Join Dominick Bonny as he takes a look at propaganda and what it’s doing to us.
Common Sense Episode One- Fighting Fake News Transcript and Sources
A wise person once said, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can put its pants on.” Some call it fake news. Some call it misinformation. Some of us are old school and call it lying. Whatever you call it, today we’re going to be taking a look at propaganda and what it’s doing to us. I’m Dominick Bonny, and this is Common Sense.
Wearing this stuff might make you think I know what I’m talking about. Armed with nothing more than this lab coat and a claim to medical expertise, as well as an expired medical license or two, I could call a press conference in front of an official-looking building and tell people the best way to combat COVID-19 is to gargle toilet water for 10 minutes every night and then stick their fingers in loaded mouse traps.
We live in a world where that video could get millions, maybe hundreds of millions of views on YouTube and get shared widely on social media before getting removed for being a danger to public health. That removal by one social media company of the nonsense that I – WHO AM NOT A DOCTOR – put out, would only fan the flames of conspiracy theorists on others. The mere fact that the dangerous misinformation is being removed would serve as proof of its validity.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But that’s almost exactly what happened near the end of July when a group of people claiming to be “America’s Frontline Doctors” stood on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court and held a press conference, which they called a “White Coat Summit.”
During the 45 minute press conference, a lot of misinformation was shared by the group, but the most important piece of fake news is the repetition of the unfounded claim that using the drug hydroxychloroquine to combat COVID-19, a controversial and unproven treatment, is a good idea.
I could sit here and tell you about how the Food and Drug Administration revoked its emergency use authorization for the drug, or how numerous clinical trials have failed to show that hydroxychloroquine helps hospitalized COVID-19 patients. I could tell you about studies that suggest using hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that has been approved to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, could actually make things worse for patients battling COVID.
But instead I’m going to tell you about my father-in-law, Mark Franklin, who got COVID-19 in March. His wife Toni also got it and almost died. Her doctor told Mark that if he would have waited just six more hours to get her in for emergency treatment she very likely would have died. She spent six days in Intensive Care until she turned a corner.
Both Mark and Toni were prescribed hydroxychloroquine by their doctors, but by that time she had already turned the corner and after a week they took him off it. Not only did it not make him feel any better, his doctors worried about the medication’s effects on his liver and other organs. They both beat COVID and although they’ve both repeatedly tested negative, he is still dealing with serious lasting health effects, including a persistent hacking cough, and was recently checked into the hospital. His doctors confirmed that he now has pneumonia.
Hydroxychloroquine is not a miracle drug and COVID-19 is not like the flu – it’s called a novel virus because it’s a version of SARS-Cov-2 that scientists haven’t seen before. So anyone claiming to know more about it than leading experts with access to the best and most current information that is changing everyday, might be trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Before accepting information that, quite frankly, might be something we wish were true, we have to ask ourselves, “What is this source’s motivations?” Well, let’s take a quick look at who America’s Frontline Doctors are.
First of all, they’re not as “frontline” as they claim to be, and they have close connections to a group called Tea Party Patriots, a right-wing American political organization who did a lot of legwork marketing the event, positioning it as a call to “encourage state officials to reopen schools” in a press release ahead of time. They were also instrumental in setting up the website for America’s Frontline Doctors and disseminating the video of the “White Coat Summit” as they call it. But who are the doctors themselves? They must be legitimate experts right?
Of the two most notable among them, one is a pediatrician best known for creating a method to soothe crying babies called the Hamilton Hold. The other is quite a character, to say the least.
Her name is Dr. Stella Immanuel and she’s a Cameroonian-American physician, author, and pastor who’s current practice is in a strip mall in Houston, Texas, located right next to Fire Power Ministries Christian Resource Center where she preaches. The now-removed website for Fire Power Ministries listed sermons with such titles as “Deliverance from Foundational or Family Line Witchcraft” and “Deliverance from Spirit wives and Spirit husbands,” among its archives.
Immanuel has a habit of making strange and unusual claims. In a now infamous blog post (on her now-removed but still archived website) titled “Deliverance from Spirit wives and Spirit Husbands (Incubus and succubus)” she begins:
“This tormenting spirits are responsible for breaking marriages, hatred by earthly spouse serious gynecological problems, marital distress, miscarriages, impotence, untold hardship, financial failure and general failure at the edge of breakthrough. In fact, studies show that seven out of ten people in the church are affected by these spirits.”
