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How misinformation is used to amplify and solidify ideology

There are many myths and much disinformation circulating online, including those related to the pandemic. Fox News host Tucker Carlson made headlines on Monday for his anti-mask stance that included false claims. To explain how and why similar falsehoods spread, Amna Nawaz is joined by Graham Brookie, the director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The red meat conspiracy is just one of a number of myths circulating on the Internet about President Biden's policies, including related to the pandemic.

    Here to explain how these falsehoods spread and how to counteract them is Graham Brookie. He's director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at The Atlantic Council.

    Graham Brookie, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks for making the time.

    The evolution of this one red meat story, right, where it starts with a piece of information, it's misrepresented, it's packaged as false claims, and then takes off online and in some media circles, is this part of a pattern now? Have we seen this before with other issues?

  • Graham Brookie:

    Yes, absolutely.

    This is a part of a wider pattern of mis- and dis-information, domestic mis- and dis-information, that we're seeing accelerate, for sure, here in the United States.

    One of the main promoters or influencers or amplifiers of this was Congressperson Lauren Boebert. What is interesting is that she has a significant constituency that is a ranching constituency. And so this case in particular is false. We will all be able to eat red meat.

    But it's interesting, in that it's literally and figuratively red meat conspiracy theories for her political strategy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And one of the places we saw some of those claims being amplified was, of course, on FOX News.

    There's a clip I want to play from you from host Tucker Carlson, because there's this other piece we have seen, in the explosion of misinformation online, is the sort of brandishing of information as cultural warfare. We're talking during a pandemic. Masking has become a political issue.

    Last night, on FOX News, host Tucker Carlson weighed in on mask-wearing in public, and he said this:

  • Tucker Carlson:

    Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from your response to seeing someone beat a kid in Walmart. Call the police immediately. Contact child protective services. Keep calling until someone arrives.

    What you're looking at is abuse. It's child abuse.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Graham, someone like Tucker Carlson, with an audience of his size, making a statement like that, likening it to child abuse, what's the impact of a statement like that?

  • Graham Brookie:

    Well, Tucker Carlson has a nightly viewership of millions of people.

    And so, first and foremost, that statement is false.

    Second, we're in the middle of a public health crisis, in which the information that we need to make decisions about our own personal health is evolving. And so, today, the CDC guidelines on masks evolved. It changed. It means that we have new guidance, and that's to be expected, until this pandemic is over. It is not over yet.

    And so this information is less about getting the evidence right and more about signaling to an audience. And so, when Tucker Carlson has stories like this, it's less about journalism and more about ideology and amplifying that ideology to a very significant amount of people across the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Specific to FOX News, though, just to bring it back to that red meat story we talked about earlier, they did come out and then say: We're walking this back. Our script implied something that was not, in fact, true.

    What's the impact of something like that, once the information is out there, once the misinformation is out there, coming back to correct it later.

  • Graham Brookie:

    Right.

    Well, the myth is always going to be — reach more people. The original falsehood is always going to reach more people than the correction. And that's the ball game here. Whenever you have a false narrative that gains a certain amount of traction, it will reach more people than all of the work that it takes to correct that falsehood or reach all of the people that the falsehood had originally reached.

    And that continues to be a major vulnerability during our public health response to the ongoing pandemic.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you're talking about things that are said, it's also now we're looking at the real-world implications of that misinformation and disinformation.

    There's an example that caught a lot of people's attention out of Florida. It's a private school in Miami where the head of the school sent out a letter basically discouraging faculty and staff from getting vaccinated against COVID-19, saying that she wasn't sure that COVID injections are safe, and that, if faculty get them, they can't be around students.

    That is, we should say, in the face of the CDC, FDA, World Health Organization all saying the vaccines are safe.

    But, Graham, once an idea like that makes its way out into the real world, what can be done to combat it?

  • Graham Brookie:

    Well, we have to correct it. And we all have a role to play.

    Everybody kind of thinks as — disinformation as somebody else's problem. And where we have cases like the unverified narratives that are spread by Tucker Carlson, that's a structural issue. We're going to have to have policies to deal with that and create resilience against that.

    But, on a day-to-day basis in our own lives, we have a responsibility to address misinformation or unverified information, especially when it affects our day-to-day lives. And so the first and best practice in this case is always refer back to or at least look for publicly accountable, science-based sources.

    And in this case, nationally, we have coronavirus.gov that's run by the CDC. It's updated every single day with the latest guidance. But in local cases, in which the situation might be slightly different from one neighborhood to another or one town for — to another, the first and best practice is to refer to your local public health officials.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Graham, a lot of these examples we're talking about are generated in right-leaning media circles and outlets.

    Are there comparable examples coming from the left?

  • Graham Brookie:

    Well, one of the main points is that disinformation and misinformation is not always ideological.

    That said, what we have seen with public health misinformation about coronavirus is that the scale and scope from far right ecosystems in the United States is far greater and has far greater amplification and infrastructure and engagement than sources of misinformation or instances of misinformation or unverified information from other ends of the ideological spectrum.

    And so that's a long way of saying, where FOX News exists by an entire ecosystem and has a lot of amplification and reach, that doesn't necessarily exist for types of misinformation from other ideological ends of the spectrum in the United States at this point.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Graham Brookie helping us sort fact from fiction, joining us from The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

    Thanks, Graham. Good to see you.

  • Graham Brookie:

    Thank you.

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