(film reel clattering) - I'm Pilar Marrero associate editor of Ethnic Media Services and your moderator for today.
Disinformation narratives are spreading across digital media platforms including in language platforms.
Monitoring these platforms to identify examples of dangerous dis- and misinformation in a timely and effective manner is critical for us as ethnic media reporters so we can challenge them and counter them with facts.
Cameron Hickey will share the latest findings of his team of in-language media monitors and help reporters know what to look for particularly about COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, treatments and related public health issues.
I should add that most of the media on today's call have produced stories before documenting examples of dis- and misinformation about COVID and vaccines as part of a project called Myth Busters funded by the California Department of Public Health's Vaccinate All 58 campaign.
And, congratulations to Cameron.
Cameron Hickey was just named CEO of the National Conference on Citizenship, NCoC, a 77 year old nonprofit mandated by Congress to support democracy.
He is an expert in misinformation and disinformation, and has run the Algorithmic Transparency Institute, a current project of NCoC for the past three years.
In the service of transparency, I share that I have been on ATI's monitoring team for Spanish for the last couple of years.
So, I have seen firsthand the kind of monitoring that can be achieved when you bring together journalists and others with the language ability and the context to really look into what kinds of mis- and disinformation is circulating among our communities.
Cameron's expertise in the analysis of disinformation has led to the development of groundbreaking tools like Junkipedia, and the establishment of the people-powered disinformation monitoring program, the Civic Listening Corps.
Prior to joining NCoC, Cameron helped lead the Shorenstein Center's Information Disorder Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School to monitor mis- and disinformation in the 2018 midterm election.
Cameron is an Emmy Award winner with work appearing on PBS NewsHour, NOVA, Bill Moyers, and the New York Times.
- Thank you guys so much for having me here, and I'm excited to dive in.
Just as sort of context setting we all understand that viral misinformation is contagious and dangerous, right?
It is in some cases as problematic as some of the actual viruses that are spreading in that it can instigate people to make very poor decisions that can put their health at risk.
We think about mis- and disinformation in ways that are very similar to the ways that we think about the spread of viruses.
In fact, when the pandemic first emerged back in 2020 the World Health Organization also noted that we were experiencing an infodemic, a massive spread of mis- and disinformation.
Rumors, lies and just misunderstandings spread in ways that are very similar to these viruses.
They go from one person to another.
They evolve and they mutate as they spread across our information ecosystem.
And so, recognizing that they bear these same traits is really important as we move to think about how we try and understand them and eventually to tackle them and mitigate their impact.
I also wanna state that it's important to recognize that the problematic messages that we see on- and hear online have many different forms.
Sometimes we will call them "misinformation"; sometimes we will call them "disinformation."
Sometimes we'll call them "rumors", "conspiracies."
Even "hate speech" is problematic content and my personal favorite: junk news, right?
Stuff that's not totally false but still not healthy for you, just like junk food.
All of these are different forms of the kind of stuff that we're concerned about but it's important that-- to remember that the distinctions between them aren't as important as the fact that whatever form it's going to mislead us and we need to address it.
So, we often talk about the difference between misinformation and disinformation as being a difference between things that are false and things that are spread with the intent to deceive people.
I would like to note that while we care about the intent for the purposes of trying to address the problem it often becomes irrelevant.
If people are misled whether they were or were not done so intentionally can be beside the point.
So, when we think about the kinds of rumors that are spreading and what things we can do to address them, let's focus on the point that all of it is misleading.
So, I wanna talk broadly about the kinds of mis- and disinformation that we tend to see, that we care about.
We call this large bucket "problematic content" and we do that because of the point I'm gonna make next which is that not everything is false even if it is problematic.
So, there are a lot of clues to look at when we're talking about information spreading on social media, rhetoric coming from influencers, even sometimes from public officials.
And, they fall into a few obvious categories: things that are about "Fear and Manipulation."
When people are elevating content using messages that are designed to be scary or angry to get you to change your behavior, that's a clue that we should be suspicious about them.
Some things actually are scary and we should be upset about them, but frequently think fear mongering is a tactic that is used to amplify mis- and disinformation.
So, we should always be careful about it.
We frequently see "Conspiracy theories."
These come in many forms.
I'm sure you're all already familiar with them at this point.
