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Why Social Media Is To Blame For The Spread Of Covid Lies

In 2021, social media companies failed to address the problem of dangerous COVID-19 lies and anti-vaccine content spreading on their platforms, despite the significant harm it caused users. Along with enabling this content to spread, some platforms profited from the dangerous misinformation, all while making hollow promises that prioritized positive news coverage over true accountability.

Many platforms instituted toothless moderation policies while letting propaganda encouraging distrust of the vaccine, science, and public health institutions run rampant. Media Matters researchers easily found content promoting dangerous fake cures for COVID-19, conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins and the safety of vaccines, and more on major social media networks throughout the year. Some platforms profited from this content, while others helped anti-vaccine influencers gain followings and monetize their misinformation in other ways.

This abundance of low quality or misleading information was not inevitable. The features that have come to define social media platforms — features that facilitate monetization, promote rapid content sharing, and encourage user engagement — accelerated and fostered misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines. And this misinformation has resulted in real and irreversible harms, like patients dying from COVID-19 yet still refusing to believe they have the illness. Social media companies could have taken action to mitigate the issues brought on by their platforms, but they did not, despite repeated warnings and demands for change.

Facebook

Throughout 2021, Facebook (now Meta) repeatedly failed to control the spread of egregious vaccine misinformation and other harmful COVID-19 lies, which were prevalent in the platform’s pages, public and private groups, comments, and ads.

Public pages remained a bastion of anti-vaccine misinformation

As shown in multiple previous Media Matters reports, right-leaning pages on Facebook earn more interactions than ideologically nonaligned or left-leaning pages, despite conservatives’ claims of censorship. In fact, right-leaning pages earned roughly 4.7 billion interactions on their posts between January 1 and September 21, while left-leaning and ideologically nonaligned pages earned about 2 billion and 3 billion, respectively.

In the past year, right-wing pages shared vaccine misinformation with little moderation or consequence from Facebook. Even when the pages were flagged or fact-checked, users found ways around Facebook’s Band-Aid solutions to continue pushing dangerous medical misinformation.

Right-wing figures such as Fox host Tucker Carlson and Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano have used the platform to push anti-vaccine talking points and/or lie about the origins of the coronavirus.

In fact, vaccine-related posts from political pages this year were dominated by right-wing content. Right-leaning pages earned a total of over 116 million interactions on vaccine-related posts between January 1 and December 15, accounting for 6 out of the top 10 posts. Posts from right-leaning pages that dominated the vaccine discussions on Facebook included:

Third post in the top 10, with about 300,000 interactions:

A meme from the hodgetwins reading "the protected need to be protected from the unprotected by forcing the unprotected to use the protection that didn't protect the protected"

Fifth post in the top 10, with over 266,000 interactions:

Image of a turning point USA meme reading "food trucks should start parking outside of restaurants that require covid-19 vax cards"

Private and public groups sowed some of the most dangerous discourse

Groups on Facebook were also rife with harmful COVID-19 lies -- including dismissing the severity of COVID-19, promoting dangerous alternative treatments, and sharing baseless claims about the vaccine. In August, Media Matters reported on Facebook groups promoting the use of ivermectin as a prophylactic or treatment for COVID-19, even as government officials warned against it. As of the end of September, there were still 39 active ivermectin groups with over 68,000 members.

Media Matters has repeatedly identified anti-mask, anti-vaccine, and other similar groups dedicated to spreading COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation. Yet Facebook has failed to remove these groups, even though they appear to violate the platform’s policies.

In October, we identified 918 active groups that were dedicated to promoting COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation, with over 2 million combined members. These included groups discussing misleading and false stories of vaccine side effects and conspiracy theories on what is in the vaccine. We also recently identified at least 860 “parental rights” groups dedicated to opposing school policies around LGBTQ rights, sex education, and so-called “critical race theory,” and other culture war issues — including at least 180 groups that promote explicit COVID-19, mask, or vaccine misinformation.

Comment sections continued to be a toxic part of Facebook, especially as users found ways to use them to evade Facebook’s ineffectual fact-checking and moderation efforts. Group administrators encouraged this behavior, asking members to put more extreme content in the comments and to use code words instead of “vaccine” or “COVID” to thwart moderation.

What’s worse, Facebook reportedly knew COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation was spreading in its comment sections and did little to prevent it.

Facebook continued to enjoy increased profits as misinformation spread on its platform

During all of this, Facebook has enjoyed increased profits -- including from ads promoting fringe platforms and pages that push vaccine misinformation. Media Matters found that Facebook was one of the top companies helping COVID-19 misinformation stay in business, and that it was taking a cut itself. Even after a federal complaint was filed against a fake COVID-19 cure circulating on Facebook (and Instagram), the platform -- against its own policy -- let it run rampant, generating profit.

Throughout 2021, Media Matters has followed how Facebook has enabled the spread of harmful COVID-19 lies, extremism, and more.

Instagram

Though often overshadowed by Facebook, Instagram — which is also owned by Meta — has similarly established itself as a conduit for dangerous lies, hate, and misinformation.

In 2021, there was no better example of Instagram’s shortcomings than its inability to stop the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation -- despite Instagram head Adam Mosseri’s persistent claims that the company takes vaccine-related misinformation “off the platform entirely.”

