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The US 2020 Briefings

 

First Draft’s briefings on US election disinformation. Search here for the topic you’re interested in, and subscribe to our Daily and Weekly Briefings to get these insights in your inbox every day or week.

Fact checkers and news organizations debunk claims of ‘love jihad’ in India

False and misleading claims around the “love jihad” conspiracy theory are endangering Muslims and breaking up wedding ceremonies in India. “Love jihad” is the false theory that Muslim men target and marry Hindu women in an attempt to convert them. Encouragingly, news organizations and fact-checking outfits are routinely debunking these claims both online and on television.

A video of a marriage counselor speaking to a couple, shared with a caption falsely alleging “love jihad,” was viewed thousands of times on Twitter and Facebook. It was debunked by Boom Live, which found there to be no connection between the video and the claim. National news channel NDTV has also debunked some of the claims, and reported there was “no credible evidence” for police cases against those allegedly engaging in this practice, adding that a new law to combat “love jihad” is “being used to harass Hindu-Muslim couples.” — Ali Abbas Ahmadi

Peter Navarro’s dubious election report fuels unfounded fraud narratives

President Donald Trump’s supporters are staying the course on election denialism following the publication of a 36-page report Thursday, released by White House trade adviser Peter Navarro. Titled “The Immaculate Deception: Six Key Dimensions of Election Irregularities” and hosted on Steve Bannon’s website, Navarro’s report offers a conclusion that aligns with Trump’s familiar refrain of “a coordinated strategy” to steal the election in Joe Biden’s favor.

The controversial claims presented in the report focused on six swing states and relied on several questionable sources. Navarro’s report cited Texas’ failed Supreme Court lawsuit, as well as conservative outlets like The Michigan Star, operated by former Tea Party activist Michael Patrick Leahy, and The Epoch Times newspaper. Navarro was accused earlier this month of using his government position for campaign purposes — a violation of the Hatch Act, which restricts government employees from engaging in partisan political activities. Navarro said he released Thursday’s report in a “personal” capacity.

These concerns did not stop conservative influencers such as Dan Bongino from sharing the report with his 3 million followers across Twitter, Parler and Rumble. The largest Stop the Steal group on MeWe, which migrated from Facebook after the November 3 election and boasts nearly 17,000 members, shared the story using the tag #mediacensorship. A member of a 6,200 user-strong public Facebook Group that supports Charlie Kirk, co-founder of the right-wing group Turning Point USA, shared the report with the text, saying in part: “This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for. I think we can expect […] Pres.Trump declaring martial law and the election done over under the supervision of the U.S. military.” — Diara J. Townes

Conspiracy theories spread ahead of US election security report

Promoters of false claims that the US election was stolen from President Donald Trump are speculating that he will order extreme measures when he receives an intelligence report, due tomorrow, on foreign interference in the vote. One unverified Twitter user with over 69,000 followers asked, “Can we just go ahead with The insurrection Act, 2018 EO and round up and arrest those working against our Country?????” referencing the 2018 order mandating the report by the intelligence community. Another unverified user tweeted that the order “IS ABOUT TO BLOW THE LID OFF EVERYTHING!!” in a post with at least 1,300 interactions. Pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell suggested to the far-right The Epoch Times that the intelligence report could trigger unprecedented presidential powers for Trump, with commentator Cesare Sacchetti citing the interview and adding that “Trump can foil the coup by next Friday.”

Contrary to the idea of Friday as a day of reckoning, the executive order mandating this report does not give Trump “unilateral authority to take action” such as ordering arrests or military action, but instead could be used to sanction foreign entities accused of interference. There is also reason to doubt that the report will be issued on time. John Ratcliffe, Trump’s director of national intelligence, is reportedly considering turning it in late because he believes it downplays China’s involvement. — Madelyn Webb

Macron’s positive Covid-19 test fuels criticism and baseless claims

French President Emmanuel Macron tested positive for the coronavirus today, sparking a wide range of narratives online. Reports that he attended a working dinner that ran past midnight with other government members yesterday is leading to claims of hypocrisy, as France is in strict lockdown and has an 8 p.m. national curfew. (Indoor gatherings are permitted in some circumstances, and reports say that physical distancing measures were followed.) One account wrote, “The kings of the world, they do whatever they want…” in a Facebook post that attracted at least 14,200 interactions, including 6,600 shares.

