Trump vs Twitter, TikTok misinformation, and how to cover vaccine updates

Our personal weekly selection about journalism and innovation.

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Edited by Marco Nurra

How the free press worldwide is under threat. From Mexico to Malta, attacks on journalists and publishers have proved deadly to individuals and chilling to broader freedoms. And now Covid-19 is being used as an excuse to silence more voices.

Brazil police target key Bolsonaro supporters in fake news raids. Brazilian police have raided addresses linked to some of Jair Bolsonaro’s most ardent online cheerleaders as part of an investigation into a fake news network investigators reportedly suspect could be linked to the president’s son. Bolsonaro’s social media savvy son, Carlos Bolsonaro, attacked what he called an “unconstitutional, political and ideological” investigation. Opposition politicians hailed the raids as a major blow to the alleged Bolsonarian fake news machine.

Trump signs order that could punish social media companies for how they police content, drawing criticism and doubts of legality. President Trump on Thursday signed an executive order that could open the door for the U.S. government to assume oversight of political speech on the Internet, a broadside against Silicon Valley that a wide array of critics derided as a threat to free speech. While Trump has threatened to penalize tech companies for years, his signing of the order Thursday came in response to a decision by Twitter earlier in the week to mark two of his erroneous tweets with fact-checking labels. The small move set off a firestorm of tweets by the president threatening social media companies with regulations and other punishments. Zuckerberg says Facebook won’t be ‘arbiters of truth’ after Trump threat.

“Immune to evidence”: How dangerous coronavirus conspiracies spread. After skeptics have been skeptical, they are quite capable of accepting evidence. Once something has withstood scrutiny, you accept it. Otherwise you’re in a state of complete nihilism and you can’t believe anything. That crucial second step of acceptance is absent in conspiracy theorists. That is where conspiracy theorists are different. Their skepticism is a bottomless, never-ending pit of skepticism about anything related to the official account. And that skepticism is accompanied by extreme gullibility to anything related to the conspiracy.

COVID-19 conspiracy theorists have found a new home on TikTok. Data compiled by First Draft shows videos spreading misinformation have surged on TikTok. They contain false conspiracies connecting COVID-19 to Bill Gates and the World Health Organization, as well as flat-out denial of the virus’s existence.

Communications research has a lot to offer during the coronavirus crisis. But are we offering it? “I have written elsewhere (and draw on that here) about how even in high-profile cases that clearly involve issues that are in large part about communications (e.g. the role of different forms of political communication including misinformation and more in influencing various political outcomes in for example the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and UK EU Referendum), we as a field are often largely marginal to these public discussions. Instead, academics from more or less adjacent fields (economics, political science, sociology, in some countries even law) are invited to hold forth with their more or less informed views on our core object of analysis, communications,” writes Rasmus Kleis Nielsen.

Talking about misinformation: “data voids”. The lack of new information leaves a space — coined a “data void” by Michael Golebiewski and danah boyd at Data & Society — for misinformation to fill. Bad actors are happy to fill in those blanks.

The pandemic has made journalists reconsider how they cover vaccine updates after companies like Moderna are accused of profiting. The desperate hunt for treatments and vaccines has changed how researchers, regulators, drug companies like Moderna, investors and journalists do their jobs.