just write off conspiracy theories as harmless nonsense. Alas, they might be nonsense, but they’re not harmless.

A number of stories this week point to the ways conspiracy theories can lead to harm by causing believers to fear — and sometimes act on — imagined threats, even as they urge people to ignore real ones.

Take, for example, the falsehood that people who align with the antifa movement are setting the wildfires now raging on the West Coast of the United States. This narrative fueled potential danger for two videographers who traveled to the Oregon town of Molalla to film the fires. As BuzzFeed’s Christopher Miller and Jane Lytvynenko reported, the two ended up being hunted by a group of armed men who apparently thought they were arsonists.

CNN, meanwhile, reported that some residents in Oregon have set up checkpoints where they stop unfamiliar drivers at gunpoint.

But while armed vigilantes are fighting threats that don’t exist, real threats are being denied. We’ve seen this up-is-down phenomenon with people who won’t wear masks and are in denial about the seriousness of COVID-19, or think it’s a hoax.

In Florida, there is even skepticism about hurricanes, which could be driven by partisans urging people to deny certain scientific findings. Axios’ Bryan Walsh this week wrote about a study from UCLA researchers who found partisan patterns in evacuations during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. The researchers found that Floridians who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 were at least 10 percentage points less likely to follow evacuation orders than those who voted for Hillary Clinton.

These stories also capture one of the more insidious consequences of conspiracy theories: the diversion of attention and resources from real problems to imagined ones.

The New York Times reported that one county sheriff in Oregon has implored people to “STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS!” about the wildfires. Police in Molalla told BuzzFeed they are getting calls about the so-called “antifa arsonists.”

Doctors have said that COVID-19 hoaxes and denialism are making their jobs harder.

People who work in child welfare groups told Jesselyn Cook of HuffPost that the exaggeration of child trafficking numbers by QAnon followers is actually undermining their efforts. “For many, debunking viral misinformation, mining through unhinged tips and warding off mob harassment has become part of the job — detracting from their ability to actually help kids in need,” Cook wrote.

It is all part of the creeping, and creepy, spread of the conspiracy theories that the FBI cited a year ago when it labeled them a domestic terrorism threat. The conspiracy theorists are inventing threats that don’t exist, denying those that do, and now, wasting the time of people whose job requires them to discern the difference.

The good news is that attention is being paid to the problem as stories and fact-checks are written about the dangers involved.

— Susan Benkelman, API

. . . technology

  • Twitter said last week that it would label or remove false or misleading information intended to undermine public confidence in the electoral process.
    • The action, wrote The Verge’s Makena Kelly, “will likely bring the platform into conflict with President Trump” given his tweets about the election.
    • The move follows a similar action by Facebook a week earlier.
  • Recently fired Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang wrote an internal memo blaming the company for letting its platform be used to undermine democracies outside the United States and Western Europe, BuzzFeed News reported.
    • Zhang’s memo gave concrete examples of how foreign governments used Facebook to mislead the public and influence public opinion.

. . . politics

  • The Washington Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker uncovered an operation directed by Turning Point Action, a conservative youth group, in which teenagers in Arizona are being paid to pump out pro-Trump social media posts.
    • The Post said that Twitter suspended at least 20 accounts for “platform manipulation and spam” related to the campaign, and that Facebook also removed “a number of accounts.”
  • Politico reported that Spanish-speaking voters in South Florida are being inundated with disinformation about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
    • Spanish-language radio, Facebook, and WhatsApp groups are being used to spread QAnon conspiracy theories and other false information.

. . . science and health

  • The New York Times reported on (Poynter-owned) MediaWise’s efforts to extend media literacy to seniors.
    • The MediaWise for Seniors program will help older Americans become better at detecting false information they encounter on social media.
  • The BBC debunked a claim that new government regulations would allow the government to collect the DNA of anyone given a COVID-19 test.
    • The British Home Office told the BBC the new law only pertained to fingerprint and other biometric data collected for police and counter-terrorism law enforcement.

There is no proof that any of the West Coast fires are connected to politically motivated arson. That didn’t stop some intrepid “truth seekers” from digging through the inmate roster of the Clackamas County Sheriff’s office to find two gentlemen who just so happened to be arrested for arson on Friday, Sept. 11.

Lead Stories managing editor Eric Ferkenhoff did some additional digging and found that while the two men had indeed been booked for arson, their ignitions were in no way related to the miles-long wildfires burning in Oregon.

One man had been charged with lighting a clothing rack on fire at a local grocery store. The other was caught by his probation officer lighting a pile of leaves outside a community building. Neither were affiliated with Antifa.

What we liked: This fact-check shows how easily disparate pieces of information can be reconfigured into a new context to fit a preconceived narrative. It also reminds us of the importance of interrogating your sources before further spreading misinformation.

— Harrison Mantas, IFCN

  1. Axios, citing a survey from polling firm College Reaction, suggests Gen Z might be less susceptible to misinformation than older generations.
  2. New Zealand’s health minister has urged people to stop spreading COVID-19 misinformation after a mini-cluster of cases surfaced in an Auckland suburb.
  3. Yoga teachers and other online wellness influencers have been pushing back against moves by QAnon adherents to infiltrate their communities, The New York Times’ Kevin Roose reported.
  4. Facebook has launched a climate change information hub. Nick Clegg, the company’s vice president of global affairs and communications, talked to NPR about it.
  5. Check out these anti-conspiracy memes on Instagram compiled by Belgian cyber diplomacy analyst Nathalie Van Raemdonck.

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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