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Coronavirus exposes gray areas for media – Poynter



The difficult choices in coronavirus reporting

News organizations are tracking coronavirus cases as they are confirmed. But what happens when there are suspected cases? Should they be reported too?

On the one hand, reporting cases that are suspected but not confirmed could perform a necessary public service for audiences who might have read about the cases on social media or wonder why a school was closed. On the other hand, if it’s only a suspected case, publishing unconfirmed information could generate unnecessary fear and uncertainty.

It’s one of many gray areas news people face in covering the COVID-19 outbreak, forcing difficult choices between satisfying public hunger for new developments and avoiding the amplification of unconfirmed information, misinformation or outright conspiracies.

Misinformation about the virus is so widespread that it’s being called an infodemic, which the World Health Organization says is “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

The falsehoods on social media and other platforms involve every aspect of the virus: its origins, the number of cases, the kinds of precautions people should take, how it spreads, potential treatments, and who is most at risk. The misinformation ranges from silly to dangerous.

These hoaxes and falsehoods often create tricky calculations for news organizations. In debunking a conspiracy theory about the disease’s origins, for example, are news organizations actually drawing attention to it?

There are also judgment calls involving situations that are unquestionably true. Take, for example, the fact that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited a school where a student and his mother have since been quarantined after she came into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.

The school told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that the student was not among those who met with Pence when he visited. And the school said neither the student nor his mom is showing symptoms. So is it worth reporting?

The local papers wrote about it, as did Bloomberg News, among others. But some big national news organizations simply ignored the story, presumably concluding that it wasn’t news.

In an era of misinformation, professional news leaders are accustomed by now to stories that test their ethics and challenge their judgment. But as the coronavirus — and the misinformation surrounding it — continues to spread, these difficult choices will also proliferate.

Related note for journalists: The Washington Post’s science editor, Laura Helmuth, offered some excellent tips on The Open Notebook, a nonprofit that provides tools and resources for science writers.

— Susan Benkelman, API

. . . technology

  • In a new poll by the Knight Foundation and Gallup, 72% of respondents said internet platforms should make no user information available to political campaigns in order to target certain voters with online advertisements.
    • Solid majorities also said social media companies should ban misleading content in political ads, the groups said. That includes ads that would target supporters of an opposing candidate and provide the wrong election date (81%) or ads that say a politician voted for a policy they didn’t actually vote for (62%).
  • Facebook is giving the World Health Organization free advertising to combat misinformation on the coronavirus, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post on the platform.

. . . politics

  • A new study published in Nature Human Behaviour concluded that web sites that published factually dubious content during the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign made up a small share of people’s information diets on average. These results, the study says, “suggest that the widespread speculation about the prevalence of exposure to untrustworthy websites has been overstated.”
    • Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan, one of the study’s authors, told Scientific American that the main problem with these sites is the risk that someone in power will amplify their lies. “One implication of our study is that most of the misinformation that people get about politics doesn’t come from these fringe web sites. It comes from the mainstream — it comes from the media and political figures who are the primary sources of political news and commentary,” he said.

. . . science and health

  • The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto published an article showing that Chinese social media platforms have been blocking messages about the new coronavirus. The researchers say the censorship might have affected critical medical information too.
  • While struggling to fight the new coronavirus, Taiwan is also witnessing a serious digital attack driven by malicious disinformers, two fact-checkers there wrote for Poynter.
  • Police departments are spreading coronavirus misinformation as a joke, BuzzFeed reported.

Chequeado, in Argentina, has proved once more that live fact-checking is powerful and useful. Last Sunday, 28 fact-checkers got together with 14 experts and 8 volunteers in Buenos Aires to check the first speech given by the recently elected president Alberto Fernández while opening the legislative year.

Fernández spoke for about 1 hour and 40 minutes and had 10 claims assessed. Six of them were rated true. Fernández used good data to talk about the economic crisis his country is facing, Chequeado concluded. And he shared the right information about the agreement Argentina has with the International Monetary Fund and the fact that the unemployment rate rose to 9.7% during Mauricio Macri’s presidency.

Four other claims, however, were considered misleading. Fernández exaggerated, for example, when he said Argentina had a record inflation of 53.8% in 2019. It wasn’t a record.

