Misinformation Watch

By Donie O'Sullivan, Kaya Yurieff, Kelly Bourdet, the CNN Business team and contributors from across CNN

Updated 11:21 a.m. ET, January 26, 2021
172 Posts
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7:42 p.m. ET, January 13, 2021

Telegram struggling to combat calls for violence amid surge in growth

From CNN's Brian Fung and Mallory Simon

The messaging app Telegram is battling an increase in violent extremism on its platform amid a surge in new users, the company acknowledged to CNN Wednesday. 

In the last 24 hours, the company has shut down "dozens" of public forums that it said in a statement had posted "calls to violence for thousands of subscribers."

But the effort has turned into a game of cat and mouse, as many of the forum's users set up copycats just as soon as their old haunts were disabled. Screenshots and Telegram groups monitored by CNN show that a number of channels containing white supremacy, hate and other extremism have been shut down, but that at least some have been replaced by new channels. And at least one meta-channel has emerged that maintains lists of deactivated groups and that redirects visitors to the replacements. One now-defunct group that CNN reviewed had more than 10,000 members.

"Our moderators are reviewing an increased number of reports related to public posts with calls to violence, which are expressly forbidden by our Terms of Service," Telegram spokesperson Remi Vaughn told CNN. "In the past 24 hours we have blocked dozens of public channels that posted calls to violence for thousands of subscribers." 

Vaughn added: "Telegram uses a consistent approach to protests and political debate across the globe, from Iran and Belarus to Thailand and Hong Kong. We welcome peaceful discussion and peaceful protests, but routinely remove publicly available content that contains direct calls to violence." 

Telegram has surpassed half a billion active users worldwide. The company announced Tuesday that it had grown by 25 million users over the past several days -- with about 3 percent of that growth, or 750,000 new signups, occurring in the United States alone, Telegram told CNN.

Apps such as Telegram, Signal and MeWe have experienced explosive growth in recent days after WhatsApp sent a notification to its users reminding them that it shares user data with its parent, Facebook -- and following the suspension of President Donald Trump and the alternative social network Parler from many major tech platforms. 

One of the people who has been reporting violent channels to Telegram is Gwen Snyder, a Philadelphia-based activist who said she has been monitoring far-right extremists on the platform since 2019. Earlier this week, as Telegram was witnessing a surge in new users, Snyder enacted a plan to organize mass pressure against Telegram’s content moderators.

“We started two days ago calling for Apple and Google to deplatform Telegram if they refused to enforce their terms of service,” Snyder told CNN. “We had dozens if not hundreds of relatively large-follower Twitter accounts amplifying the campaign.”

It’s difficult to determine whether Telegram’s actions may have been a direct result of the activism; Snyder said she never heard from Telegram or from Apple or Google, either. 

But at least some of the Telegram channels affected by the crackdown appeared to believe that Snyder’s efforts were responsible — and soon began posting her personal information online and targeting her with death threats.

“That’s my home address,” Snyder said in a public tweet, attaching a redacted screenshot of an extremist Telegram channel that had shared her information. Addressing Telegram, she added: “You're okay with this? ENFORCE YOUR OWN TERMS OF SERVICE.”

4:38 p.m. ET, January 13, 2021

Facebook sees online signals indicating more potential violence 

From CNN Business' Donie O'Sullivan

Facebook has seen online signals, on its platform and elsewhere, indicating the potential for more violence following last week’s insurrection, a company spokesperson told CNN Wednesday. 

The company is working with organizations that track terrorists and dangerous groups to monitor conversation on other platforms, like 8Kun (formerly 8chan) and 4chan, in an effort to prevent talk of violence from those platforms becoming popular on Facebook, the spokesperson said.

One example of work Facebook is doing on this, according to the spokesperson, is collecting and indexing promotional fliers being distributed on other sites for more demonstrations this weekend and on Inauguration Day. Indexing promotional material like this can help make it easier for Facebook to identify and remove that material from its platforms or prevent it from being posted in the first place.

The spokesperson said Facebook is monitoring and removing praise of or support for last week’s storming of the US Capitol from its platform. 

Facebook has passed on information to the FBI and is cooperating with the agency’s efforts to identify members of last week’s insurrection, the spokesperson said. 

11:32 a.m. ET, January 13, 2021

Google pauses all political ads until after the inauguration

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

Google will temporarily ban all political advertising on multiple platforms after formally designating the Capitol riots, the impeachment process and the inauguration as "sensitive events" under its policies, the company said Wednesday.

The pause will last from Jan. 14 until at least the day after the inauguration next week, the company said in a letter to marketers, which was obtained by CNN Business.

Google said in the letter that it will restrict advertising "referencing candidates, the election, its outcome, the upcoming presidential inauguration, the ongoing presidential impeachment process, violence at the US Capitol, or future planned protests on these topics."

"There will not be any carveouts in this policy for news or merchandise advertisers," Google continued in the letter.

Ads will be banned from Google as well as YouTube, according to the letter.

In a statement to CNN Business, a Google spokesperson said the ban is driven by last week's Capitol violence.

"Given the events of the past week, we will expand our Sensitive Event policy enforcement to temporarily pause all political ads in addition to any ads referencing impeachment, the inauguration, or protests at the US Capitol," Google said in the statement. "We regularly pause ads over unpredictable, 'sensitive' events when ads can be used to exploit the event or amplify misleading information. Beyond this, we have long-standing policies blocking content that incites violence or promotes hate and we will be extremely vigilant about enforcing on any ads that cross this line.”

Google imposed a similar "sensitive events" ad blackout surrounding Election Day and for several weeks after. The company lifted its election-related moratorium on political advertising on Dec. 10, indicating in a letter to advertisers obtained by CNN Business that "we no longer consider the post-election period to be a sensitive event."