Evil spirits break up marriages and create miscarriages and impotence? Is this a person you would take life or death medical advice from? Yet the video in which she and others with dubious backgrounds and qualification claim to be experts about how to treat COVID went massively viral, getting at least 20 million views on Facebook in a matter of hours, before it was pulled by social media companies that do the bare minimum to combat the spread of fake news.
Though Twitter and Facebook removed the video, copies are still circulating on the internet and it only took me about five minutes to find one. I don’t recommend watching the entire “summit” mostly because it’s a waste of time, but I do include a link to the transcript so you can follow up and do your own research if you’d like. It’s good for a few chuckles at least. Moving on…
The internet has transformed the way we live and interact with each other. It’s made it possible to order your pet’s prescriptions and have them delivered right to your door. It’s made it possible to video chat with your grandkids, which is more important than ever right now. It’s also made it possible to stay up until midnight arguing with a stranger named Chester McNibbles on Facebook about how many angels can actually dance on the head of a pin.
The internet, and social media, can be incredibly fun and interesting. It’s a tool, but just like any tool it can be used to destroy things as well as build them up. When misused this tool can be incredibly dangerous not only to individuals and small communities but to entire societies.
In Indonesia in 2017 rumors spread in Facebook groups and via WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned messaging tool, that gangs were kidnapping local children and selling their organs. Some messages included disturbing images of mangled bodies and fake police fliers. Locals in nine villages lynched outsiders they believed to be coming for their children. Similar incidents have occurred in India and Mexico.
While it hasn’t led to lynchings or extrajudicial killings here in the U.S., we have seen disturbing examples of rumors and fear-mongering online lead fellow Washingtonians into acting irrationally and even dangerously.
Forks, Washington, famous for being the home to the super hot vampires in the Twilight book and film series, recently made the news for less flattering reasons.
In June, a multi-racial family of four on a camping trip were met with seven or eight carloads of people in the parking lot of a local store as they were getting supplies. According to KING 5 News, they were repeatedly asked if they were “ANTIFA protestors.” The Clallam County Sheriff’s Office says that people occupying at least four vehicles followed the family and two of the vehicles had people in them carrying what appeared to be semi-automatic rifles. They made it back to their campsite but grew even more worried after hearing gunshots and chainsaws nearby. They decided to leave, but upon attempting to do so, they discovered that someone, or a group of people, had felled trees to obstruct the road and their escape. They were rescued by teenagers, who as first responders were on their way, used their own chainsaws to clear the roadway for the family. The family, consisting of a husband and wife, their 16-year-old daughter, and the husband’s mother, were then met and escorted by Clallam County deputies to safety. Even our quaint, peaceful, and bucolic community has had a recent brush with fake news creating real-life problems. In June, rumors of “busloads of ANTIFA” began to swirl on social media, specifically Facebook. Our local demagogue Cary Condotta rushed to fan the flames and rally the troops, posting on Facebook: “Trouble may be headed our way. Please be armed and ready to defend yourselves this weekend. We need everybody to be ready to move at a moment’s notice.” The call to arms was heard and people in tactical gear, sidearms on hips, some carrying semi-automatic long guns, came out of the woodwork to “defend” local businesses. There were no “busloads of ANTIFA” and the only thing this self-styled militia accomplished was putting everyone on edge and scaring children. These irresponsible actions drew condemnation from across our communities, and even Wenatchee Mayor Frank Kuntz released a statement gently excoriating the vigilantes, it in he wrote: “To those who attended with the intent to intimidate and create conflict, your presence did not reflect the values of the Wenatchee community.” Yeah, I would say following, harassing, and intimidating fellow citizens exercising their First Amendment rights doesn’t reflect the values of this community – or any community under the authority of the US Constitution. There may have been some individuals who truly believed they were there to protect businesses and their community, but what is plainly evident is that others used this opportunity to threaten, harass, intimidate people and even commit hate crimes during the month of June. Don’t believe me? Allow me to prove it. This is a Google map I compiled with pins that show when and where protestors were confronted, followed, screamed at, or otherwise intimidated, harassed, and even allegedly struck with vehicles just for walking down the streets of our communities. https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1IZLDGYyvs6J5zwahN3nnd-n6MBYxqcNj&hl=en_US&ll=47.42648220000003%2C-120.3131576&z=11 There are nearly 30 incidents on the map, but I would like to point out one that I think illustrates the fact that this harassment wasn’t because of a legitimate fear of “ANTIFA” at all. Here is a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpHKNRxovLI) provided by one of the protestors who was marching on June 6. You can clearly see in the video that the driver of this white truck was pushing into the crosswalk as pedestrians were crossing the street in an obvious attempt to intimidate them, and as soon