They were not quite so mainstream several years ago and now they are incredibly mainstream and we talk about them every day.
It's important to note that usually conspiracy theories reference a important boogeyman with an ulterior motive, right?
Some powerful actor who is bad and alleging some motivation behind what they are doing.
We also see things that maybe seem mundane, like things that are "Missing Context."
So, there may be information that on the surface is technically true, but when shared without the proper context can be incredibly misleading.
This comes in a wide range of forms, and we won't talk about them in great detail today.
But, you can imagine that when a statistic is shared on the internet, but we don't know, for example what part of the whole that statistic represents then that might be a much scarier statistic than the reality is in the end.
And, there's some examples of that, that we will talk about today in terms of public health.
I'm sure you're all familiar with this idea at this point.
Things like unproven cures for COVID-19, things that draw together, things that aren't actually based on sound research or medical science, or coming from trusted authoritative sources, spread quite a lot on the internet and are off.
As soon as you see things that have the hallmarks of that, it's another clue to be skeptical.
We include here "Hate and Dog Whistles", right?
So, I think that within the ethnic media community you're likely to be quite familiar with and sensitive to these concerns, right?
With any time messages even allude to concepts that are about identity that serve to divide, that play on stereotypes even if it's not overt hate speech, these kinds of messages are often problematic ones that lead to misunderstandings misinformation and our sources who use this kind of language are often also the sources of other forms of mis- and disinformation.
Next, "Faulty Logic."
There are frequently arguments that while they can't be proven to be false aren't necessarily exactly true, either.
They often come in the form of what we call "logical fallacies."
A good example of that is a false equivalence argument.
When you are comparing things and making the implication that if this is true then that should also be true because they're similar.
But, when they aren't actually similar- when you're comparing apples to oranges- then the underlying argument is no longer valid, right?
Finally, something that we see often and this is particularly important in the ever-changing world of public health information content that is "old" might have been true the day it was published or the day it was originally shared but when it gets reshared today it may no longer be the case.
We see this across the spectrum.
It can often happen when a multiyear old news article or piece of research is shared, but it can also be the case when it's an image.
I'm sure you all remember images that we've seen in the context of the fight over immigration at the U.S. border.
There often are images that are shared one day when they were true in one context, and then when they're shared again in the context of a different part of that long struggle, are no longer relevant and can in fact be misleading.
But, overall, the point here is what we have written down here at the bottom: it does not have to be false to be a problem, and it's important to keep that in mind as we think about how to respond, how to craft high quality journalism in response to the kinds of problematic ideas that we see.
- Thank you so much.
I don't know if you wanna ask your question, Gabriel Lerner.
- So, shortly after the 2016 election, we already knew that disinformation came from some dark room in Moscow, and probably some of the disinformation in Chinese language media comes from the PCC.
So, is there something akin, something similar, for the disinformation here now, here in the United States?
- So, I'll actually start by pulling a politician one, here, and reject the premise of that question.
So, I think it is true actually what you wrote or what you said, that there was mis- and disinformation coming from a room in Moscow.
But, that actually wasn't the source of that mis- and disinformation.
The source of that was us, right?
What they were doing in-- in those-- You know?
Those Russian trolls, what they were doing was they were looking at what we were already saying, what we were already believing, and they were, you know, dressing it up.
And, they were amplifying it and they were repeating it over and over and over again.
And so, in the-- from my perspective the problematic content that we face today?
So much of it is coming from us.
Like, we are responsible for it.
And so, it will be nice if there was, like, a room in one place where we could say, 'if we just, you know, 'sent the police in and arrested everybody in that room, we wouldn't have this problem anymore.'
But, we're all part of this whether we're on the left, whether we're on the right, whether we're in the U.S. or whether we're in Europe, or whether we're in South America, it's-- we all have a... a responsibility for it and we're all at risk of spreading it.
So, I think it's important to acknowledge that.
And, there is no one place for it-- from it, which it comes.
So, today we're gonna talk about several key health specific themes that are recent and relevant.
I'm gonna review them briefly now, and then we'll talk about each of them in more detail one-by-one.
So, the first key theme is a theme that has been reappearing that we're titling "Sudden Deaths."
And, these are a wide variety of claims in particular when it comes to high profile deaths.
Deaths of celebrities, to claim that now we're seeing a rise in quote/unquote "sudden death."
