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This Week in Misinformation: Pope Drip, Nashville Shooting, Trump Arrest
6 April 2023
This Prism newsletter strives to be the paper of record for all that’s happening in misinformation in the United States. For any citizen whose life is impacted by misinformation, it helps you see how storylines evolve from multiple, sourced angles on important stories in one place. For amateur and professional misinformation watchers, it is your go-to resource for updates on peers, platforms, propagandists, and politicians. Learn more about Prism and our other products on our Substack page, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook!
The bad news? I kept you waiting an extra week for this. The good news? There is a whole heap to cover so it’s a good one.
(Might be a good one to share with a friend!)
Reliability scores for media outlets cited in the summary are in parentheses for each, courtesy of the terrific folks at Ad Fontes Media.
Now, on to our top stories.
The Internet ate up fake pictures of the Pope in a puffy jacket, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Someone prompted an AI to make the images, which are actually pretty convincing (NBC News, 45.18). Making all kinds of synthetic media is just so, so easy with the latest generation of AI (NPR, 43.35). These systems have demonstrated abilities, today, to scam people with fake voices (Gizmodo,-), put a nonconsenting person's face onto pornographic video (NBC News, 45.18), generate realistic pictures of world leaders (PBS, 47.01), sing like Taylor Swift (The Atlantic, 38.34), and trick a parent into thinking their child is calling or create a professional headshot for LinkedIn or synthesize whole news anchors for phony online channels (CNN, 42.38).
And that’s just the multimedia stuff; text is even further along (Ars Technica, 46.34). ChatGPT, for example, has made up a bribery scandal supposedly involving the mayor of an Australian town (BBC, 46.15), made up a sexual harassment scandal supposedly involving a university professor (Washington Post, 37.94), and made up fake articles supposedly published by The Guardian (43.74).
No wonder, then, that some believe deepfakes are a mortal threat to the 2024 elections (Newsweek, 35.29) or are wary of how competently--if that’s the right word--Google’s Bard writes in the style of conspiracy theorists (Bloomberg, 45.05). Elon Musk and others took the extraordinary step this week of calling for a halt to the AI race until the situation, and maybe some effective regulation, can be sorted out (Associated Press, 48.40).
The Internet got a lot wrong about the Nashville school shooting.
As you’ve no doubt heard, a private religious school in Tennessee was the latest scene of front-page mass gun violence (New York Times, 42.44). It wasn’t long, of course, before people online got to speculating about what the shooter looked like (Associated Press, 48.40), what gender they were (NBC News, 45.18), and sundry other details. This happened with recent killings in Idaho, and the rumors wrecked innocent lives (Washington Post, 37.94).
Then there was the gun violence survivor and activist mom who hijacked a Fox News microphone and launched into talking points about media having to cover, again, the killing of children in these United States (Washington Post, 37.94). Conspiracist made her out to be an obvious plant of gun control partisans (@LisaGrande13 via Twitter).
This tragedy prompted demonstrations at the Tennessee Capitol (The Tennessean, -), which were energetic but was blown out of proportion by Republicans who were bent on expelling lawmakers who encouraged the protestors (PolitiFact, 45.22).
The Internet tried, unsuccessfully, to find an explanation for Donald Trump’s indictment other than that he is a criminal.
Yes, the Manhattan DA was the first to indict the former president (New York Times, 42.44), a rueful first for our country. Turning himself in, pleading not guilty, and returning to Florida on bond, Trump promptly unleashed a barrage of lies about it all in a rambly speech (FactCheck.org, -).
Conspiracy theorists, convinced that Trump can do no wrong, turned to some pretty implausible hypotheses as to why he seemed to be in serious legal trouble (New York Times, 42.44), for example that Jews like George Soros were puppeteering the District Attorney (Vox, 40.26). Where they seemed reluctant to go, though, was to go beyond talk of violence and actually organize or make plans to cause real world trouble (NBC News, 45.18).
Still, both the DA (NBC News, 45.18) and the judge in the case (ABC News, 46.70) were targeted with threats. Trump previously said there would be “potential death & destruction” if he were to be charged under New York law in this matter (Washington Post, 37.94) and has not, to my knowledge, condemned the threats.
What a grab bag we’ve got for you, folks: media organizations can issue corrections to increase accuracy, but not without losing audience trust; TikTok put out new community guidelines on AI and climate misinformation; YouTube temporarily suspends Right Side Broadcasting over ‘elections misinformation’; Matt Taibbi misrepresents a report that he cited in the Twitter Files; Elon Musk cheerleads, then backtracks, on NPR “state-affiliated” label as Twitter declines to enforce the legacy policy for actual Russian and Chinese propaganda outlets; a father writes in The Atlantic (38.34) the heartbreaking story of when anti-vaxxers found out that his 6-year-old died; anti-vaccine activist RFK Jr. will challenge Biden; 7 out of 10 doctors say misinformation does ‘actual harm'; creator of 15-minute cities reflects on his villainization at the hands of conspiracy theorists; the QAnon Shaman moves to a halfway house, and his roommates don't know who he is; officials in North Carolina and Arizona are getting in trouble for not certifying elections on pretext of fraud concerns, but state lawmakers are still catering to the conspiracy-minded; Fox News is all about pleasing its audience, even if it means airing fringe-y nonsense; and Ray Epps is suing Fox and demanding an apology from Tucker Carlson for telling lies about him.
All that, and a lot more, below. This is This Week in Misinformation.