The Free Internet Project

pandemic

Infodemic: The Spread of Misinformation Regarding the COVID-19 Pandemic, Why it Matters, and How it is Being Handled

As communities all over the world continue to adjust their day-to-day lives surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also battling another pandemic – the spread of misinformation about COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, what scientists know about the virus has continuously changed. Though this evolution is common in science, it is fostering an environment of uncertainty and people are having a hard time deciphering what is accurate or true. Social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp are being criticized for allowing the spread of misinformation. But if lies are spread around the internet daily, what makes this misinformation so different? Phil Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute explained the difference is this "infodemic" or spread of COVID misinformation “can kill people if they don’t understand what precautions to take.” 

COVID Misinformation

With the increased unemployment and limited mobility, people are spending time home and on the internet more than ever. More time on the internet translates to more information consumption on various topics, COVID-19 included. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in early June on Americans’ consumption of information through social media platforms. They found that 38% of Americans have found it increasingly more difficult to identify accurate information about the pandemic. 71% of Americans say they have heard at least one conspiracy theory about the pandemic and how it was planned by people in power. 1/3 of those people even believe there is some truth to the conspiracies they have heard. This survey sheds light not only on the increasing confusion Americans are facing, but also how they are believing conspiracies fueled by distrust in the government. Researchers believe that this may be a digital literacy issue. People use the internet, but are not taught in schools and workplaces how to navigate it.

Lack of Legal Remedies

The spread of misinformation or “fake news” is not only increasing but ever changing. The legal remedies available for COVID misinoformation are quite limited. According to the National Law Review, there are three types of fake news. Type 1 is spoofing, when a content provider copies a real news source that causes consumer confusion. Consumers are tricked into thinking they are receiving information from a legitimate source. Type 2 is poaching, where a content provider intentionally creates a significantly similar publication similar to an established news source. Though not an exact copy, it is similar enough to confuse the news consumer. Both spoofing and poaching potentially violate trademark laws and other laws; remedies can be sought in federal court. However, many times the owners of these sites are hard to locate and are in foreign countries, thus making it a costly endeavor. Lastly, Type 3 is original sensationalism, such as when a content provider creates an original publication with original content but relies on the sensationalism surrounding the topic to disseminate misinformation on the topic. Original sensationalism is the most common type of fake news and is nearly impossible to remedy with legal action. The FDA can bring actions against entities claiming fraudulent therapeutics or cures. But if the misinformation falls outside that parameter, such as the controversy over wearing masks as a preventative measure, the law might not reach such misinformation. Lack of meaningful legal remedies results in greater expectations being placed on social media platforms to take accountability and enforce policies against COVID misinformation, especially when detrimental to health and safety. 

Social Media Platforms Response

Nowadays it is second nature for most people to go to social media platforms to discuss anything from movies and music to politics. The spread of an unprecedented virus is no different. Though social media has been used to share helpful information about the pandemic, appreciation for healthcare workers, and memes to help people cope with what is happening, it has also become a breeding ground for misinformation and people have been pushing to hold social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp (also owned by Facebook) accountable. Internet platforms have attempted to combat COVID misinformation, but the challenges of monitoring millions of posts or communications for such misinformation are dauting.

Facebook has over 7 billion users worldwide and is definitely not a stranger to fake news criticism. Facebook has been facing backlash due to American election and political fake news. Similar backlash is happening in relation to COVID-19. A study conducted by the international advocacy group Avaaz in mid-April 2020 found that millions of Facebook users, “are still being put at risk of consuming harmful misinformation on coronavirus at a large scale.” Even taking Facebook’s internal anti-misinformation team into account, “41% of misinformation still remains on the platform without warning labels.” Also, of that misinformation, 65% of the information has been established as false by Facebook’s own fact-checking partners. In response to this study and other critiques, on May 12, 2020, Facebook finally spoke out in a blog post detailing the actions they are taking to limit the spread of misinformation. They stated they have directed over 2 billion users to accurate information from WHO and other health organizations with over 350 million people clicking on the resources. They have also started working with 60 fact-checking organizations that assess content in more than 50 languages. These partnerships have allowed them to display warnings on approximately 40 million COVID-related posts and 95% of users who encounter these posts do not click on the original content.

Data from May 3, 2020 shows there are more than 2 billion users of WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook) in 180 countries. These users not only utilize the application intimate conversations but also large interest groups, thus making it a widespread platform filled with millions of conversations centered around the pandemic happening daily. About a month into the pandemic lockdown, on April 7, 2020, WhatsApp announced through a blog post that they want to keep the application focused on personal and private conversations rather than mass dissemination of information without thorough review. Therefore, they decided to further limit the number of users and groups a user can forward messages to. WhatsApp states they had limited this previously and they saw a 25% decrease in global messages forwarded. They have also published tips on how to decipher between the truth and fake news as well as partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to help connect users with accurate information.

Misinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be created and spread all across the world. Social media platforms have implemented policies to stop the spread of misinformation, however it remains to be seen if these measures are effective. As COVID-19 surges in the United States and other parts of the world, it is imperative that Internet platforms do their jobs in combatting dangerous COVID misinformation.

-written by Mariam Tabrez

Can 2020 US Presidential Election Be Canceled: COVID-19, Voting-by-Mail and Other Safeguards During a Pandemic

 

The United States is experiencing another wave in coronavirus infections, with twenty-one states seeing an increase in their daily infection rates. With alarm bells ringing, many have expressed logistical concerns about the upcoming presidential election. There are two main concerns about Election Day 2020, which is November 3, 2020:

  1. Postponement or cancellation of the election; and
  2. Mitigation of the increasing coronavirus infection rate at polling locations.

