This article is part of the series
The Disinformation Pandemic
This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.
It's Nov 2021, and the hot topic is the Vaccine “debate”.
It just happens to be the flavor of the month, the thing that is currently inciting the most frenzy and emotion on the Internet.
In a different year, it would be COVID-19, or elections, or voting systems, or stock markets, global warming, or... something else.
There’s always something.
Even when the world is in a good place, we always seem to need something to toss into the Colosseum.
I suspect that part of it is human nature. We seem to like to have an enemy, even if we're not sure who it is.
But also, Trolls can’t stand silence- they much prefer fear, violent outbursts, eyes filled with blood-lust, and screams of terror.
Your peace and happiness wins them nothing.
Normally, I ignore this kind of stuff.
Election wars and many of the ideological debates I see on the Internet just don't interest me. I see all sides, and take none. I prefer to sit back and observe, and learn about human nature.
Sometimes, I marvel at how much some people like to argue and incite, rather than spend that time researching, fact-checking, or solving problems.
However news regarding COVID-19, and the vaccine concern me, because they affect the health & safety of everyone I know and love.
And, as it happens, I was also due to receive my 2nd vaccine dose, so this sudden avalanche of “the vaccine will kill you” and “It doesn’t work anyway” news on my Facebook feed got my attention in a big way.
What I've been seeing
Here are a few that have been sent to me regarding the COVID vaccine...
- 17,000+ Reports of Deaths After COVID Vaccines, Including New Report of 12-Year-Old Who Died After Pfizer Vaccine
- Doctor Who Said He “Wouldn’t Cry” Over Death of “Selfish” Unvaccinated People, Dies In Sleep 2 Weeks After Getting COVID Booster Shot
- Worldwide Surge of Sports People Suffering Sudden Health Issues and Death
Whoa. Those are some seriously scary headlines, and there were hundreds of them.
I needed to understand, and I decided to research it for myself.
Fact v. Fiction
For the past month I've been investigating these articles.
And I had plenty of questions...
- Is this real?
- Is there any truth here, even a little bit? How much truth exactly?
- If it’s real, why am I not seeing this everywhere, on every news channel in the World?
- If it’s fake, why would someone create and post fake news?
I decided to dig into them, post by post, and learn everything I could.
We'll look at what I found, but let's fast forward to my conclusion...
it’s terrifying what is being presented as legitimate news.
What I found was not the difference between “degrees” of truth. It was the difference between fact and fiction.
What I found most troubling was that what I was reading was not misinformation... it was disinformation.
The difference is that disinformation is deliberate propaganda intended to deceive.
I'll never look at my Facebook newsfeed the same way again.
How to Identify Fake News
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
In my mission to separate fact from fiction, I’ve discovered some great tools. They provide objective assessments of news sites and help readers to identify media bias and fake news.
Here are three of my favorites-
- Media Bias Fact Check ( MBFC ) - https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/
- NewsGuard - https://www.newsguardtech.com/
- Snopes.com - https://www.snopes.com/tag/covid-19-vaccine/
I find these incredibly useful... a kind of polygraph machine built into my web browser.
It's sad that we need one these days.
Verifying news sources
As an example, one of the websites I encountered is noqreport.com.
This screenshot shows NewsGuard's evaluation. On a credibility scale of 100, they got a five. That's just scary.
Media Bias Fact Check (MBFC) has a very similar assessment. and additionally indicates NoqReport's extreme-right political bias.
MBFC includes this explanation;
A questionable source exhibits one or more of the following: extreme bias, consistent promotion of propaganda/conspiracies, poor or no sourcing to credible information, a complete lack of transparency, and/or is fake news.
Fake News is the deliberate attempt to publish hoaxes and/or disinformation for profit or influence.
Wow. I’d just seen my very first troll.
It was real, and it was ugly.
A Personal Reflection
In all honesty, this was a bit trippy for my brain to process.
Sure I'd heard that "trolls" exist, but the idea of someone deliberately manufacturing and planting fake news seemed like... cold war era propaganda. Maybe something out of a CIA spy novel depicting psychological warfare campaigns.
It was just too surreal.
Until I had seen a "troll" personally, up-close, where I could touch it, poke it, and clearly see that it was real - they had only existed in fairy tales.
The experience was like rather like looking under my bed and actually seeing a monster- or opening the closet and there is a "Bogey-man" standing there.
It was freaky, and I'm still processing what this means for my world.
Before I'd always assumed that everything I'd seen that presented itself as fact was least attempting to hit that target. The information could be flawed, or the data, or the study method, or the conclusions... but misinformation is never intentional.
Disinformation... misinformation's evil cousin... is an entirely new thing to me.
Learning to see troll-signs
Every single article source I reviewed had similar ratings, or were "ghosts" and not even considered news sites at all by NewsGuard. I’ve collected my research findings here for those of you who are interested to dig into them as well.
They still amaze me.
But that was just the beginning of my study.
I'd found that the sources I was seeing were known for fake news & disinformation, but that didn't tell me whether they were based on any facts.
I needed to know.
So... I compared these sites to reputable news sites- those with great ratings on News Guard and MBFC. On high-reputation news sites, I could not find a single piece of news indicating that the vaccine was dangerous, or causing deaths, or that our democratic governments worldwide were suddenly becoming dictatorships.
I found nothing.