Insufficient moderation and consistent ban evasion by misinformers

In March, Media Matters found that despite Instagram’s ban on anti-vaccine content, anti-vaccine influencers earned tens of thousands of interactions by falsely claiming that the newly available COVID-19 vaccines were “dangerous,” and in some cases by claiming the shot was killing thousands of people.

A month later, Instagram removed several of the anti-vaccine accounts highlighted in our research, including several members of the so-called “Disinformation Dozen,” influencers the Center for Countering Digital Hate identified as the originators of an estimated 65 percent of vaccine misinformation spread on Facebook and Twitter between February 1 and March 16 of this year. Within days of the accounts’ removal, many of them were back on the platform, using ban evasion tactics.

Today you can still find accounts associated with seven members of the Disinformation Dozen and scores of similarly inclined influencers active on the platform. Practically speaking, not much has changed, despite Instagram’s ban on anti-vaccine content.

Instagram’s recommendation algorithm pushes users down anti-vaccine rabbit holes

In addition to allowing violative content to flourish, the platform’s algorithms also push users down anti-vaccine and health misinformation rabbit holes. In October, a Media Matters study found that Instagram’s suggested-content algorithm was actively promoting anti-vaccine accounts to users who demonstrated an interest in such content.

Similarly, the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that Instagram’s “Explore” page not only funneled users toward anti-vaccine posts, but also led them to other extreme content espousing the QAnon conspiracy theory and antisemitism, for instance.

Others who engaged with the platform have stumbled upon the same phenomenon: If a user demonstrates interest in extreme content, the algorithm feeds them more of it.

Instagram’s monetization features present unique dangers

As the company expands its e-commerce ambitions, bad actors are already abusing the platform's monetization features to finance dangerous propaganda. Instagram Shopping, which debuted in 2020, is filled with anti-vaccine merchandise. Pro-Trump businessman Mike Lindell and right-wing agitator Jack Posobiec teamed up to use the platform’s new link sticker feature — which allows users to link directly to external websites — to finance their crusade to undermine faith in American democracy.

Again and again, Instagram commits to addressing harmful content on its platform, but either fails to do so effectively, or waits until it’s way too late.

TikTok

In 2021, TikTok was used as an anti-mask organizing space and a launching pad for COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation. While the policies TikTok designed in response to the pandemic were strong on paper because they specifically addressed combating medical misinformation, the company has failed to meaningfully enforce them.

TikTok fails to proactively moderate dangerous medical misinformation

A large part of TikTok’s misinformation crisis comes from its moderation practices, which appear to be largely reactive. Although the company has removed some COVID-19 misinformation when highlighted by researchers or journalists, it has fundamentally failed to meaningfully preempt, detect, and curb health misinformation narratives before they go viral.

There is no excuse for a multibillion-dollar company behind the most downloaded social media app to have such insufficient moderation practices, especially when medical misinformation can seriously harm its users.

TikTok’s recommendation algorithm fed users COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation

Not only did TikTok fail to stop the spread of dangerous misinformation, but the company’s own recommendation algorithm also helped propelled COVID-19 and vaccine falsities into virality -- hand-delivering harmful medical misinformation to unsuspecting users.

TikTok’s major appeal is its “For You” page (FYP), a personalized feed of videos individually tailored to each user. When COVID-19 misinformation goes viral, it’s often because TikTok’s algorithm feeds users this content on their FYP. Media Matters identified multiple instances of TikTok's own algorithm amplifying COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation. In our study, 18 videos containing COVID-19 misinformation — which at the time of the study had garnered over 57 million views — were fed to a Media Matters research account's FYP.

TikTok’s unregulated conspiracy theory problem creates a gateway to medical misinformation

The spread of conspiracy theories and misinformative content on TikTok has created a pipeline from other false or harmful content to medical misinformation. Vaccine skepticism is tied to belief in conspiracy theories, which has long proliferated on the platform. Media Matters identified repeated circulation of videos from Infowars, a far-right conspiratorial media outlet, including those in which Infowars founder Alex Jones spreads COVID-19 misinformation.

Media Matters also found evidence of a gateway between conspiracy theory accounts and the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, as well as content promoting other far-right ideologies. In one instance, we followed a flat earth conspiracy theory account and TikTok’s account recommendation algorithm prompted us to follow an account pushing COVID-19 misinformation.

YouTube

In 2020, Media Matters documented YouTube’s repeated failure to enforce its own policies about COVID-19 misinformation. In 2021, the platform continued to allow this type of content to spread, despite its announcement of an expanded medical misinformation policy.

In September, well over a year into the pandemic, YouTube finally updated its policies around vaccine-related misinformation. However, these changes came too late, after videos such as the Planet Lockdown series collected at least 2.7 million views while on the platform. In the months following the policy expansion, YouTube’s enforcement of the new policies proved to also be far too little.

YouTube has failed to enforce its guidelines since early in the pandemic

Prior to the policy updates in September, Media Matters documented YouTube’s failure to sufficiently enforce its existing guidelines around COVID-19 misinformation. For example, the platform allowed right-wing commentator Charlie Kirk to baselessly speculate that 1.2 million people could have died from the COVID-19 vaccine. The platform also failed to remove numerous videos promoting deceptive claims about the use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19. (Since the original publication of the linked article, YouTube has removed three of the videos. The rest remain on the platform.) YouTube also hosted a two-hour live event featuring prominent anti-vaccine figures such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Even after its September 2021 policy expansion, YouTube still fell short

After months of letting anti-vaccine and COVID lies flourish, YouTube announced in a blog post that it was expanding its policies because it was seeing “false claims about the coronavirus vaccines spill over into misinformation about vaccines in general.”

