By Harvey I. Barkin

The struggle against misinformation and COVID-19 goes on. One is online, the other airborne but both have dangerous consequences.

National Conference on Citizens’ Algorithm Transparency Program Director Cameron Hickey said at a press brief last October 16, “viral misinformation is contagious and dangerous like an actual virus. This content spreads because people are sharing it. It creates significant problems that put our health and well-being at risk, as well as the future of our democracy.”

This is especially a concern for Filipino-Americans whose predilection for texting and sharing is well known.

Cameron said it doesn’t matter if the viral misinformation is a rumor, conspiracy or even hate speech. It needn’t be absolutely false or a little ambiguous or shared unintentionally.

But if it misleads, it’s problematic content that needs to be collected, analyzed and reported, he said.

Cameron explained how misinformation can be used in manipulating votes in the November elections at the press brief hosted by Ethnic Media Services.

He targeted “content that uses fear and manipulation … that tries to make you feel scared, angry or self-righteous to get you to change your behavior. That’s potentially risky content that might have a problem and … underlying misinformation embedded in it.”

He cited the QAnon movement “that deals with boogeymen like the Deep State, JFK Jr., pedophilia or Bill Gates or George Soros (billionaire philanthropist who supports liberal causes). Wide-ranging conspiracy theories that have existed for the last 50 years are still present today. (And) anything that (has) missing context.”

He explained how it works. “So, when you see a statement on social media or a meme or an image or a video that’s lacking some important piece of information that you may have, you understand it correctly. (But) if someone else doesn’t have that piece of context they may misunderstand it and it may, in fact, be damaging.”

“If the context is wrong or absent it can be a problem and this relates less to the election and more to other issues.

Cameron also talked about pseudoscience and dog whistles. “Lots of pseudoscience has been floating around especially during the pandemic. Climate change denial is a perfect example of that. Dog whistles (are) terms or themes that divide base on identity … and perpetuate other kinds of problematic content.”

Cameron also mentioned faulty logic. “This is a bit trickier to identify and requires a little bit of analysis. It can overlap with problems with context but logical fallacies like false equivalence (when you’re making a comparison between two things that aren’t really comparable) is a form of misinformation.”

“Similarly, creating a straw man argument saying, ‘Oh, this is a huge problem.’ Look at the way they’re trying to explain (it) even though that may not be what they were trying to explain. Then try to tear it down. (This is what) we see frequently employed, especially in memes and videos on social media.”

“Finally, old content that may be legitimate or accurate when it was originally published but isn’t anymore or isn’t relevant anymore when it gets shared again today — that can lead to missing disinformation. A classic example of this is (when children were separated from their migrant families) at the border during the early days of the Trump Administration.”

“An image was shared far and wide that showed a bunch of children behind bars. Now that image was real and legitimate but it was not taken at that moment in time. It was taken during the Obama Administration. There is legitimate content but (it’s) old, can be incredibly problematic and is tricky to identify because when it gets shared today, it seems like it might be relevant today.”

Because of these manipulations of content, Cameron urged vigilance especially with what he identified as “problematic” key themes that proliferate online.

He says the “most concerning theme cropping up around the election” is the impending civil war, appearing on both sides of the political spectrum.”

“Like it is going to happen whatever the outcome of the upcoming election. I’m not arguing that there is likely to (be violence) but messages on social media are arguing that there is likely to be and that is sort of (the) seed in the ground for actual violence. But at the moment, there is no reason to believe there will be violence. It’s problematic because it’s amplifying the potential risk for violence that we clearly do not need.”

Another recognizable theme is what he called ideological hyperbole. “It’s accelerating – political candidates or their messages in exaggerated or extreme ways. So, (we) refer to Republicans as Nazis; Democrats as Communists.”

Cameron also talked about unauthenticated news of ballot risks including, ballots being thrown out, rhetoric about fraud related to absentee voting and mail-in  ballot, ballot harvesting and rigged elections.

First Draft Senior Investigative Researcher Jacqueline Mason said that “Texas, Georgia, North Carolina have an alarming number of African-American votes that are being rejected.” She also shared a photo of a locked ballot box allegedly from Southern California.

Mason said that related videos of mailboxes being picked up and thrown away in junkyards “can depress or suppress the vote because this information does not apply to all states but if you get a severe amount of traction on Twitter (there would be) thousands of re-shares.”

She also said that Blacks are “seven times more likely wait in the voting line – that’s over an hour.”

In a series of slides, she revealed how the timing of a shot can tell a story that is totally different than what happened in some BLM protests.

Equis Labs Disinformation Research Lead Jacobo Licuna talked about the diverse cultures in the Latinx communities “which creates opportunities for false information. And there  are robust information boards in Spanish that are exploited and easily filled by false or deceptive narratives from bad actors.”

He said that the Latinx community “voters tend to follow political news less closely. So, they’re more susceptible to these kinds of tactics.”

He also said, “these false narratives are co-opted in rapidly amplified Spanish which often goes largely unchecked on social media.”

He identified WhatsApp as “the central” to the spread of information, as well as disinformation. And the hot button for misinformation, of course, is immigration for Latinos. Add to this the spin on Blacks causing looting and violence consequently conditioning Latinos to regard Blacks with suspicion and distrust.

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