In addition to fact-checking, Chequeado’s team also counted the words used most frequently by the new president in his speech and created a robust website to share all the content. Argentina was obviously number one, with 53 mentions, followed by “national” (41 mentions), “state” (40), “development” (37) and “social” (36). On Monday, Chequeado’s editors also discussed the most important findings on a 14-minute podcast, lending a multi-platform aspect to its work.

What we liked: The idea of inviting experts and volunteers to live fact-check politicians is not only courageous but also adds transparency to the fact-checking process. To broaden its reach, Chequeado also offers an intensive training workshop to those who want to join them at such an important moment.

— Cristina Tardáguila, IFCN  

  1. CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale told the network’s Brian Stelter on Sunday that journalists covering Donald Trump need to “resist being beaten down by the frequency of dishonesty … and treat it as news every time …”
  2. The Texas Secretary of State said voters were the target of misleading robocalls about the timing of last Tuesday’s primaries.
  3. Overall, though, the Department of Homeland Security and disinformation experts monitoring social media had a relatively quiet night on Super Tuesday, NBC reported.
  4. Business Insider India is offering readers tips on identifying falsehoods on WhatsApp.
  5. Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani wrote for the BBC about the impact of fabricated news in her country.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to

Cristina and Susan

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Texas shooting: Social media and the shooter's messages – CTV News



Could technology companies have monitored ominous messages made by a gunman who Texas authorities say massacred 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school? Could they have warned the authorities?

Answers to these questions remain unclear, in part because official descriptions of the shooting and the gunman’s social media activity have continued to evolve. For instance, on Thursday Texas officials made significant revisions to their timeline of events for the shooting.

But if nothing else, the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, seems highly likely to focus additional attention on how social platforms monitor what users are saying to and showing each other.

A day after the Tuesday shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said this: “There was no meaningful forewarning of this crime other than what I’m about to tell you: As of this time the only information that was known in advance was posted by the gunman on Facebook approximately 30 minutes before reaching the school.”

Facebook posts are typically distributed to a wide audience. Shortly thereafter, Facebook stepped in to note that the gunman sent one-to-one direct messages, not public posts, and that they weren’t discovered until “after the terrible tragedy.”


By Thursday, new questions arose as to which and how many tech platforms the gunman used in the days before the shooting. The governor’s office referred questions about the gunman’s online messages to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.

Some reports appear to show that at least some of the gunman’s communications used Apple’s encrypted iPhone messaging services, which makes messages almost impossible for anyone else to read when sent to another iPhone user. Facebook parent company Meta, which also owns Instagram, says it is working with law enforcement but declined to provide details. Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The latest mass shootings in the U.S. by active social-media users may bring more pressure on technology companies to heighten their scrutiny of online communications, even though conservative politicians — Abbott among them — are also pushing social platforms to relax their restrictions on some speech.


It would depend on which services Salvador Ramos used. A series of posts appeared on his Instagram in the days leading up to the shooting, including photos of a gun magazine in hand and two AR-style semi-automatic rifles. An Instagram user who was tagged in one post shared parts of what appears to be a chilling exchange on Instagram with Ramos, asking her to share his gun pictures with her more than 10,000 followers.

Meta has said it monitors people’s private messages for some kinds of harmful content, such as links to malware or images of child sexual exploitation. But copied images can be detected using unique identifiers — a kind of digital signature — which makes them relatively easy for computer systems to flag. Trying to interpret a string of threatening words — which can resemble a joke, satire or song lyrics — is a far more difficult task for artificial intelligence systems.

Facebook could, for instance, flag certain phrases such as “going to kill” or “going to shoot,” but without context — something AI in general has a lot of trouble with — there would be too many false positives for the company to analyze. So Facebook and other platforms rely on user reports to catch threats, harassment and other violations of the law or their own policies.


Even this kind of monitoring could soon be obsolete, since Meta plans to roll out end-to-end-encryption on its Facebook and Instagram messaging systems next year. Such encryption means that no one other than the sender and the recipient — not even Meta — can decipher people’s messages. WhatsApp, also owned by Meta, already uses such encryption.

A recent Meta-commissioned report emphasized the benefits of such privacy but also noted some risks — including users who could abuse the encryption to sexually exploit children, facilitate human trafficking and spread hate speech.