The blog stated that the platform would prohibit “content that falsely alleges that approved vaccines are dangerous and cause chronic health effects, claims that vaccines do not reduce transmission or contraction of disease,” and content that “contains misinformation on the substances contained in vaccines.”

After renewing its commitment to combating medical misinformation, the Alphabet Inc.-owned platform enjoyed a wave of mostly positive press. However, less than a week after this announcement was made, Media Matters uncovered numerous instances where enforcement of these new policies was falling short.

Despite banning individual accounts, YouTube allowed prominent anti-vaccine figures featured among the Disinformation Dozen to continue to spread misinformation on the platform. Recently, several of the videos were finally removed, but only after accumulating more than 4.9 million views.

Media Matters also found that YouTube allowed numerous videos promoting ivermectin to remain on the site following the new policy debut, and also permitted advertisements for the drug, some of which promoted it as an antiviral for human use.

Additionally, we identified a YouTube video from right-wing group Project Veritas claiming to show a “whistleblower” exposing harms caused by the COVID-19 vaccine. The video, which provides no real evidence or context, accumulated millions of views despite violating YouTube’s updated guidelines.

In 2021, YouTube has repeatedly failed to enforce its own policies. In addition to hosting ample misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines, the platform has profited from recruitment videos for a militia that has been linked to violence and election fraud lies. It has allowed right-wing propaganda network PragerU to fundraise while spreading transphobia, and is still falling short on its promise to crack down on QAnon content.

Methodology

Media Matters used the following method to compile and analyze vaccine-related posts from political pages on Facebook:

Using CrowdTangle, Media Matters compiled a list of 1,773 Facebook pages that frequently posted about U.S. politics from January 1 to August 25, 2020.

For an explanation of how we compiled pages and identified them as right-leaning, left-leaning, or ideologically nonaligned, see the methodology here.

The resulting list consisted of 771 right-leaning pages, 497 ideologically nonaligned pages, and 505 left-leaning pages.

Every day, Media Matters also uses Facebook's CrowdTangle tool and this methodology to identify and share the 10 posts with the most interactions from top political and news-related Facebook pages.

Using CrowdTangle, Media Matters compiled all posts for the pages on this list (with the exception of UNICEF – a page that Facebook boosts) that were posted between January 1 and December 15, 2021, and were related to vaccines. We reviewed data for these posts, including total interactions (reactions, comments, and shares).

We defined posts as related to vaccines if they had any of the following terms in the message or in the included link, article headline, or article description: “vaccine,” “anti-vaccine,” “vaxx,” “vaxxed,” “anti-vaxxed,” “Moderna,” “Pfizer,” “against vaccines,” “pro-vaccines,” “support vaccines,” “vax,” “vaxed,” “anti-vax,” “pro-vaccine,” “pro-vaxx,” or “pro-vax.”

Article reprinted with permission from Media Matters

Inside 'Moms For Liberty' And Its Activism Against Civil Rights And Real History

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

Moms for Liberty, a conservative "parental rights" organization strategically harassing school board members, teachers, and administrators across the country, is deeply tied to anti-civil rights advocacy. Beyond opposing education about the history of racism in America, the organization also recommends reading an American history book by a far-right conspiracy theorist that is sympathetic to slave owners, and the co-founder of the organization actively opposed desegregation efforts while formerly serving on her school board.

The organization's staunch opposition to teaching "critical race theory" (CRT) perfectly fits in with its connection to anti-civil rights advocacy. CRT is actually a body of specific academic and legal scholarship, but this group and others have self-servingly (and incorrectly) rewritten the definition to essentially encompass any discussion of race or oppression.

Now, Moms for Liberty appears to be revamping its anti-civil rights movement under the guise of "parental liberty" — a seemingly innocuous term that is really a catch-all for opposition to equity in public education.

Moms For Liberty Opposes CRT

Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich has claimed that the group actually has not "taken a stance on CRT," saying that its goal is simply to "empower parents to stand up and reclaim their parental rights at all levels of government" and that it tries to "support our local chapters and things that they're fighting for."

But a June article in the far-right Epoch Times reported that "Descovich believes that CRT is divisive" and "denies the value of an individual based on the content of their character and their actions." The national group's official social media pages have repeatedly posted anti-CRT content, including "#StopCRT" hashtags as recently as October 14.

As of June 13, the group's website had an anti-CRT page titled "Help Moms for Liberty Stop Critical Race Theory"; it has since been deleted. The group had another since-deleted page titled "Mama Lions are Waking Up" which described CRT as a "nationwide battle that is coming to a district near you" and recommended anti-CRT resources. Moms for Liberty even tried to solicit donations through anti-CRT messaging — "Donate Here to Help us Fight Critical Race Theory."

It appears that Moms for Liberty is attempting to rebrand and wipe anti-CRT resources and statements from its public website -- while its continued anti-CRT advocacy tells a different story.

