The Infodemic: The problem with Twitter’s Trump fact-check, abortions in the post-Covid world and why gaming platforms work well for conspiracists

Natalia Antelava


Welcome back, and a very special welcome to our new subscribers. The Infodemic is here to help you understand how the global spread of coronavirus disinformation is shaping the pandemic response. 

But we also want to understand what’s important to you, so we can serve you better. That’s why our team has put together this very quick, anonymous survey. I’d like to ask for two minutes of your time to fill it in. Thank you! And let’s dive in.

This morning, the Infodemic reached boiling point. It came in a shape of a threatening tweet from Donald Trump: 

“Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservative voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen…” it read. 

Trump was reacting to Twitter, which had earlier reacted to growing calls to deal with disinformation by fact-checking the president. Let’s unpack this:

  • A month ago, Twitter took an unprecedented step and removed tweets by Jair Bolsonaro, in which the Brazilan president promoted hydroxychloroquine and urged an end to lockdowns in his nation’s cities. 
  • Despite mounting pressure, the company has refused to remove President Donald Trump’s tweets, but on Tuesday it did — finally — fact-check the US President.  
  • Twitter added warning labels to two of Trump’s tweets, in which he claimed that the use of mail-in ballots would render the upcoming California general election “rigged” and falsely stated that California governor Gavin Newsom was sending ballots to all California residents — “no matter who they are or how they got there”
  • Trump is  furious. He has accused Twitter of stifling free speech and now threatened the company with regulation.

Our takeaway: Trump’s attack was predictable. Twitter’s handling of the situation is what deserves our attention. It shows that when it comes to fake news, despite years of pressure to find solutions, the tech giants still can’t get the very basics right. 

Twitter’s fact-check was clunky and, arguably, counter-productive. Below the sentence “Trump’s claims are unsubstantiated, according to CNN, Washington Post and other fact-checkers” was an “analysis” by Chris Cillizza of CNN. 

Cillizza is a commentator, not a fact-checker, and the linked piece on “the *real* the reason Donald Trump is attacking mail-in ballots” is, in fact, an opinion.

Why this matters: Because, apparently, facts can, indeed, change minds. Opinions? Not so much. 

“Despite all the concern regarding the impotence of facts to change minds, most studies have found that providing corrective information can be effective,” writes health policy researcher Timothy Caulfield in a forthcoming paper (available here as a preprint) on how to effectively debunk misinformation on social media. 

“Evidence perceived to be removed from an agenda,” Caulfield emphasizes, “is more likely to be trusted and persuasive.”

This means that putting opinions ahead of facts is a poor strategy, and for Twitter it has already backfired. 

Until platforms can come up with real solutions, fake news merchants and conspiracy theorists will continue to thrive on them. And it looks like they are thriving beyond conventional social media platforms, too. Coda’s Gautama Mehta has discovered a surprising new home for post-coronavirus conspiracists. Keep reading!

The Conspiracy Game by Gautama Mehta

One fact has crystallized through the fog of post-Covid-19 uncertainty: conspiracists are having a great pandemic. 

From Madagascar to New Zealand, wild theories of all sorts are mushrooming in every country and on every platform.

Including, I recently found out, a messaging service called Discord.

Discord was developed for use by gamers, but it’s been struggling to monitor hate groups who have adopted it as a platform for years.

According to a new report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), conspiracy theorists on Discord’s user-moderated servers are “gamifying” the spread of misinformation related to the pandemic.

Moderators of Discord servers dedicated to conspiracy theories and far-right politics have adopted reward structures and points systems from video games, allowing new members to “level up” by demonstrating that they have publicized conspiracy theories in online comments.

A researcher who worked on the CCDH report explained to me that gamification, in one form or another, is a process underlying much of what makes social media so addictive.

Elements of video game design have also been used by recruiters for Al-Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups.

The CCDH report cites one instance in which a user on a Discord server named “The Truth Shall Make You Free” was rewarded for an online comment suggesting that someone experiencing coronavirus symptoms should consume colloidal silver. They received a congratulatory message reading, “You just advanced to level 3!” 

Colloidal silver is an unproven and unsafe compound that has been promoted as a coronavirus treatment by vendors of alternative medicines during the pandemic.

We are only beginning to see the collateral damage caused by the pandemic. Here’s one new trend: a setback for abortion campaigners around the world. It began in the United States, where conservative movements immediately used the virus as an excuse to restrict access to terminations: 

  • Ohio was the first state to send letters to clinics, ordering them to “immediately stop performing non-essential and elective surgical abortions,” in light of the growing outbreak
  • Texas quickly followed suit, as did Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana, Ohio, Alabama, Arkansas and Iowa. Some states forced clinics to close

Now, we are noticing the same trend around the world. 

  • An investigation by our Russian-language reporters shows how the pandemic is being used as a pretext to limit women’s access to abortion nationwide. The link is in Russian, but an English version of the story is coming soon
  • Parliament in Poland has tried to push through legislation designed to eliminate already restricted legal access to abortion (it stalled following mass protests). This came at a time when women could no longer travel to neighboring Germany or Slovakia to undergo the procedure 
  • Even if they could get to Slovakia, things are changing there too. Health Minister Marek Krajci has said that he “does not recommend” having an abortion during the pandemic. This statement came after reports that doctors in the country were cancelling appointments

Why this matters: From Russia and Columbia to Zambia and Pakistan, millions of women have experienced the knock-on consequences of the coronavirus outbreak. This Human Rights Watch report details a vicious cycle:

“While lockdowns reduce the spread of Covid-19, they also drive a global spike in reported violence in the home, and leaving some women and girls isolated with abusers, leading to increased unwanted pregnancies.” 

Marie Stopes International, a global organization that provides contraception and safe abortion services, told us that it expects up to 9.5 million women and girls to be affected worldwide. 

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Thank you so much and see you on Friday!