Apple has long had end-to-end encryption on its messaging system. That has brought the iPhone maker into conflict with the Justice Department over messaging privacy. After the deadly shooting of three U.S. sailors at a Navy installation in December 2019, the Justice Department insisted that investigators needed access to data from two locked and encrypted iPhones that belonged to the alleged gunman, a Saudi aviation student.

Security experts say this could be done if Apple were to engineer a “backdoor” to allow access to messages sent by alleged criminals. Such a secret key would let them decipher encrypted information with a court order.

But the same experts warned that such backdoors into encryption systems make them inherently insecure. Just knowing that a backdoor exists is enough to focus the world’s spies and criminals on discovering the mathematical keys that could unlock it. And when they do, everyone’s information is essentially vulnerable to anyone with the secret key.

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Amherstburg man shares EV car experience on social media | CTV News – CTV News Windsor



When Eric Wortley became the new owner of an electric vehicle, the Amherstburg, Ont. resident never planned on documenting what it’s like on social media.

But as Windsor’s auto sector started moving toward electrification, he noticed more of his friends debating the pros and cons of EVs over social media.

“When I got my Tesla, [I decided] to just document everything,” he said. “Show everyone the good, the bad, the ugly — and let people make their own opinions on it.”

Like many others in recent months, Wortley considered going electric for his next vehicle due to rising gas prices. He bought a Jeep Gladiator last year but noticed fuel was starting to cost more than the payments for the truck itself.

In February, Wortley made the switch and bought a fully-electric, pre-owned Tesla vehicle.

He’s also started providing occasional updates on his social media, sharing details such as charging time, distance travelled and money saved compared to driving a gas-powered vehicle.

So far, Wortley’s experience with his electric vehicle has been positive. The biggest benefit, he said, is being able to charge his vehicle overnight at home, eliminating the need for him to stop at gas stations. On the rare occasion, Wortley added, he may plug his EV in at the charging stations at Devonshire Mall.

In one of his social media updates, Wortley recalls a recent drive to Point Pelee which cost him virtually nothing in terms of fuel because the area has free EV charging stations.

From his home to Point Pelee, the distance is about 120 kilometres. Wortley estimates the same drive in his former pickup truck would have cost him about $35 just in gas.

Wortley said he mainly charges his EV at home and rarely plugs into a supercharger, which allows for faster charging at a premium rate. But despite the extra cost, Wortley said it still works out cheaper than filling up a gas-powered vehicle at current prices.

“To plug in and charge at home, it’s $10 a week. If I go to a supercharger, which I did a couple days ago, it still only cost me $18 to charge it from 15 per cent.

While charging his electric vehicle at the mall, Wortley said he paid just a few dollars to increase the charge on his EV battery by about 30 per cent. It took him about two hours, but Wortley said the cost savings is worth it.

“I went shopping. I worked out at the gym,” said Wortley on what he did while his EV was charging at the mall. “I don’t have to worry about having to fill up now. It’s pennies, whereas if I wanted to fill up to drive to Amherstburg, 20 bucks is down the drain.”

Peter Hatges, national automotive sector leader for KPMG Canada, says the extra time needed to charge an electric vehicle can be an issue for some drivers who quickly need to get from place-to-place. (Sanjay Maru/CTV News Windsor)

But according to Peter Hatges, national automotive sector leader for KPMG Canada, the extra time it takes for electric vehicles to charge can be an issue for drivers who are very busy or often travel long distances.

“In our surveys and the polls that we’ve done across Canada, most Canadians expect to go and refuel a car in about five to seven minutes. That’s how long it takes for you to go to the gas station. It can take 10 minutes if you’re waiting in line for coffee, but that’s about it,” said Hatges.

In comparison, Hatges said it can take 45 minutes for an electric vehicle to increase the charge in an electric vehicle battery by 80 per cent, even when plugged into a supercharger.

“I think the range anxiety really impacts people that use the vehicles like we do in North America,” he said.

“People aren’t thinking about when and where to charge the battery. They’re thinking about what they got to do next and if they have to travel a long distance,” Hatges added. “That is going to be an impediment to the widespread adoption of electric cars, at least for now.”

But for early adopters like Wortley, the extra wait isn’t too much of an issue for him. On long drives, he said 45 minutes gives him enough to stop for a bathroom break, sit down for a meal and stretch his legs out

Searching for an EV charger isn’t a problem for Wortley either. That’s because his in-car GPS will show him where to find superchargers along his route, after he enters his destination on the centre console.