Moms for Liberty chapters are broken down by counties, and those county chapters often hold anti-CRT events. In Williamson County, Tennessee, the chapter hosted "CRT 101," inviting speakers who claim to have previously taught CRT and now "repudiate" it.

Robin Steenman, head of the Williamson County Moms for Liberty Chapter, vocally opposes CRT, saying, "Critical race theory claims to solve racial discrimination by promoting racial discrimination. It is based on inherently racist assumptions and views virtually every situation through the lens of race." She also described CRT as "destructive and divisive" and "used to plant seeds that oppression and racism are everywhere."

The same county chapter created a list of "books of concern," opposing the teaching of Martin Luther King Jr. and the March to Washington because of "photographs of political violence" and Ruby Bridges Goes To School because of "racist remarks" among other things. The group also disapproved of First Nations of North America: Plains Indians because it "paints white people in a negative light."

Moms for Liberty Recommends Text By Slavery Sympathizer, Conspiracy Theorist

Nationally, Moms for Liberty recommends The Making of America by W. Cleon Skousen as a "helpful" text "when discussing the founding documents" of the United States.

Skousen's The Making of America makes the argument that "slavery is not a racial problem," claiming:

In the history of the world, nearly every nation has had slaves. The Chinese kept thousands of slaves. Babylon boasted of slaves from a dozen different countries.
The dark-skinned Hittites, Phoenicians, and Egyptians had white slaves. The Moors had black slaves. America had black slaves. The Nazis had white slaves. The Soviets still do, with several million white slaves wearing out their starved, near-naked bodies in slave labor camps.
So the emancipation of human beings from slavery is an ongoing struggle. Slavery is not a racial problem. It is a human problem.

Skousen's book is also sympathetic to slave owners, calling them "the worst victims" and writing that "in some ways, the economic system of slavery chained the slave owners almost as much as the slaves." Skousen himself was a supporter of the John Birch Society, an anti-civil rights organization that claimed the "African-American freedom movement was being manipulated from Moscow with the goal of creating a 'Soviet Negro Republic' in the Southern United States."

He was also an extreme conspiracy theorist, as Mother Jones reported, claiming that "a global cabal of bankers controlled the world from behind the scenes" and "communists were taking over local PTAs." Even more, Skousen believed that "the civil rights movement, acceptance of homosexuality, the rise of abstract art and modernism, and the advent of Medicare, Social Security, and other safety-net programs have all been part of a clandestine plot waged by Communists or other dark forces to destroy the United States."

(The group's "Madison Meetup" kit also includes material from Skousen's son, Paul, to use for "discussion prompts and questions.")

Moms for Liberty Leader Opposed Desegregation And Harassed School Board Members

Moms for Liberty has also strategically harassed public school officials, most notably Jennifer Jenkins, a Brevard County School Board member who unseated co-founder Descovich. Jenkins traced harassment in her district, which consisted of violent threats, and even a false report to the Florida Department of Children and Families wrongly accusing her of child abuse, back to the beginning of Moms for Liberty protests during school board meetings.

Co-founder Tiffany Justice, a former Indian River County School Board member, attempted to interfere with and "intimidate" her district's African American achievement committee and was criticized by the NAACP. Justice allegedly took "over direction of committee meetings and altered agendas while failing to clarify that she speaks as a private citizen, using her clout to direct school staff on the committee while ignoring citizen volunteers' recommendations."

The Indian River County School Board has been under a desegregation order since 1967. In 1994, the county's NAACP chapter brought the district back to court over unmet desegregation standards. In 2017, the board had still not met the court ordered desegregation criteria. In 2018, it came to a partial agreement with the NAACP in which the court would no longer "oversee integration of school facilities, the ratio of black non-teaching staff to white, and the ratio of black administrators to white administrators." The agreement also reduced NAACP "oversight of the desegregation process."

After this agreement was reached, in an effort to ensure that the district had a racially diverse population, the board considered "rezoning portions of the district" because it had become "increasingly segregated." Justice opposed busing students in, arguing, as Vero News put it, that it would be "costly and create discomfort" among parents.

Indian River County's school district has both academic and disciplinary racial achievement gaps, according to the district's African American Achievement Plan. The report notes that Black students receive higher rates of suspension than white students and have lower education performances.

Justice has also been an outspoken critic of CRT, claiming that it "creates a hostile culture in our schools and damages students' intellectual growth."

Taken together, the group's anti-CRT advocacy, conspiratorial reading list, and opposition to desegregation show the malicious anti-civil rights intent behind Moms for Liberty's campaign for so-called "parental rights" in education.

Arizona Senators Huddling With QAnon Figures On 2020 Election ‘Audit’

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

As Arizona conducts an audit of ballots in Maricopa County rooted in baseless conspiracy theories about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, it appears the evidence underpinning that effort and much of the work to generate support for it has come from two QAnon followers, Liz Harris and Bobby Piton.

Both Harris and Piton have frequently bragged about working with Arizona senators and audit officials -- in one case, even livestreaming a supposed meeting with Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) to discuss their findings -- but their support of the election audit is grounded in widely debunked claims of voter fraud, many of which stem from the same "Stop the Steal" allegations that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

Simply put: Arizona's election audit has a QAnon problem.