Other accounts are suggesting without evidence that Macron will be treated with hydroxychloroquine, initially touted as a Covid-19 treatment and whose most visible French proponent remains Dr. Didier Raoult, despite evidence it doesn’t work. A small number of social media users are also baselessly claiming that Macron’s announcement is a publicity stunt to get people to accept a Covid-19 vaccine. A Facebook Page dedicated to poetry and humor posted: “Do you believe it?? Not me, this is yet another Macron strategy to be better able to persuade people to get vaccinated … !!!” in a post with at least 2,300 shares. — Bethan John

London enters “Tier 3” lockdown measures

As some regions of southern England, including London, enter “Tier 3” measures — the highest level of lockdown restrictions — misinformation is spreading online. One anti-lockdown Twitter user attracted more than 2,400 retweets in a post falsely claiming that death data from funeral homes and coroners shows there is “no pandemic.” The account also posted a screenshot purportedly showing a lower number of overall deaths for England and Wales in 2020 compared with previous years. While the screenshot appears to be based on 2017-2019 figures from the Office for National Statistics, the UK’s statistical body, this year’s data indicates that the age-standardized mortality rate in England has been “statistically significantly higher” than in all years between 2009 and 2019. Another Twitter user, who shares anti-immigration content, made similarly false claims about death rates, writing: “I’ve spoken to various people who work at different crematoriums. They’ve not noticed an increase in deaths.”

post from Toby Young’s blog Lockdown Sceptics has also touched on Covid-19 deaths. The blog cited a Daily Mail op-ed stating that daily Covid-19 deaths in London are lower now than they were during the first wave in April. Although Covid-19 deaths in London are indeed lower, they have risen since late September.  — Lydia Morrish

Misleading claims about the FDA-approved at-home Covid-19 test

The FDA yesterday granted emergency authorization for an at-home Covid-19 test, sparking misleading claims in some online spaces. The swab test, made by Australian company Ellume, uses a “Bluetooth connected analyzer” that provides results in as little as 20 minutes. Although these types of antigen tests have a higher rate of false results than PCR tests, misleading claims about false positives were fueled by two viral videos that show a glass of Coca-Cola and a tub of applesauce turning up such a result. The videos attracted at least 702,000 views and 70,700 views, respectively, on Twitter alone.

The German journalism nonprofit Correctiv looked into the Coca-Cola test and concluded that it was carried out incorrectly, adding that rapid antigen tests are designed exclusively for humans. The FDA had previously warned of potential for false positive results due to incorrect handling. Nevertheless, the FDA approval has resurfaced conspiracy theories of a “Testing Industrial Complex” in the US. One post by prominent anti-lockdown activist Jordan Schachtel on the subject attracted at least 3,600 interactions, including nearly 1,000 retweets. — Stevie Zhang

A new variant of Covid-19 emerges in the UK

UK Health Minister Matt Hancock told parliament yesterday that a new variant of Covid-19 has been discovered, predominantly in the south of England, as several areas in the country including London prepare to enter the highest tier of lockdown restrictions on Wednesday. Hancock’s comments and subsequent media reports are fueling unevidenced claims on social media that the new variant is being used by the government to push its agenda. One account with over 27,000 followers tweeted a fictional conversation suggesting the new variant has been fabricated entirely, with one character saying: “They won’t buy it,” to which the other responds: “Trust me. These people wear masks, alone in their cars.” The post attracted at least 8,700 interactions, including 1,600 retweets. Ivor Cummins, an Irish engineer who regularly posts anti-lockdown content and conspiracy theories, shared a meme on Twitter depicting Hancock and Prime Minister Boris Johnson laughing with an apparent suggestion that the new variant was invented to mislead a gullible population.

The World Health Organization said on Monday that it was aware of a new variant of Covid-19 in the UK and that there is no evidence as of yet that it behaves differently to other strains. Mutations are common among viruses including Covid-19, which has caused some journalists and scientists to raise legitimate concerns over recent media coverage. Others such as David Kurten, a former Ukip member who regularly shares conspiracy theories, used these concerns to call for the end to lockdown rules in a post with at least 1,100 retweets. — Bethan John

Pfizer/BioNTech US rollout revives vaccine misinformation

As the US began immunization against Covid-19 yesterday following FDA approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, misleading information spread online. Some posts drew on fears of the novel messenger RNA (mRNA) technology behind the vaccine, citing baseless claims that it’s capable of altering DNA. In the “r/Conspiracy” subreddit, which has over 1.4 million members, one post suggested the vaccine could be “used to basically program a body to do anything you want.”