Take a look at the tweet below to see that feature in action:

Wortley also addressed concerns he’s received from others on his social media updates regarding the battery’s total lifespan and the financial ramifications that could arise if it fails altogether. Wortley said his warranty fully covers any fixes needed to the battery and allows for a full replacement if its total capacity falls below 70 per cent.

But the warranty does not apply if the vehicle has been driven for eight years or has amassed 160,000 kilometres. 

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Social Media Increasingly Linked With Mass Shootings – Forbes



On Wednesday, authorities in Texas identified Salvador Ramos as the 18-year-old shooter who had opened fire in Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Ramos, who had killed at least 19 students and two teachers during his shooting spree on Tuesday, had allegedly posted disturbing images online prior to carrying out the senseless attack.

According to reports, an Instagram account allegedly connected to Ramos featured disturbing photos. That account has since been taken down.

It was just last week that New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, announced that her office was investigating social media companies after another mass shooter had used the online platforms to plan, promote and stream a massacre in a Buffalo grocery store that left 10 dead. James said her office would investigate Twitch, 4chan, 8chan and Discord along with other platforms that the shooter used to amplify the attack.

Many are asking if warning signs were missed.

“It is impossible to prevent people from making threats online,” explained William V. Pelfrey, Jr., Ph.D., professor in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Yet he suggested that social media organizations do have a moral responsibility to identify and remove threatening messaging.

“They are generally abysmal at this task. Direct threats (i.e. I want to shoot the President, I want to kill myself) frequently are flagged and investigated. Indirect threats are much harder to identify and rarely receive any attention,” Pelfrey continued. “Many social media companies will need to make decisions – protect individual’s rights to make oblique threats or protect safety. Compromising freedom of speech seems abhorrent until we weigh that compromise against the lives lost in Buffalo or the many other places where radicalized violent extremists found their motivation to kill.”

The Anti-Social Networks

As the United States remains very much in what President Joe Biden has identified as an “Uncivil War,” where the country remains so politically divided, the platforms that were once about friendly discussions have evolved very much into “anti-social networks” where people now find themselves in echo chambers that support their opinion and views.

“Social media has compounded a growing racial, cultural and gender divide in America and the world,” explained Anthony Silard, professor at the Luiss Business School, Rome, and the author of The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age.

Social media has enabled the actions of extremists to be live-streamed to the masses.

“One facet of the Buffalo shooting that is critical for understanding its conception and operation is that it was not the work of one person,” added Silard. “The shooter brought his thought community with him via live stream. They were poised and ready to send out the horrific imagery of innocent people being slaughtered before the social media site, Twitch, could take it down, in an impressive two minutes. They succeeded, yet millions watched from the comfort of their screens.

“With his thought community virtually present and at the ready, the shooter felt less alone and propped up by the hate-imbued ideology of his group,” Silard added. “Herein lies an important point for lawmakers to consider about the role of social media in this tragedy: it enabled rapid, collective action by a hate group.”

Lack Of Empathy

Social media has also been seen as responsible in lowering the empathy of most Americans. It is easy to “speak your mind” about someone on social media based on a tweet they made or something they posted on Facebook. Even like-minded individuals with similar interests can find themselves in serious flare ups that turn hostile.

This has been common with email, posts on Newsgroups and online forums, but has increased significantly in the era of social media.

“One of the primary reasons social media has become so dangerous to a healthy society is that it erodes empathy. The reason town hall meetings became a healthy medium for cross-aisle conversations is that people had to listen to each other, even when they disagreed,” said Silard.”Now that these conversations have gone online, empathy has fallen to the wayside. A recent meta-analysis of seventy-two studies conducted between 1979 and 2009, for instance, found that the empathy levels of American college students have dropped 40 percent, which the authors primarily attribute to the rise of social media.”

The social media platforms have largely failed to address the issue, and in some cases it has only served to radicalize individuals, such as the recent mass shooters.

“Social media companies like Facebook promised us that its services would encourage people to care more for each other and express their authentic views more both online and in person. None of this has happened,” warned Silard. “Instead, recent Pew research has found that people speak up less in person now for fear of retribution. Why? Social media has helped them realize there are many opposing views out there they would prefer not to confront.”

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