Harris And Piton's Role In Arizona Audit

Harris and Piton have both managed to place themselves in roles of influence as two of the main promoters of the Arizona election fraud conspiracy theory, working behind the scenes with state senators and audit officials. The Arizona Republic recently reported on Harris and Piton as two of the key figures involved in the election audit.

Harris is head of a "non-partisan" "grassroots canvass effort" to prove that rampant voter fraud exists in the state's most populous county (it doesn't). The group claims, using data tabulated by Piton, to have uncovered mass voter fraud during the 2020 election.

Harris ran for the Arizona House of Representatives's District 17 seat in 2020 but lost the general election. Much of her time is now dedicated to voter fraud canvassing efforts, while she commonly livestreams multiple videos per day related to the Arizona audit on YouTube and Facebook.

Piton is a managing partner at a financial planning and investment advisory firm in Illinois, whose website claims he "has read well in excess of a million pages over his career and has extensively studied physics, quantum mechanics, mathematics, economics, trading, portfolio construction, model development, asset valuation, and alpha generation to develop and refine his methodology."

It seems that Harris and Piton have a relationship with Doug Logan, the CEO of Cyber Ninjas, the company conducting the audit. Logan recently came under fire for peddling "Stop the Steal" and other election fraud conspiracy theories on his personal Twitter account before it was deleted.

On April 11, Piton posted on the far-right platform Gab promising to provide his supposed Maricopa election fraud findings "to the person who won the bid to perform the audit," which would be Logan and Cyber Ninjas. Piton later confirmed to The Daily Beast that Logan "asked him for his assistance" in the election audit, where he was working "in an unofficial capacity." Piton also prayed a rosary on YouTube for Harris, Logan, and all Arizona "patriots."

Harris claimed to have met Logan "multiple times," and there is additional evidence to suggest that Harris and Logan have been in communication about the audit. According to a May 12 newsletter from Arizona Capitol Reports, Logan boosted Harris' campaign with the hashtag "#PhantomSleeperVoters," a reference to conspiracy theories about fraudulent ballots cast by nonexistent voters, before the deactivation of his Twitter account.

On February 28, Harris uploaded photos of herself with former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, two of the right-wing, pro-Trump millionaires funding the Arizona election audit, as well as Sidney Powell, the former Trump campaign attorney and conspiracy theorist who attempted to overturn the 2020 presidential election. In the comments under the photos, Harris wrote, "Arizona hold on to your hats… The storm has just begun!" ("The storm" is a key phrase in the QAnon conspiracy theory.) Harris noted that this meeting occurred in Arizona but did not provide other specifics.

Harris has bragged in an April 25 livestream about sharing her canvassing data with Arizona state Senate President Karen Fann, who has been supportive of the audit. She also said senators were lauding her canvassing efforts and relayed that audit officials were supposedly going to incorporate her work "into this deep-dive forensic audit."

At one point, Piton livestreamed what appears to be a private Zoom meeting about the election audit between Harris, Rep. Andy Biggs, members of the Arizona Senate, and himself. This means that state Senate members and a sitting U.S. congressman were seemingly consulting with Harris and Piton about the audit and baseless allegations of election fraud. In the same livestream, Piton told his viewers that he had been asked to help with the election audit.

"One of the individuals that may be winning this bid to do the work has contacted me a few weeks back," Piton said. "I did tell Liz I thought they would be contacting me, or somebody would. And they asked me if I would look at the data and I said that I would definitely be helping in one way, shape, or form."

Given Piton's other claims about contact with audit officials, this is most likely another reference to Logan.

On January 19, Piton posted what appears to be a birthday card from Trump and "two Patriots" working in the White House, at least one of whom appears to be from the National Security Council. This is particularly significant given Piton's unofficial role in the Arizona election audit; the post also claims that Piton has been "communicating some of my findings with" those administration officials.

In an April 2 Facebook post, Piton bragged about signing affidavits for "both Lin Wood and Sidney Powell regarding PA data back in mid December."

Piton and Harris worked together to attempt to prove potential voter fraud abnormalities. According to Piton, he provided Harris with "a sample size of over 95,000 voter registrations that he forecast would have problems of the approximately 4,300,000 registered voters who are on the voter rolls"; Harris then "randomly selected names on those lists and had volunteers go to work in determining how many of these registered voters had issues." This formed the basis for their election fraud claims.

Harris' group started the "Crime of the Century" project, a website dedicated to exposing supposed voter fraud in Arizona. It includes an "Election Integrity Arizona" page that contains Harris' "initial findings and analysis of the 2020 General Election in Maricopa and Pima counties conducted by a citizens' non-partisan grassroots project." The Arizona Republic reported that Harris' initially claimed her "group was helping with the Senate's audit, but she couldn't say on what part because of a nondisclosure agreement. Harris later said she doesn't know what her involvement may or may not be."

The Arizona audit isn't the first brush Harris and Piton have had with promoting misinformation about election integrity. Harris also testified at Rudy Giuliani's Arizona election fraud "hearing" in November, with Piton appearing as an expert witness to claim "that his opinion, from reviewing Arizona voter data, was that between 120,000 and 306,000 ballots were cast by 'fake people.'"

Harris And Piton Appear To Follow QAnon Conspiracy

Both Harris and Piton have posted content and slogans affiliated with the QAnon conspiracy theory. Followers of QAnon led the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and believe that Trump will conduct mass arrests and secret military tribunals to prosecute "deep state" elites.