In fact, every reputable news site I checked, I saw the exact opposite. Tons of statistics on reduced transmission rates, lower hospitalization demands, and reduced deaths among the growing ranks of the vaccinated.
But I needed to be sure, so I chose to entertain the conspiracies, too.
What if all of the world's most trusted media had been taken over by some secret global cabal? What if every news agency was engaged in a global campaign of disinformation?
No doubt, if the conspiracy theorists were right, it was all for the purposes of global population control- and it was time to take out a magnet and search for microchips.
Far-fetched to be sure... but I don't like leaving gaps in my research.
So, I dug into the extreme-Left-wing sites too. These are equally "fringe", and just as prone to trolling and campaigns of disinformation as the extreme-Right is. In my estimation- if there was anything worth creating "news" about, that would bring them attention- they would be using that opportunity too.
I dug, and I dug, and I could find absolutely nothing related to the purported dangers of the vaccine, or unfair government oppression.
One site in particular I found interesting was the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU, is a left-leaning organization devoted to protecting the rights of American citizens- especially from government oppression.
You'd think... I'd at least find a discussion of the psychological impacts of unreasonable lockdowns, or the right to choose to forego vaccination,
But there wasn't a single thing.
Why Fake News Exists
Why would someone invest so much time, effort, and money in creating disinformation?
Fake news is a weird concept.
It requires time, money and effort to manufacture, but to what end? Who could possibly benefit from that?
At first, my brain struggled with the idea.
It was impossible, right? No would do that. It was too... evil.
It must be at least a little bit true, right?
In this whole research experience, I've learned something new about myself.
I'm simply not used to being so blatantly lied to.
The people and information sources I normally invite into my life at least value truth. While nobody is perfect, none of them would go to such efforts to manufacture complete lies.
So where is this coming from?
What do trolls get out of this?
Personally, this is one of the most fascinating things I discovered.
It wasn't until I understood motivation behind fake news that everything clicked and began to make sense.
To explain it, I'm going to return to my troll analogy.
So far I’ve identified 5 types of trolls.
- Money trolls publish click-bait, just for the advertising revenue.
- Power trolls publish fake or misleading news to promote an agenda. Often this means trashing an opposing political party or ideology. You will often see bullying behavior from this group.
- Fear trolls are simply scared, and over-react to their own emotions. They seek to validate their fears by engaging others in their emotional bubble.
- Attention trolls just want to feel important, and seek your Likes as validation. Typically this is motivated by low self-esteem.
- Fire trolls just want to see the world burn. These are sociopaths with Facebook accounts, and fortunately are relatively rare.
Trolls can cross-breed, and right now, all of these types appear to be having a party on my Facebook feed. Looking around the room, most appear to be Power & Money trolls, along with a few hybrids.
The rest are just dipping strange things in the guacamole.
First, follow the money
At first I thought that this form of trolling was largely a profiteering scheme. Create fake news... incite panic... get clicks... sell ads.
Combine the power of a global crisis with the targeting power of Facebook, and you can abuse that to create some serious dosh.
This seems possible...
But after my investigation my conclusion shifted.
Next, follow the power
My conclusion now is that the majority of it is politically motivated. It's political propaganda in the purest sense.
It happens that the current US president is Joe Biden, representing the Democratic party. Every single news site I could find manufacturing fake news was identified as having an extreme Right-wing political bias.
And the story was always the same.
- Your government is oppressing you.
- The vaccine is not needed, not effective, and not safe - and your government is hiding that from you. That goes for every one of the vaccines, by the way- not one of them works.
- Say no to the vaccine. Say no to masks, and social distancing. Say no to lockdowns.
- You should stand up, and fight back, even if it means a revolt.
I wish I could do an A/B comparison test of the past 12 months and see how their news would change if Trump had won.
But we can get fairly close to that.
NoqReport has been running since early 2017, before COVID began, and while Trump was still in office- and the entire history is online.
When I compare COVID news during Trump's presidency, it depicts the government as doing the right thing and making all the right decisions. After Biden's inauguration in Jan 2021, the news quickly shifts to a strong anti-government stance.
Here's a breakdown of links into that timeline.
Why this Matters So Much
Political extremists will always exist, and I imagine that they serve an important role in a healthy society. They represent a kind of ideological mutation that keeps us from living too comfortably in our echo chambers.
Discovery and opportunity occur at the fringes of the status quo, so this is important.
But unlike policy and party-debate issues, fake health & safety news is dangerous- and keeping people alive has nothing to with party affiliation at all.
It saddens me to see people losing sight of that, inciting violent dissentions, and sucking people into their rabbit hole vortex.
These groups are not just stretching the truth, or even bending it... they are completely breaking it off, and tossing it in the shredder.
For the first time, I was face-to-face with organizations who are motivated to deliberately create and spread lies.
I'm not pleased with what I've found, but at least my eyes are open now.
Trolls are nothing new.
The Internet might only be 25 years old, but trolls have been around forever.
The reason tools like NewsGuard and MBFC and Snopes exist is because they have been a problem for a long time.
Media Bias Fact Check presents an explanation on the rise of fake news and disinformation, which I found very interesting. Even the Internet’s beloved Snopes has an entire channel dedicated to fake news regarding the COVID vaccine.
They will be my go-to resources any time I see something of concern.
“Don’t believe anything you read, and only half of what you see.”
Wise words, Mom. Now more than ever.
This article is part of the series
The Disinformation Pandemic
This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.
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