as he realizes he’s being filmed he backs the pickup up out of the crosswalk. In addition to that clearly illegal behavior, we’ve had reports of hate crimes that include a pride flag at a local business located at Pybus Public Market being burned after the pride march at the end of June. Regardless of how you feel about the pride flag or LGBTQ+ rights, you’re looking at hate crime. According to the state in RCW 9A.36.080, regarding hate crime offenses, the definition and criminal penalty are as follows: “(1) A person is guilty of a hate crime offense if he or she maliciously and intentionally commits one of the following acts because of his or her perception of the victim’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, or mental, physical, or sensory disability: (a) Causes physical injury to the victim or another person; (b) Causes physical damage to or destruction of the property of the victim or another person.” What started with an acorn of misinformation is growing into a sapling of hate, and it all starts with a fake news story that gave people justification to indulge their darker impulses. So where do we go from here? We need to start with de-escalation and recalibration. People exercising their First Amendment right to free speech and assembly is not a threat to anyone’s safety. There have been and are no credible reports of “ANTIFA” people coming to our communities to damage property or foment anarchy. The people who are protesting and marching in support of Black Lives Matter are fellow citizens, fellow Americans. They are our friends and neighbors. They are not our enemies. The filter bubbles and echo chambers that so many of us have built on social media do us all a great disservice. It leads to narrative building that creates a situation where we are literally beginning to live in alternate realities and dehumanize those with whom we simply disagree. It’s hard because social media companies operate a lot like casinos. They know what keeps us plugged in and pulling the levers. Creating algorithms that fuel anger, strife, and arguments are great ways to keep people plugged into your platform. When there’s nothing to argue about or be outraged over, Facebook becomes a way more boring experience. Most cable news networks are also invested in building narratives that outrage and divide us. They understand that’s what keeps people tuning in and their ad sales profitable. With so many powerful forces trying to drive a wedge between us, we need to focus on what we have in common rather than what divides us – now more than ever. Critical thinking is also key to avoid being duped by bad actors. Don’t believe something just because it confirms your bias or reinforces your worldview. It’s easier than ever to check your facts before you share bunk on social media. When I share misinformation on social media, I am a part of the problem and become a part of a chain of individuals who become partially responsible for the ill-informed actions of others who might use the misinformation I’m passing along to make a bad or even dangerous decision. I’ve been giving a variation of this presentation for the last few years, and this is a checklist I like to share with folks that outlines a solid strategy for recognizing a fake news story. It’s also important to understand the institutional bias of your news sources. As much as some folks like to vilify “the media” as if it’s some monolithic, highly-organized and centralized entity, it is not. It’s an industry, and just like any industry, you have a variety of businesses that compete with each other for the largest share of the market. Is that a good way to run an industry that touches all our lives and influences every decision you make? Probably not. But that’s the way it is. The alternative, as we see in countries with state-run and controlled media, is even less palatable. Once we come to terms with the fact that the news sources most of us rely on might not be as “fair and balanced” as they make themselves out to be, and are in fact benefitting and profiting from keeping us tuned in and pissed off, maybe we can make better decisions – for ourselves. This is version 6.0 of a media bias chart compiled by a website called Ad Fontes Media. This is a good visual representation of the current landscape and where most major news sources lay, from extreme leftwing nonsense to extreme rightwing nonsense…on the fringes down at the bottom and the more reliable, reputable sources near the center top. Not all media is created equal. If we use critical thinking and some common sense (bright text that says “Hey this is the name of this show!”) we might save ourselves from being fooled by charlatans, false prophets and profit-driven propaganda created by people who have no stake in our local communities.And it’s not hard! In fact it’s so easy that children can do it, and they are! The Mediawise Teen Fact-Checking Network is made up of a team of teen fact-checkers from more than a dozen states in the U.S. who have published more than 50 fact checks related to COVID-19 as of May 7. These fact-checks are unique in that they both debunk misinformation and teach the audience media literacy skills so they can fact-check on their own. On average, 86% of respondents polled on the MediaWise Instagram account recently reported they were more likely to fact-check on their own after watching a Teen Fact-Checking Network fact-check story. Not only do they rate the story with a simple system, but they also show you how they came to that conclusion, including showing you how to do a reverse image search and digging deeper with verified sources. One of my personal favorites was this debunking of an internet rumor that started with a claim that Pope Francis licked a baby. We could all learn a thing or two about verifying information before we share it online from these savvy teens.If these kids are our future, then the future looks bright.