Harris' social media presence suggests that she subscribes to the QAnon conspiracy theory. Her Facebook account contains QAnon videos, a "WWG1WGA" shirt (an abbreviation of the QAnon slogan "Where we go one, we go all"), and QAnon-affiliated posts.

As for Piton, when The Daily Beast first reported on his unofficial involvement in the Arizona audit in late April, he said that "he didn't know much about QAnon." But his social media tells a different story. Posts explicitly supporting the QAnon conspiracy theory, and even a Q "drop" -- the term for messages from the anonymous figure at the center of the conspiracy theory -- are scattered throughout his public Facebook page.

For example, on August 2020, Piton wrote a post in support of the "#SaveTheChildren" QAnon movement, calling the Democratic Party the "DemoNcrat Party." "This party is PURE EVIL," wrote Piton. The image he shared with this post also contained the QAnon slogan "WWG1WGA."

In a post following the January 6 insurrection, Piton claimed to have never "been part of any 'Q movement'" and downplayed his support as merely liking "some of their phrases."

Less than a month later, Piton posted a photo of former National Security Agency Director Admiral Michael S. Rogers along with references to QAnon. "Admiral Rogers… come on down… you are the lucky number 1… 7 on the Truth is Right!!!" wrote Piton. (Q is the 17th letter in the alphabet and is popularly used to refer to "Q.")

"Q...uestion for you," he continued, once again referencing Q.

In November 2019, Piton shared a QAnon primer video on Facebook, writing: "Keep an open mind… even if all of this isn't 100% accurate, it is something worth thinking about!"

On April 25, Piton and Harris were both interviewed on the QAnon outlet Patriots' Soapbox. During the livestream, Josh Barnett, a QAnon House candidate who lost a race to represent Arizona's 7th Congressional District in 2020 and is running again for the state's 6th district in 2022, bragged that Arizona senators "saw Liz's numbers" and "saw Bobby's data" and "that's when things started changing" and they began backing the audit.

Harris and Piton's involvement in the Arizona election audit is more than concerning -- if their claims of working with audit officials and Arizona senators are true, it means that an attempt to overturn Arizona's election results has been quietly influenced by two QAnon followers working from within.

TikTok Promoting Far-Right Conspiracy Theories To Unwitting Young Users

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

A number of seemingly harmless conspiracy theory TikTok accounts appear to be peddling dangerous misinformation to their unknowing audience. Even worse, TikTok's recommendation algorithm appears to encourage users to follow accounts that push similar extremist misinformation.

While these accounts may look benign or silly on the surface, a deeper dive reveals a darker truth: They're also disseminating far-right conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy TikTok, also known as "ConspiracyTok," is a community that regularly discusses conspiracy theories. Because of the massive size of the community and popularity of the content, discussion topics widely vary. Some accounts are dedicated to documenting alleged proof of extraterrestrial life; others solely post flat earth conspiracy theories.

Research published in 2014 by the University of Chicago found that about "half of the American public consistently endorses at least one conspiracy theory." Conspiracy theories have been (and most likely always will be) popular, but not every conspiracy theory is built the same -- and some have the potential to present material harm to their subscribers.

TikTok Encouraging Users Onto Far-Right Accounts

Beyond the innate popularity of conspiracy theories, TikTok's account recommendation algorithm (which is tailored to the "interests" or "connections" of an individual user) makes it easier for users to be pulled into a world of radical content. In one instance, when a user follows a seemingly harmless flat earth account, they get prompts to follow a slew of accounts pushing anti-vaxx misinformation, QAnon-related theories, COVID-19 denial, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. This pattern repeats when further following TikTok's account recommendations.

The Camouflage

A user curious about conspiracy theories runs the risk of inadvertently getting sucked into a far more malicious rabbit hole, which is why seemingly harmless conspiracy theory accounts posting far-right conspiracy narratives is uniquely dangerous.

For example, "Conscious Content" is an account with over 11,300 followers and an innocuous bio that reads, "Learn and inspire!" Some of its first videos are about Atlantis, TV show predictions, and the "amazing intelligence of mushrooms." However, a closer examination of the profile reveals that the creator also reposts clips in support of far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and believes that Jeffrey Epstein was an Israeli spy.

This is not an isolated example, and in fact seems to be a pattern among other popular conspiracy theory accounts.

Another user, "jeff.speaks.facts" has over 157,500 followers and over 2.3 million likes. Their bio reads "Jesus is Lord and Savior" and the account appears to push conspiracy theories about celebrities. Yet again, a slightly closer look reveals that they have pushed the wildly anti-Semitic Rothschild conspiracy theory and received over 24,800 likes on that single video.

Similarly, "we.are.the.cure," an account with over 31,900 followers, frames itself as a spirituality account -- pushing conspiracy theories through a religious lense. However, mixed in is a video pushing the Rothschild conspiracy theory with a picture of what appears to be the devil above the name. The caption of the video encourages users to tag someone who "doesn't know this." The account also uploaded a 12-part video series about the Illuminati and its "secret plans for the world."

Some Dangerous Conspiracy Theories On ConspiracyTok

Some accounts that appear to focus on niche conspiracy theories or spiritual enlightenment are also posting dangerous COVID-19 misinformation and QAnon conspiracy theories, deceiving unsuspecting followers.

