At a glance.
- COVID vaccine misinformation.
- Misinformation and a determination to think for yourself.
- Leaks published in the Guardian meet a skeptical reception.
COVID vaccine misinformation.
A Johns Hopkins public health expert said, the Baltimore Sun reports, that while people of all political commitments, sympathies, and orientations have questions about vaccination that aren't unreasonable, and that are generally amenable to rational correction. But others continue to retail misinformation about vaccine safety and efficacy. "U.S. politicians, cable news talk show hosts and other internet-based conspiracy theorists" are pushing questionable information that's slowed the rate of vaccination in the US. Jennifer Nuzzo, the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist quoted, called for some national approach to address the effects of misinformation.
US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy last week called health misinformation is "a serious threat to public health," a warning CNN linked to the Administration's sharp criticism of social media in general and Facebook in particular. President Biden said on Friday, in an impromptu media availability reported by CNBC from the South Lawn, “I mean they really, look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and that’s -- they’re killing people."
The President clarified his remarks on Monday, saying he really didn't mean that Facebook was Murder Incorporated, but rather that a small subset of its users, about twelve of them, to be precise, were the ones responsible for lethal misinformation about vaccination. The Wall Street Journal quoted the President as saying, "Facebook isn’t killing people. These 12 people are out there giving misinformation. Anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it. It’s killing people. It’s bad information.” The figure of twelve people comes from a study published by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, "The Disinformation Dozen," which identified a small group of social media personae to which the study traced much vaccine information. The President added that he hoped his remarks, as qualified and clarified, would prompt Facebook to do something about misinformation. “My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally—that somehow I’m saying Facebook is killing people—that they would do something about the misinformation, the outrageous information about the vaccine,” he said. “That’s what I meant.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar (Democrat of Michigan) took the occasion to introduce legislation that would more directly motivate control of content. Her proposed law would, the Wall Street Journal reports, strip online platforms of Section 230 protections in matters touching on public health, making them liable for user-created content.
Facebook pushed back against the President's remarks, effectively calling his description of the platform's role in vaccine acceptance itself fact-free and based on misinformation:
"At a time when COVID-19 cases are rising in America, the Biden administration has chosen to blame a handful of American social media companies. While social media plays an important role in society, it is clear that we need a whole of society approach to end this pandemic. And facts — not allegations — should help inform that effort. The fact is that vaccine acceptance among Facebook users in the US has increased. These and other facts tell a very different story to the one promoted by the administration in recent days."
In particular Facebook points out that vaccination rates among Facebook users are significantly higher than they are in the US population as a whole, running at about 85%, well in excess of the President's announced goal of 70% vaccination by July 4th.
"We have met the enemy and he is us," said Pogo Possum to Porky Pine, thereby anticipating some recent discussions of misinformation. Former CISA Director Christopher Krebs said, in a CBS interview about vaccine misinformation, that hostile foreign influence operators "don't actually have to do a whole lot because we've done so much here domestically to ourselves.” He's probably right.
It's also an old problem. Foreign Affairs offers a historical essay about the difficulties Dr. Benjamin Rush had getting the Continental Army to accept inoculation against smallpox during the War for Independence. And Dr. Rush had trouble even when he had General Washington on his side. As dependent as people are on expertise--most of what anyone knows, after all, one knows on authority--some cultures are disposed to value thinking for oneself. Even if thinking for oneself means picking another authority. (We're looking at you, America.)
Assessing a news report.
So, if we're dependent on authorities more than we might like, how does one decide which authority to rely on? There's a case study in informal skepticism to be found in reports of a leaked Kremlin document, maybe obtained by British intelligence (or not).
The Guardian's report last week, an exclusive in which the paper described what purport to be Russian documents outlining a 2016 Kremlin meeting in which President Putin reviewed and approved plans for a disinformation campaign intended to help then-candidate Donald Trump win the US Presidential election, immediately attracted some skeptical and well-informed reviews. The comments are interesting in that they suggest the sorts of questions one might usefully ask of news reports. The Johns Hopkins University's Thomas Rid tweeted some early grounds for skepticism. These were both matters of a priori plausibility, timing, circumstance, and a close reading of the Guardian's text: "This Guardian story is likely to make big waves. I would remain somewhat cautious for now, however. For a "leak" of this magnitude, we need at least some details on the chain of custody. Also note the Guardian's own hedging ("papers appear to show")."
He finds one paragraph's waffling especially noteworthy. The Guardian wrote: "Western intelligence agencies are understood to have been aware of the documents for some months and to have carefully examined them. The papers, seen by the Guardian, seem to represent a serious and highly unusual leak from within the Kremlin." Rid observes:
"This paragraph [from the Guardian: makes me particularly skeptical.
"1—"are understood to have been" sounds like UK intelligence might not be the source;
"2—"seem to represent" makes me wonder how much the Guardian even knows about the source;
"3—"leak from within the Kremlin" means risk of forgery.
"Other reasons to be very cautious:
"—timing: seems too early for such of top-level meeting
"—participants: very sensitive meeting not locked down
"—UK gov: no quote, not even anonymous
"—Guardian doesn't even mention risk of op or forgery
"—and: that strange reference to "kompromat"
Christopher Krebs, who was the first CISA director and remained in that post through the 2020 elections until then-President Trump dismissed him over Krebs's sticking to his assessment that there was no evidence of significant foreign attempts to manipulate the vote, also found the report fishy: "Agree w/ @RidT on this Guardian reporting on Russian plans for the former President. This is far too convenient & reeks of #disinfo operation. It could all be individually or collectively true and at the same time planted & fake. So in the meantime, I’m taking this approach: [link to a skeptical "uh-uh, that's bait" gif]."
Silverado Policy Accelerator chairman Dmitri Alperovitch finds the text internally unconvincing. "Compelling evidence that the document the Guardian published is a forgery. He quotes a tweet from Иван Ткачев @IvanTkachev1:
"• a comma shouldn’t be used before ‘и может’
"• ‘делегЕтимизация’ is spelled with an orthographic error [specifically the "Е" in "делегЕтимизация"]
"• ‘провокация возникновения’ is not how native speakers say, even in bureaucratic language
"• ‘занимающих роль’ is a lexical mistake.'"
The thread of replies contains some dispute over whether the idiomatic points made in the Twitter thread are sound, and to be sure Russian bureaucrats aren't all Tolstois or even Bulgakovs, any more than American bureaucrats are all Melvilles or even Hemingways, or British civil servants Austens or even Waughs. Still, while it's not ShadowSpeak, it's below the usual official standard. If the document were Russian, why the questionable usage? And if not Russian, what non-Russophone produced it?
In some respects the authenticity of the Guardian's documents don't matter. That, at least, would be the view from Moscow. Rid added, "No matter whether there is disinformation in this Guardian piece or not, the highly emotional reactions here *on both sides of the issue* are a textbook illustration of how active measures work." Especially if, as the track record suggests, the Russian style in disinformation is entropic, intended to increase the adversary's friction, not designed to achieve any particular climate of opinion beyond internal strife and internecine suspicion.
The Washington Post is also skeptical of the documents' origins and provenance. Where it makes confirmable claims, those claims are old news and could well be derivative. Where it makes new claims, they're allusive and refer to attachments that weren't among the leaked material. And the performance strikes the Post as too slick, too pat, for plausibility.
It's also noteworthy in that the skepticism isn't obviously motivated by any politically tribal ad hominem, as in, "this can't be true because, well, consider the source." The Guardian, to be sure, was no editorial friend of former President Trump, but it's not the paper's editorial stance that motivates the skepticism. The skeptics in this case are unlikely candidates for the role of Trump dead-enders.