So who is this not-doctor stepping onto a modern soapbox and coming out so forcefully against fake news and those who seek to use it to their advantage?
Well, I’m a freelance journalist and a farm boy who was born, raised and educated in Eastern Washington. I’m proud to say I studied at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and worked my way up to become the editor-in-chief of the daily student newspaper at WSU, The Daily Evergreen, during my career in Pullman.
Emerging from my college career as the country was emerging from the great recession meant that I was stepping into one of the worst job markets for print journalists in generations, if not ever, so I took a job as a business reporter here in Wenatchee and moved here having only stepped foot in the Wenatchee Valley once before.
After eeking out a living as a young reporter for a while, I started a small business managing social media channels for local businesses. Cafe Mela and Iwa Sushi in downtown Wenatchee were my first clients, and from there things grew and eventually I took on a partner and expanded the business, taking on clients like the Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Eastmont School District, North Central Regional Library and LocalTel, to name a few.
However, I have continued to follow and write stories as a freelance journalist. Sometimes I even get paid for the work, which is always exciting! But mostly I follow stories I think are important yet overlooked. Which is why I keep pulling on the thread of the armed vigilante group that took to the streets of Wenatchee to defend against imaginary enemies and eventually found out they were using a private Facebook group to organize and coordinate their armed counter-protest.
I slipped into that Facebook group and what I found confirmed my suspicion that many of these people were not showing up with battlefield weapons in body armor with tactical gear and communications technology just to “protect” businesses, as they claimed. Instead, they wanted to intimidate peaceful protestors into staying home, discourage future demonstrations and there were a few who openly fantasized about hurting and even killing fellow citizens.
In case you don’t get the reference, “The Purge” is a series of dystopian action horror films in which all crime, including murder, are allowed for a 12-hour period of time once a year. Wishing for a complete breakdown of law and order so you can hurt and kill fellow Americans is quite literally violent anarchy. In this screenshot, Adam writes, “I say we start hanging people but that’s just how I feel about it.”
And while we cannot judge everyone’s intentions from the disturbing comments of a few, it is important to note that no one else in the group spoke out against it, in fact the comments got support from others.
These are just two of hundreds of screenshots that prove that the primary intention, at least for some of the armed vigilantes, was not to protect businesses or property at all, but rather to intimidate and harass others as well as put themselves in a position to maybe even hurt people.
So my question to you is this: what would have happened if a car backfired loudly and startled these people? What if a punk kid threw some firecrackers into the middle of a group of protestors, or counter-protestors? Would this ragtag band of wannabe Rambos have the discipline to rein in their itchy trigger fingers and confirm the existence of a credible threat before opening fire?
I don’t think people realize, or maybe it’s just that we don’t want to think about how dangerous that situation that really was and how out of hand it could have gotten. It’s something I hope we don’t see repeated in our community, but it bears study because it is a real-life local example of how fake news can get out of control and cause people to act in irrational and sometimes dangerous ways.
As Americans, I think we have a tendency to think, “Oh, that can’t happen here. Modern Americans would never lynch random strangers because of an unverified Facebook rumor. Maybe India or Mexico, but not here.” Yet it’s instances like this “busloads of ANTIFA” hoax that had some members of our community arming themselves to the teeth and “patrolling” our streets that show us we are not that different from the rest of the world afterall. We are just as susceptible to believing lies, misinformation and fake news as anyone anywhere else in the world.