Canceling or postponing Election Day 2020 is highly unlikely.

The president does not have the legal authority to cancel the November 3rd election. First, federal statute specifes "the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November" shall be federal Election Day. Moreover, the states are the ones who conduct the operations of elections in each state. And only states have the power to change their election laws, according to Jason Harrow, executive director and chief counsel of Equal Citizens.

Rest assured, overstaying one’s welcome at the White House is not possible. The Constitution prevents presidents from remaining in office past their elected term. Under the 20th Amendment, the president’s term automatically ends on January 20th at noon after a four-year term.  If a candidate hasn’t been elected by then, Congress decided long ago the Speaker of the House will become acting president. 

Congress can’t cancel the election either. But Congress can postpone the election by passing a new federal law. Under Article II, § 1 of the Constitution, Congress has the power to determine the date the election takes place. Thus, Congress could pass a bill before November – but it’s unlikely. As Jerry Goldfeder explains, American presidents and legislators have never canceled or postponed any of the fifty-eight previous presidential elections – not for wars, not for terrorist attacks, and not for the Spanish flu. There is little doubt the presidential election will take place. Nonetheless, the logistics are unclear.

How can Americans stay safe and exercise their constitutional right to vote?

It’s reasonable to say Election Day this year will not be postponed or canceled. So, what other options do Americans have? Currently, four ideas are being pushed forward:

  1. Expanding the number of polling places;
  2. Encouraging early voting;
  3. Developing a time span (e.g., two weeks) within which people can vote; and
  4. Expanding voting-by-mail and absentee voting.

After conducting the research, voting-by-mail is the most tenable path forward to mitigate risks of exposure to the coronavirus.

Reports by the Brennan Center for Justice and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights show polling place expansion is unlikely. Since 2012, states around the country have closed nearly two thousand polling places. The pandemic has fanned the flames of this trend. For this to work, states need to open more locations where voters can cast their votes and train a horde of new polling volunteers before November – both of which are not likely.

Early voting would help with social distancing measures by reducing crowd sizes. But some states, like Utah, have canceled their early voting options. As more Americans contract the coronavirus, it is unclear whether this is will be an option for voters in November. Legislators have not yet jumped on the “time-frame” option for in-person voting. The fourth option, voting-by-mail, is the most controversial.

Fact Check: Cases of Voter Fraud in the Voting-by-Mail Context Is Rare.

Twitter sparked controversy when it added a “fact check” label to President Trump’s tweet about California’s expansion of voting-by-mail procedures for the presidential election. In the tweet, President Trump claimed voting-by-mail expansions would lead to “rigged elections.” But Trump himself voted by mail in 2018, and, in the past, Mike Pence, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Kayleigh McEnany, Bill Barr, Besty DeVos, Larry Kudlow, Wilbur Ross, Kellyanne Conway, and Alex Azar [source]. 

But should Americans be concerned about voter fraud in the context of voting-by-mail?

According to surveys and polls, 72-78% of American voters want the option to vote-by-mail in the upcoming presidential election. At this time, 33 states allow voting-by-mail without an excuse. 5 states conduct all elections by mail.  In response to the pandemic, many states have changed their voting procedures – forty-six states, both Democratic and Republican controlled, now allow voting-by-mail in some form.

According to MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab, voting-by-mail began during the Civil War, where soldiers on both sides cast their ballots from the battlefield. Since then, instances of voter fraud have been rare. Two most infamous cases occurred in Florida (acts of false witnessing) and Georgia (selling votes). More recently, a Republican campaign representative in Maryland got caught collecting blank ballots and filling the ballots out in favor of a former congressional candidate, Mike Harris.

Experts reject the recent hype about voter fraud in the voting-by-mail context. Over the past two decades, 250,000 votes were submitted via mail-in ballots. Based on the Heritage Foundation’s database on voter fraud, only 1,285 instances of voter fraud were found, yielding 1,110 criminal convictions. From the 1,110 convictions, only 204 cases concerned alleged fraudulent use of absentee ballots. You can find a detailed record of every voter fraud case here. This means over twenty years, there have been about ten cases of voter fraud per year.

The risk of voter fraud in this context is only a fraction of a percent, 0.0816%. Context: You are more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime, with a 0.033% chance, than to witness “widespread” voter fraud taking place during the 2020 presidential election. Perspective: The chances of dying from coronavirus in the United States is 4.795%.  Of course, with any voting procedure, safeguards need to be implemented. Professor Ned Foley, an election law expert, has identified a need for states to clarify their procedures should a candidate contest the results of mail-in ballots, in a much discussed article "Why Vote-by-Mail Could be a Legal Nightmare in November." Foley recommends: "But states — especially battlegrounds in the presidential election — should clarify as soon as possible the rules that their own courts are supposed to use in litigation that might arise over counting absentee ballots. It is not enough that state law has rules for casting ballots. There needs to be clarity on whether ballots can still count if something has gone wrong in the process of casting of them, especially if the problem is not the voter’s fault."

Standing in long lines, for countless hours, is not a reasonable option this election season because it will certainly increase the spread of the deadly virus. Foley warns: "There’s no question that, for public health reasons, expanding vote-by-mail is a wise decision for states to be making right now."

It’s clear:  Voting-by-mail is not perfect or full-proof. There are rare instances that justify some degree of concern. However, states should allow voting-by-mail due to the higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.‚Äč

-written by Allison Hedrick

 

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