Misinformation about adrenochrome (a substance QAnon followers believe is harvested from the blood of children and then consumed by "global elites") appears to be a popular piece of misinformation circulating in conspiracy theory communities.

  • "ConspiracyRebels" has a profile picture of a triangle and eye, commonly associated with the Illuminati, and many of the account's latest posts are about ancient aliens. Yet, just days earlier the same account posted a videopurporting to show "Adrenochrome" with the caption, "They Are Lying To Us."
  • "Jabarr," another conspiracy theory account with over 17,200 followers and bio reading "Knowledge is Power. Knowledge is truth" also posts about adrenochrome.
  • "Deep Down The Rabbit Hole," an account that claims to focus on "health" and "spirituality" and has over 7,500 followers posted a video about adrenochrome. The account also uses the QAnon-affiliated hashtags "#thestormisuponus," "#deepstate," and "#cannibalism."
  • Infinite.energy, an account with over 127,500 followers and over 1.6 million likes, presents itself as a spirituality account, posting videos about "creating your own reality" and "how to manifest." A deeper dive shows that the account has promoted conspiracy theories about the New World Order and has used the hashtag "Q."

COVID-19 misinformation widely circulating on TikTok is a documented problem, and an issue that the platform has promised to aggressively combat. Yet, harmful anti-vaccination and COVID-19 misinformation routinely circulate in conspiracy theory spaces.

  • "This shot will rearrange your DNA. They've planned this for one hundred years, it is the mark of the beast," says ember_inside_me1, a conspiracy theory account with the Illuminati eye icon as their profile picture. The account has over 27,500 followers.
  • One account called "TruthSeeker1111" with the bio "Truths, yoga, self inquiry" seems to be a spirituality and enlightenment account. Yet, the account is also peppered with anti-vaccination and COVID-19 denial videos.
  • Another conspiracy theory account, "Opened Eyes," claims to "aid spiritual growth" in other users and has over 15,500 followers. Many of their posts preach enlightenment, but scattered in their feed is a variety of COVID-19 misinformation. "You probably won't be getting the vaccine…right? Educate people why…" reads overlaid text.

TikTok Is Failing Its Young Users

By not diligently moderating extremist content on its own platform, TikTok is allowing for the rapid spread of far-right misinformation to an audience of young users. All of the extremist content identified in this report is supposedly prohibited by TikTok, but remains widely circulated.

MyPillow Guy Is Kingpin Of Disinformation On Election and Virus

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

A new video from MyPillow CEO and Trump supporter Mike Lindell that's filled with election falsehoods is spreading on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube, even though each platform has a policy prohibiting this kind of misinformation.

Lindell has been a leading voice in promoting dangerous conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election (and bankrolling the proliferation of this lie) across right-wing media and social media.

Twitter permanently suspended Lindell for peddling election misinformation. Lindell then attempted to use his corporate MyPillow account to evade Twitter's ban; that account was also permanently suspended.

Lindell's Facebook and Instagram accounts are both active and full of election and COVID-19 misinformation. In fact, Lindell has access to multiple accounts for himself and his company. On Facebook, he has a personal account, a professional page, and a MyPillow corporate page. On Instagram, he has a verified personal account and a MyPillow account.

Even though former President Donald Trump's multiple attempts to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election failed in courts, over 70% of likely Republican voters question the election results. Meanwhile, his supporters continue to push baseless claims of widespread voter fraud. Lindell is one of Trump's most vocal supporters to promote unsubstantiated election fraud claims and conspiracy theories, and he recently released a film that The New York Times called a "disinfomercial." In the video, titled "Absolute Proof," Lindell spent over two hours falsely claiming that Trump won the election, making wild allegations of fraud that have no basis in reality, and railing against "cancel culture."

Following the release of Lindell's video on February 5, YouTube and Vimeo removed copies for violating each platform's election integrity policies, but additional versions of the film are still being uploaded to YouTube. Facebook and Twitter have both labeled posts sharing the film as misinformation and reduced its distribution, with Facebook confirming that the "video has been rated false by one of Facebook's third-party fact-checkers so it's been labeled and its distribution is being reduced." But Media Matters has still found active posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter that have no label, and TikTok has not taken any action against posts with the video, even though the platform claimed on February 3 that it was taking new steps to crack down on misinformation.

Since before the election, social media platforms have claimed that they are trying to stop the spread of election misinformation, but these platforms have failed to adequately implement or consistently enforce related policies. For example, Facebook took minimal action against election misinformation from Trump and his allies on its platforms, allowing users to organize and promote"Stop the Steal" events, such as the January 6 rally that led to the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. Media Matters and others have documented similar failures of other platforms, such as Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube.

The limited actions of social media platforms has allowed Lindell's conspiracy-laden video to spread across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube.

Facebook and Instagram

Election misinformation policy: We will attach an informational label to content that seeks to delegitimize the outcome of the election or discuss the legitimacy of voting methods, for example, by claiming that lawful methods of voting will lead to fraud.