But the events of the past several weeks, culminating in last week's riots, suggest that determination may have been premature.

7:59 a.m. ET, January 13, 2021

Fact check: Man in viral airport tantrum video was kicked off plane for rejecting mask policy, not because of Capitol insurrection

From CNN's Daniel Dale

A video that shows an agitated man in an airport terminal, complaining that he had been kicked off a plane and insulted, has now been viewed more than 20 million times on Twitter.

Why has the 18-second video gone so viral? In part because someone on Twitter -- not the person who actually recorded the video -- added a caption that suggested that the man had been put on a no-fly list for being part of the insurrection at the US Capitol.

"People who broke into the Capitol Wednesday are now learning they are on No-Fly lists pending the full investigation. They are not happy about this," the tweeter, who goes by the handle @RayRedacted, said in the caption. 

Facts FirstThe Twitter caption was inaccurate: The airport incident was not about the Capitol insurrection. Rather, the man in the video had been asked to get off a Charlotte-to-Denver flight for refusing to comply with American Airlines' mandatory mask policy, airline spokesman Curtis Blessing told CNN.

Read more here.

7:53 a.m. ET, January 13, 2021

YouTube is suspending President Donald Trump's channel

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

YouTube is suspending President Donald Trump's channel for at least one week, and potentially longer, after his channel earned a strike under the platform's policies, the company said Tuesday evening.

A recent video on Trump's channel had incited violence, YouTube told CNN Business. That video has now been removed.

YouTube declined to share details of the video that earned Trump the strike, but said that after the one-week timeout, it will revisit the decision. YouTube also removed content from the White House's channel for violating policy, the company told CNN Business, but the channel itself has not been suspended or been given a strike -- just a warning.

Until now, YouTube had been the only remaining major social media platform not to have suspended Trump in some fashion. Facebook has suspended Trump's account "indefinitely," while Twitter has banned Trump completely.

Read more here.

12:55 p.m. ET, January 12, 2021

How a 'nobody' in Texas with 200 Twitter followers created a viral post with false impeachment claims

From CNN's Daniel Dale

A viral tweet claims that impeaching President Donald Trump for a second time would mean he would lose the ability to run for president in 2024.

That's not true. Nor are other claims in the tweet.

The tweet was posted on Friday, two days after a Capitol insurrection by a mob of Trump supporters sparked a new impeachment push from House Democrats. As of early Monday, it had more than 181,000 retweets and 725,000 likes.

When we called Ben Costiloe, the person behind the tweet, to tell him that we were planning a fact check and that much of the tweet was inaccurate, he said good-naturedly: "Tear it a new one. Go for it, baby." He said he is "nobody," a man who lives with diabetes in Texas and did the tweet because he had seen the information pop up somewhere on his Facebook feed and "it made me feel good." 

He said he was never sure the content was correct and was amazed the tweet went so viral. He said he had only 200 Twitter followers at the time he posted it. 

"I don't want to mess up the world. I just wanted to make me feel good," he said. "It turns out it made a lot of people feel good."

Read more here.

10:05 p.m. ET, January 11, 2021

Twitter says it has banned 70,000 accounts since Friday that promoted QAnon

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

Since Friday, Twitter has suspended more than 70,000 accounts from its platform for promoting the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, the company said in a blog post Monday evening. 

The social media platform has been on an enforcement spree in recent days as it has removed major QAnon adherents including Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell. Many of the banned account-holders operated multiple accounts, Twitter said.

The moves have contributed to major fluctuations in some users’ Twitter accounts, the company acknowledged. 

“In some cases, these actions may have resulted in follower count changes in the thousands,” Twitter said. 

The company’s blog post also goes over other steps the company has taken in recent days to limit the spread of violent rhetoric on its platform, including making it impossible for any tweets “labeled for violations of our civic integrity policy to be replied to, Liked or Retweeted.” 

8:35 p.m. ET, January 8, 2021

Parler has been removed from the Google Play store

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

Parler, the alternative social media platform popular with conservatives, has been banned from the Google Play Store, Google told CNN Business Friday evening. 

Google said its app store has long required that apps displaying user generated content have moderation policies in place to prevent the spread of violent rhetoric. 

"We're aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US," a Google spokesperson said. "We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content. In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app's listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues." 

The decision marks a major blow to President Donald Trump's supporters, many of whom have found a home on the Parler platform. But it does not completely deny them access to the app. Because Android allows for third-party app stores, Parler can still be hosted on app stores not operated by Google. 

Google's decision follows a report by BuzzFeed News that Apple has threatened to remove Parler from the iOS App Store. (Apple declined to comment on the report.)

Parler is among a group of relatively new platforms that have billed themselves as free speech alternatives in hopes of courting conservatives who believe larger platforms are censoring their views. 

Read more here.

8:25 p.m. ET, January 8, 2021

YouTube says it has banned Steve Bannon's "War Room" channel

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

YouTube has banned Steve Bannon's "War Room" podcast channel after earning three strikes on the platform in the last 90 days, the company told CNN.

Bannon's first strike came in November after he called for putting Dr. Anthony Fauci's head "on a pike." 

Two other videos were removed on Friday afternoon for violating YouTube's policies against questioning the 2020 election outcome, YouTube said, resulting in two additional strikes. Under YouTube's policy, a channel may be permanently banned after three strikes.

"In accordance with our strikes system, we have terminated Steve Bannon’s channel 'War room' and one associated channel for repeatedly violating our Community Guidelines," a YouTube spokesperson said.

"As we said yesterday, any channel posting new videos with misleading content that alleges widespread fraud or errors changed the outcome of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election in violation of our policies will receive a strike, a penalty which temporarily restricts uploading or live-streaming."