Echo Breaking News

Facebook Misinformation, Pegasus, and COVID-19 Spikes

John Grisham

Jul 22nd 2021

In this issue, I'll be taking a look at Misinformation on Facebook, The Pegasus spyware, and COVID-19 case spikes in this news. The spread of false information on social media is a central motivator for this newsletter so I will focus heavily on it.

Everything you read here can be found in the newsletter plus a collection of curated news segments meant to help you break echo chambers and improve your media literacy.

Misinformation on Facebook, my uncle posted what?

President Biden made claims last Friday that social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are killing people by allowing false information concerning COVID-19 to spread.

"They're killing people - I mean they're really, look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated."CNN

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy took on social media giants on Fox News Sunday stating, This is about the health of Americans and the reality is that misinformation is still spreading like wildfire in our country, aided and abetted by technology platforms,. The main takeaway is that although some steps have been taken to combat misinformation spread on social media, not enough progress has been made.

This issue is being further pushed by the CCDH (Center for countering digital hate), who in a letter to Facebook and Twitter requested that 12 particular individuals be banned. The basis for the banning is founded upon preventing the spread of anti-vax disinformation. People are quite literally dying because disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccine, and public health leaders is spreading,. The letter goes on to make the case that these social media platforms need to dis-platform these people to make amends and stop this spread of misinformation.
Washington Post

Facebook's VP of Integrity Guy Rosen, refutes the claims that their platform is responsible in a blog post titled Moving Past the Finger Pointing. He goes on to make the case that Facebook has moved to address COVID-19 anti-vax misinformation and has reason to believe those efforts are working. Since January, vaccine acceptance on the part of Facebook users in the US has increased by 10–15 percentage points (70% → 80–85%) and racial and ethnic disparities in acceptance have shrunk considerably (some of the populations that had the lowest acceptance in January had the highest increases since). The topic of social media banning and misinformation has become another staple of debate amongst liberals and conservatives alike over the past year. Beginning largely due to the banning of Trump on Twitter it has become almost as contentious as gun control.

Conservatives argue that social media giants are restricting free speech by banning Conservative voices. And that they are intentionally targeting them because of their views while disregarding liberal misinformation. These points also lay a foundation for the cancel culture a state of society, in which they argue, silences healthy debate, and dissent from mainstream views. Liberals as you may have guessed see the spread of misinformation on these platforms as a threat to health and safety. Arguing that sometimes it's ok to ban certain groups or individuals from these platforms to prevent misinformation from spreading.

As I mentioned in my last article, the Netflix documentary the social dilemma covers these topics extensively and was one huge inspiration for this newsletter. However, you may not have known that one of the central organizations behind the film has a podcast that helps shed even more light on this topic. The podcast is called your undivided attention and it is provided by the center for human technology. A non-profit group of technologists and tech leaders dedicated to informing the public about the potential harms of social media.

In the podcast, Tristan Harris (a former Facebook employee) relays the difference between freedom of speech and freedom of reach. Making the argument that although citizens may have the freedom to say what they want online this doesn't mean they should be able to easily spread that information to thousands of followers. Another great insight made on the podcast is that groups like Facebook shouldn't have the ultimate power of making these tough decisions but rather that the data they collect on user engagement and metrics should be available publicly. Because these tech giants have the best idea of the scope of the problem while simultaneously keeping this data to themselves. These are just a few great ideas presented in the podcast but not an exhaustive list. I try to listen to this podcast as often as I can and if you're concerned about this topic and want to learn more, I think you should too.

Pegasus spyware - somebody's watching you

The Pegasus project a joint investigation including media entities such as the guardian and 16 others has revealed large-scale abuse of the surveillance software Pegasus. The software by Israeli surveillance company NSO Group is meant to infect iPhone and Android devices. It can tap into messages, photos, emails and even activate your microphone to spy in real-time. A leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers shows that the software, which was intended for counter-terrorism, was possibly being used by authoritarian governments to spy on human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers.

While a number being listed doesn't mean that the phone was hacked it could represent targeting campaigns against those individuals. NSO has responded by stating that the leaked numbers don't indicate targeting with the software and went on to explain that they, will continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse and take appropriate action based on the result of these investigations. The leaked list was released by Forbidden Stories a non-profit media organization out of Paris.
The Guardian

COVID-19 case spikes, just 👏 get 👏 vaccinated👏, people

Media outlets have been sounding the alarm on COVID-19 case spikes over the past few weeks especially in context with the Delta variant. This variant seems to have higher infection rates and can produce worse symptoms in younger people as well. In an interview with Dr. Scott Gottlieb with CBS' "Face the Nation" the former commissioner of the FDA stated that, …for most people who get this Delta variant, it's going to be the most serious virus that they get in their lifetime in terms of the risk of putting them in the hospital,.

Two states that have had some of the highest case increases are Missouri and Arkansas, this is especially troubling to me because I have family in Missouri and I live in Arkansas. New projections by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences paint the combination of the variant and one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country as a raging forest fire that will grow in size and strength. On Tuesday, health officials in Arkansas reported 1,875 new cases with 970 new active cases.

Meanwhile, my home county in Missouri got a shoutout on the Rachel Maddow Show as hospitals in Springfield are overwhelmed. Officials there are even requesting the state to get together temporary field hospitals in a scary repeat of last year. The beds are full and ventilators are running out. To compound, this issue Howell county, a neighboring county of Springfield, sends patients regularly to Springfield hospitals due to a lack of medical infrastructure. All this to say that in small towns and other areas where vaccination rates are low we're seeing an increase in case numbers and severity.

PS: This will be the last time I'll cover the news bi-weekly, starting next month I will be changing the newsletter format to a bi-monthly one. I'll still be sending out one news summary and one blog post a month but the other weeks will just be the curated stories included with the newsletter. I hope to eventually return to a weekly format where I give you more stories and news summaries but for now, I just don't have the time. But don't worry I believe that the format change will help me improve the quality of each issue I bring to you in the future.

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