But in order to fight fake news, we have to learn how to spot it, debunk it and stop its spread. And that takes all of us. You. Me. Everyone. Together, as a united front. This is not a partisan issue. This is not a left vs. right issue. Fake news is a danger to the very fabric of our society, and no matter what your political persuasion is, we should all form a united front against fake news because it undermines the entire American experiment.
The German-American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century who covered the Nuremberg trials and watched as Hitler’s surviving top generals and aids were judged by the world, published a book after the trails called “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” In it, she wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.”
Beware of people who don’t care about the truth. Of those who seek to play upon our fears. Those who would say anything in order to manipulate us. They are the true enemies of our democracy, and of humankind in general.
In this episode I outlined some good strategies to spot fake news, but in addition to checking our facts before we share stuff online, we need to think hard about what it means to be American, and what it means to live in American society. The Founding Fathers built an ingenious system, but it only works if we are informed participants who are able to compromise with one another. The great strength of the American experiment is its flexibility and adaptability, not its rigid intractability.
Thomas Jefferson once said: “The more compromise we can find, and the more civility and harmony between us, the likelier we are to prevail as a great nation.”
So this is where I’ll leave you for now, with a plea for a renewed commitment to being an informed participant in our democracy. The path forward to a more perfect union is at once completely obvious and simple as well as incredibly difficult to actually achieve.
Call me an optimist. Call me an idealist. Call me whatever you want, but I don’t think a more perfect union is a pipe dream. It’s how the Founders designed our system of government. A more perfect union is right around the corner, if we choose to turn the corner. As the English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller famously said: “It’s always darkest before the dawn” and I believe that to be true. Our country, and our community, might be experiencing growing pains, but the growth and progress we’re making is worth it. It’s up to us to decide what kind of a community, and country, we want to become.
The last thought I’d like to share is a quote from the preeminent American politician, sociologist, and diplomat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said: “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.”
I’m Dominick Bonny. Join us next time for Common Sense. We’ll be talking about face masks, civility on the ropes and what Black Lives Matter means to rural Americans.
No Evidence That Doctor Group in Viral Video Got Near COVID ‘Front Lines:’
Thread on “America’s Frontline Doctors” organization by NBC reporter: https://twitter.com/BrandyZadrozny/status/1287925891532754949
Who Are America’s Frontline Doctors? https://www.snopes.com/news/2020/07/30/americas-frontline-doctors/
White Coat Summit full transcript: http://archive.vn/U1qcE#selection-1047.0-1901.208
Scientists say it’s time to stop promoting the drug: https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/hydroxychloroquine-covid-19-scientists-say-it-s-time-stop-promoting-n1235347
Archive of Immanuel’s blog post about the demon sperm thing: https://archive.fo/G7wtb#selection-4925.0-4928.0
Top right-wing media figures rally around “demon sperm” doc: https://www.mediamatters.org/fox-news/top-right-wing-media-figures-rally-around-demon-sperm-doc?fbclid=IwAR2paFVCGWg5sFqtWN1ao6Oo1xDTfbZA-n1khlm5RQl7iml6iIk5L-zsL-g
Facebook and Twitter said they removed a viral video spreading false claims about COVID-19. Copies are still circulating: https://www.mediamatters.org/coronavirus-covid-19/facebook-and-twitter-said-they-removed-viral-video-spreading-false-claims
Misleading Virus Video, Pushed by the Trumps, Spreads Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/28/technology/virus-video-trump.html?fbclid=IwAR1MtYGJwTl3KzQbywHIR5ml6ovOb-SWTBn1X7ZHoxczufSPw4DgdTJzoc4
Mediawise teen Fact Checkers: https://www.poynter.org/teen-fact-checking-network/
Multi-racial family ran out of Forks, Wa.: https://www.king5.com/article/news/crime/clallam-county-olympic-peninsula-multiracial-family-harassed-accused-antifa/281-d8570144-f956-4ea2-af26-ccbba91dc4d0
Black Lives Matter march in Wenatchee attracts another big crowd and an armed group: https://www.wenatcheeworld.com/news/local/black-lives-matter-march-in-wenatchee-attracts-another-big-crowd-and-an-armed-group/article_4e1c2818-a9ba-11ea-8205-236a3aad1bf5.html
Ad Fontes Media homepage: https://www.adfontesmedia.com/