And, the allegation being that those sudden deaths were caused by the COVID-19 vaccine.
There is no evidence of that.
Nonetheless, because high profile people have died recently people are attaching themselves to this new sort of theme, and mis- and disinformation.
Another key theme is the concept of "Excess Deaths."
So, there is science.
There is data showing that higher than average number of people are dying compared to moments in the past.
And, the idea that is misinformation here is that this factual information is being re-contextualized to suggest that those increases in deaths are the result of COVID-19 vaccines.
There is no evidence to link those two things together.
And, there is evidence connecting many other reasons for increases in deaths compared to previous moments in time.
Nonetheless, the existence of excess deaths is something that folks who are anxious and concerned about COVID-19 vaccines latch onto, and use as a way to amplify their concerns about the vaccine.
The next item here is "Vaccine Detox."
There have been- in particular, popular within Chinese language communities- the false idea that harmful vaccine ingredients can be something that you can remove from your body by using herbs and supplements.
So, the idea that you've got bad stuff in your body because of the vaccine and here are some illegitimate ways to get rid of it.
So, there's two different problems here.
One, that this stuff that's in your body is problematic and you need to get rid of it.
And, two, that these sort of false cures and snake oil are actually gonna accomplish that.
The next item on our list that we're gonna talk about is "Climate Lockdowns."
The idea here basically is that there's a misunderstanding that certain actions being taken in certain cities are in effect, an effort to limit our ability to move.
And, that those are a response to concerns around climate change.
The next item here is, and I'm sure you've all heard some of this, health risks related to "Gas Stoves."
There was recent data about natural gas stoves causing increases in asthma, other health risks.
And, in the reaction to that, we're seeing the risk of mis- and disinformation about that spreading often for political reasons.
And then, last, the item that Sandy actually mentioned at the top of the call, or before we got started, renewed concerns about bird flu, the "H5N1" virus.
As we are seeing increased cases and new risks, this is what we would call, like, an "on our radar" threat.
It has not emerged yet as a significant problem.
But given what we know and what we've seen in the past, this is one that's likely to become a bigger issue in the future.
And, represents a great opportunity for journalism to intercede now to do a better job of putting out good high quality information so that later when mis- and disinformation starts to emerge, people are already inoculated against the mis- and disinformation because they have been given good information today.
- I do notice in monitoring that a lot of the channels that we're doing a lot of COVID disinformation have turned to other kinds of disinformation and this kind of disinformation, most of it seems to back right wing conspiracy theories or right wing politics.
Do we know why that is?
- You know, this is outside the scope of, like, my expertise and certainly outside the scope of me now as the head of a nonpartisan nonprofit.
But, I think that the different ways that people feel with respect to their politics, like, are connected to a much larger worldview, right?
And, I think that we can-- we can look at that-- if we wanted to make it a binary between, you know, conservative and liberal or left and right, that worldview is sort of, like, is protecting my family and my livelihood; the thing that's most important to me, or is protecting the community to the sacrifice of myself, the more important thing?
That's how I often look at it.
And, I think that there are places for both of those.
I have two small children.
I will defend them against anything and anyone before I'm gonna defend anybody else because they're my own kids!
So, that logic resonates with me.
At the same time, I feel very strongly that protecting our community and doing things that are the benefit of everyone are critically important for, you know, society in which we are-- We protect those who are unable to protect themselves.
So, in that conflict between those two things you can see lots of other tendencies people might have.
And so, if you tend towards the, "I care about my own identity and my own family more than other things", perhaps that leads you more quickly to think "there are enemies I need to be afraid of."
And then, so that leads you down, "oh, that's why people are really receptive to conspiracy theories", for example.
This has been one of the most popular vaccine narratives.
It's spreading in English.
It's spreading in Spanish.
It's spreading in Chinese.
There is a junk documentary that emerged recently called Died Suddenly that is exploiting families who have lost loved ones suddenly due to other reasons.
And, they're now turning to blame vaccines as the reason for the loss of their loved ones.
What we know is that there have been many high profile deaths and that those high profile deaths don't have anything to do with vaccines.
But, each time we experience one of those and it captures people's attention that people will be drawn to this misleading narrative.
There's various claims that you can see here on the screen.