"Absolute Proof" is the latest example of Facebook being incapable or unwilling to consistently enforce its policies. Facebook confirmed that the video violates its policy and has labeled Lindell's posts linking to the film on both Facebook and Instagram as containing false information. But Media Matters has found Facebook and Instagram posts that are not labeled, including posts with links to versions of the video hosted on other websites and alternative platforms, such as Gab and Rumble. These posts are also circulating within private Facebook groups, which have been moredifficult for Facebook to moderate and for researchers and journalists trying to hold Facebook accountable to track.

Notable examples of Instagram posts with Lindell's film include:

Twitter

Election misinformation policy: We will label or remove false or misleading information intended to undermine public confidence in an election or other civic process. This includes but is not limited to: disputed claims that could undermine faith in the process itself, such as unverified information about election rigging, ballot tampering, vote tallying, or certification of election results.

Versions of Lindell's film are also spreading on Twitter. The platform labeled an OAN tweet promoting "Absolute Proof" with a disclaimer: "This claim of election fraud is disputed, and this Tweet can't be replied to, Retweeted, or liked due to a risk of violence."

However, this standard of policy enforcement is not consistently applied to all clips of the video. The Twitter hashtag "#AbsoluteProof" displays tweets containing links to the full-length film, as well as unlabeled video clips.

Right Side Broadcasting Network also tweeted a link to the full film multiple times, but Twitter has not applied a label or restrictions on them.

TikTok

Election misinformation policy: Our Community Guidelines prohibit misinformation that could cause harm to our community or the larger public, including content that misleads people about elections or other civic processes, content distributed by disinformation campaigns, and health misinformation.

Even though it violates TikTok's election misinformation policy, "Absolute Proof" is swiftly spreading on the platform. The "Absolute Proof" hashtag on TikTok already has nearly half a million views, and all of the top videos promote Lindell's video.

Some TikTok creators are directing users to external websites to view the film in its entirety while others are uploading it in sections.

"Look what I got. … Apparently they've been taking down this documentary, so I figured I'd snag it," said one user. "I'll post some goodies that I find. And yeah, take that, big tech." This video has over 190,000 views and the account has over 57,000 followers.

YouTube

Election misinformation policy: Don't post content on YouTube if it fits any of the descriptions noted below.
Presidential Election Integrity: Content that advances false claims that widespread fraud, errors, or glitches changed the outcome of any past U.S. presidential election (Note: this applies to elections in the United States only). For the U.S. 2020 presidential election, this applies to content uploaded on or after December 9, 2020.

YouTube removed Lindell's video for violating its policies, but at the time of publication, there are many additional uploads still on YouTube. An advanced Google search for YouTube videos using the phrase "watch absolute proof" uploaded between February 5 and February 8 returned over 270 results.

There also appears to be a coordinated YouTube spam campaign centered around the Lindell film. All of the top results featured a series of screenshots from the film with overlaid text instructing users to click the "link" below to watch. The text slightly varied with each video, but the format and messaging appear uniform. These videos each have thousands of views.

TikTok Enabling Spread Of Election Conspiracy Disinformation

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

Video-sharing social media network TikTok has largely been responsive to removing specific instances of misinformation reported on its platform -- but has not taken sufficient action against accounts that repeatedly peddle election-related lies. As a result, the platform appears to be struggling to control the overall spread of election and voting conspiracy theories at a critical time when ballots are still being counted and the American people need clarity.

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Patreon Banned QAnon — But These Platforms Still Churn Money For Its Creators

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

Patreon finally banned creators advancing QAnon misinformation from its platform. Now, those same creators are using SubscribeStar, PayPal, and GoFundMe to monetize the violence-linked conspiracy theory, despite the fact that their content appears to violate these platforms' terms of use as well.

The QAnon conspiracy theory is centered around claims that President Donald Trump is secretly fighting against members of the "deep state" and "pedophiles," who will supposedly be rounded up and executed soon. These threats and calls for violence targeting Trump's political opponents are often wildly anti-Semitic. This unfounded conspiracy theory promoting imminent violence against the president's enemies has been classified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat and has been directly linked to multiple killings, a kidnapping, and even terrorism.

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QAnon Migrating To Other Web Platforms After YouTube Ban

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

QAnon followers are jumping to other platforms following YouTube's slow crackdown on content pushing the conspiracy theory. Media Matters has identified four major platforms -- Spotify, Vimeo, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts -- where QAnon content is flourishing. These platforms must follow other tech companies' lead and commit to swiftly banning all QAnon content; anything short of that will only further enable the spread of this inherently dangerous conspiracy theory.

Following YouTube's decision to ban QAnon content from the platform, discussion about where to find major accounts supporting the conspiracy theory surfaced in a private QAnon Facebook group which is still active, despite Facebook's promise to remove QAnon content from its platform as well. One user decried "youtube censorship," suggesting, "try Vimeo it's a decent site." Another wrote, "X22 is on Spotify as well," referring to a popular QAnon account recently banned from YouTube.

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In Wake Of Kenosha Murders, Right-Wing Media Hype Vigilante Violence

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

An armed individual shot three people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last night -- killing two and seriously injuring the third -- amid an uprising following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man. The suspected shooter has now been identified as a 17-year-old who reportedly "considered himself a militia member trying to protect life and property." Even before these details of the August 25 vigilante shooting were known, figures across the right-wing media ecosystem began hyping the violence, defending the alleged shooter, and using the deadly incident to fearmonger about activists and "the left."

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