After a preprint study — a scientific paper that has not been peer-reviewed — claimed to provide evidence that RNA from Covid-19 can be “integrated into the human genome,” Dutch scientist Pieter Borger posted a tweet that read in part, “Stop all RNA vaccination experiments now!” Although scientists cautioned against making premature judgements based on the preliminary study, social media users posted links to it making unevidenced DNA-altering claims.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine rollout in the US also revived some other familiar misinformation tropes about vaccines. Right-wing influencers, such as Eric Matheny and Melissa Tate, advanced the conspiracy theory that the vaccine is a tool for population control in posts that received at least 5,600 shares. Others, including conservative commentator Matt Couch, drew misleading parallels between the vaccine’s reported 95 per cent efficacy rate and the “99.6 percent survival rate” of Covid-19 patients. — Keenan Chen

Misleading narratives after Trump’s Texas lawsuit defeat

After the US Supreme Court on December 11 shot down Texas’s audacious effort to challenge election results in four key states, commentators and politicians advanced several misleading narratives about the judicial system and mused about extraordinary steps that President Donald Trump and his supporters could take in response.

Online users speculated that the court had been compromised, such as in one tweet by the account @3days3nights that read, “How many of our Supreme Court Justices have a [higher] allegiance to the Vatican or Israel or China?” Another tweet from an unverified account with over 117,000 followers read in part, “Trump only has one option left and the question is will he be willing to go that route ? I think he is !” in an apparent reference to invoking the Insurrection Act — a call for domestic military intervention later echoed on Twitter by several verified users, such as Mike Coudrey and Scott Fishman. Similar measures were suggested by Texas’s Republican Party chair, Allen West, who responded to the Supreme Court’s order with a suggestion that Texas and like-minded states secede from the US.

The order dismissing the suit — which rejected Texas’s claim that changes to election rules in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia had harmed the state — was a major blow to Trump. The president had called the case “the big one,” and 19 other state attorneys general had joined the effort led by Texas’s top lawyer, Ken Paxton. Several high-profile Trump supporters have since downplayed the order’s significance, including film actor Terence K. Williams, who insisted, “it’s not over.” Trump later echoed that line, despite the overwhelming skepticism the judicial system has shown to date toward lawsuits challenging the election result. In what might be a final setback for Trump, electors in all 50 states and the District of Columbia meet today to cast votes that will confirm Joe Biden as the next president. — Chris Looft

Misleading claims about Dominion Voting Systems in Georgia

Georgia’s House Governmental Affairs Committee met yesterday to hear complaints about the November election, including several debunked conspiracy theories and a pair of misleading videos about Dominion Voting Systems software that are garnering thousands of shares on social media. In the videos, Coffee County elections supervisor Misty Martin shows how the voting machine software could allow officials to change votes during the ballot adjudication process. While it is technically possible to change votes using the software, the video does not account for the fact that ballot adjudication — the process by which absentee ballots are reviewed because they contain errors or the voter’s intent isn’t clear — is bound in Georgia by a strict bipartisan process typically made up of a three-person panel appointed by Democrats, Republicans and county election supervisors. Nonetheless, one YouTube video featuring Martin’s claims has received over 100,000 views. A tweet from @anonpatriotq citing the video’s claims received at least 1,900 shares. It reads, “The Elections Official is showing how she can change votes and even add votes that weren’t there before. B0MBSHELL!!” The videos can also be found on Red State Nation and a link to a version of the video on Streamable was posted to thedonald.win, but removed from Streamable for violating that site’s terms of service.

Coffee County is the subject of an investigation by Georgia’s Secretary of State’s office after a 51-vote discrepancy emerged in a recount of the vote there. While Martin said Dominion Voting Systems was responsible, she did not provide evidence for this claim. A press release from the Secretary of State’s office said it was a “likely possibility” that the discrepancy resulted from human error on Martin’s part. — Shaydanay Urbani