Claims that, you know, a man dies hours after vaccination; in Chinese, a telegram post that claims that high mortality rates are pointing to a depopulation agenda.
Various posts that claim that, you know, Diamond, from Diamond and Silk, and Damar Hamlin- who did not die- have died from the vaccine.
- And so, the confusion around the J&J vaccine which was distributed primarily to communities of color did create a lot of disinformation and misinformation and distrust of vaccines.
Could you speak to that?
- The thing that was given to communities of color, given to people with, you know, less economic means, what reinforced the idea that people were not being treated equal which is not misinformation actually, right?
That's-- that is a fact of life in society but that it was intentionally done.
So, that's where we get into a different sort of part.
And so, like, what that actually shows you is that, like, real facts on the ground can be powerful ways to amplify, or get people to believe mis- and disinformation.
I mean, there were similar things, right?
Like, the African American community was experimented on by the United States government.
So, that leaves us in a position where that community rightly has some skepticism of, "now, you should trust the government", right?
And, similarly communities of color, immigrant communities, have been treated poorly by the United States government repeatedly.
Therefore, why should suddenly they trust all of the advice of the government?
It plays into those same things which is, like, there's some legitimate concern here.
And, that legitimate concern reinforces fear mongering and conspiracy theories.
We know that it is a fact that excess deaths have increased in many places.
It turns out anti-vaccine activists are claiming that excess deaths are driven by what we just talked about: sudden deaths from vaccines, or other long-tail vaccine side effects.
There are many concerns that the vaccines were released originally in order to reduce the population.
And so, looking now at seeing these excess deaths further drives people to believe that false theory.
What we do know, the good information that we do know, is that since the pandemic started many people postponed important healthcare, right?
We are now seeing the ripple effects of that.
So, people are taking this fact that we see connecting it to the things they believe or fear, and then amplifying it across social media.
So, that's an accurate news article from a legitimate news source.
But, when it gets shared with this additional context, vaccine or something else, or "it's only a coincidence", suddenly people are questioning the underlying news story.
And, they are using a legitimate trustworthy news source as essentially the evidence.
So, as you think about the kinds of reporting that you want to do it's critical to think about what headlines you use, what kind of information you try to communicate recognizing that things like this are a risk: people taking your reporting out of context, and using it to fear monger and amplify.
I will not judge this headline or this publication but I think you can all read that and think for yourself about whether or not that headline is doing our community the best service that it could compared to the risks and anxieties that it might produce.
And, as you think about that, it's important to think about how you might do your own reporting and what you share with folks as you think about the future of H5N1.
There's good news, right?
We do have a vaccine for H5N1.
It is not as easy to produce and there's not as much of it as there have been for other diseases including the flu, including COVID-19.
But, it is a considerably harder disease to infect humans with, and we rarely see human-to-human transmission.
- So, can you give us some pointers as to how to do this work?
How to identify?
What is the thing that we should be looking at?
A couple of, you know, pieces of advice that you can give our media.
- You know, the starting point that we advise everyone, and journalists in particular, is to sort of pinpoint the piece of something that is unique, and then use that as the source of a Google search, right?
Like, that's the foundational point.
Like, you know, when-- you have to find the right bit of context in order to do something responsibly, right?
There's not a way around that, right?
So, figuring out what is the, like, smallest unit that you can use to identify here's the part that is legitimate, and here's the part that is sensational, or, you know, hyperbole or whatever.
Like, we-- you need to start with those basics.
And, I think sometimes the sources that we would look to, to give us good information are failing us, right?
So, we've seen over the last two years that, like, the body that should be giving us the best information, the CDC, like, fails to have the best information.
I myself was-- had, got COVID, and then was, like, "am I eligible to get the booster shot?"
And, when I tried to figure out an answer to that question on the CDC- and I'm both an expert in mis- and disinformation and a journalist and, you know, a very thoughtful reader of these things- and the answer was not plainly apparent there.
And so, sometimes we really have a challenge that's not easy to solve and we have to seek out experts directly to help us understand these things.
I wish it was, like, a better simple easy answer that was a pointer, but some of these things are not that.
And, if we-- and, you know, I'm sure everyone on here would agree: responsible reporting's not easy!
- Thank you so much, Cameron, once more for this wonderful presentation.
Thanks to all the reporters for joining us.
- My pleasure once again, as always.