Saturday, September 26, 2020
Sept. 26, 2020

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Westneat: How a false claim spreads

Facebook post from Woodinville goes viral, catches Trump’s eye

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When a little-known chiropractor in Woodinville wrote a Facebook post about the coronavirus on a recent Saturday, it just sat there, not attracting much attention. For the first couple minutes anyway.

But then, like the virus itself in a crowded bar, it started to multiply. It was a little tentative at first, but once accelerated by some of the superspreaders of social media, it went exponential and reached all the way to the president’s Twitter thumbs in a matter of hours.

By about 2 p.m., just five hours later, the chiropractor’s post had been shared by tens of thousands of accounts, which means it potentially was viewed by tens of millions of people. It was then promoted by a QAnon conspiracy believer who has 65,700 Twitter followers, and from there, on Saturday evening, that tweet was shared by the King Superspreader himself, Donald Trump. His Twitter feed has 85.6 million followers.

It wasn’t until the next day that a man out on the Olympic Peninsula started chasing after it all.

“This is pretty much all I’ve done this summer,” says Dean Miller. “Debunk bad information going around about the coronavirus.”

Miller, a former reporter for The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review and editor of the Idaho Falls Post Register, now works for a fact-checking outfit called Lead Stories. The service uses software to track the virality of content on the web. Then, paid in part by social media giants such as Facebook and TikTok to “help clean up their worlds,” it deputizes journalists like Miller to be sort of like the contact tracers of the misinformation pandemic.

“We’re like an upside-down form of journalism,” says site co-founder Alan Duke. “The regular press spends its time looking for stories that are true; we’re only interested in claims that are false.”

The post of the Woodinville chiropractor, Elizabeth Hesse, definitely fit into the latter category, he said. Increasingly, the most viral false stories start exactly like this one: Musings from regular people, not necessarily professional right-wing or left-wing misinformation spreaders.

“This week the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) quietly updated the COVID number to admit that only 6 percent of all the 153,504 deaths recorded actually died from Covid. That’s 9,210 deaths,” she wrote.

Major parts of that are false. There was no quiet updating or admitting of anything, as the CDC has been running COVID-19 death stats regularly for months. Beyond the implied subterfuge, it also isn’t remotely true that the CDC data shows only 6 percent of the total died from COVID-19.

What it shows are what are called “co-morbidities,” or other conditions present at the time of death. Many of these are caused by COVID-19 itself. So, for example, if you catch COVID-19 and it causes respiratory failure and heart failure, the death certificate may list all of that. In other cases, the death certificates list preexisting conditions like hypertension that may or may not be related to the death. Long story short, the triggering cause of death in all the deaths is still COVID-19.

As Miller wrote in his debunking that appeared on Monday: “The CDC Did NOT Admit That Only 6 percent Of Deaths In COVID Toll Were From COVID-19.”

Miller interviewed a medical examiner and the chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch of the CDC, who is responsible for the data cited. Twitter then took down the president’s retweet, and Facebook appended a series of warnings, including Miller’s fact check, to the chiropractor’s post and other mentions of the issue.

“Once the bug is discovered, it gets labeled and blocked all across the web, that’s the goal,” Miller said.

But like any virus, this story just mutated into a slightly new version of conspiracy. Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show featured it, only not the part about it being false. His angle was: “Why is it forbidden now to tweet CDC data? What are they hiding?”

I naively figured a virus that is relentlessly politics-blind would be somewhat immune to the usual conspiracy-mongering. Miller laughed when I said this, noting his site debunked 18 false viral claims about the coronavirus in August.

Already by Tuesday, the Lead Stories staff had moved on from the chiropractor to tackle eight more false claims that had gone viral, including: “Vladimir Putin’s daughter did NOT die after second dose of COVID-19 vaccine” and “Joe Biden did NOT fall asleep during live TV interview.”

It’s about seven weeks to Election Day, but it’s going to feel a LOT longer than that.

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