How to spot disinformation, COVID edition

A review of an American Greatness link as a case study.

A commenter on one of Governor Polis’ COVID vaccination Facebook posts linked to an article at the website American Greatness. Rather than assume that the link was legitimate, I did a little digging into the source(s) and concluded that the site is a right-wing disinformation site, not a legitimate news source. Here’s how I reached that conclusion (edited from my Facebook response to add a few links and clean up some spelling/grammar).

This is a great example we can use as a “How to spot disinformation” case study.

First, is the source biased? The site American Greatness is an unknown run by four people that claims to be a source of “independent journalism,” but is very obviously biased toward the right. Bias isn’t inherently a problem, but it is a red flag.

Second, if this is an independent news sources, does it have a physical address? A review of the site did not turn one up in the obvious places (bottom of the pages, Contact page, Meet the Team, etc) on the site. Most legitimate sources of news have at least a PO Box – this site doesn’t even have one of those that I could find. Bias is a small red flag – this is a big one.

Third, this sites has a Terms of Service page that explicitly says the following:

We are not responsible if information made available on this site is not accurate, complete or current. The material on this site is provided for general information only…. Any reliance on the material on this site is at your own risk.

Journalists don’t ever do this. If you see a ToS that disavows any responsibility for accuracy, then you’re not dealing with a news organization, you’re dealing with an advocacy organization of some kind. The question is what are they advocating for. Given the operators claim to be independent journalists, they’re lying and you shouldn’t trust anything this site says.

Fourth, is the author reliable? In this case, the author has no bona fides stated except that she’s written for PJ Media and Breitbart, both of which are at least as biased as American Greatness itself is. This is another red flag.

Fifth, the headline claims to point to over 3,000 signatures. Is there a link to them that can be reviewed? The short answer is “no,” at least not in the article on American Greatness. I dug into some of the other links and found a link to 35 names, but not to the full list of signers. Yet another red flag.

Sixth, can the complete list of names be reviewed for relevant expertise? Again, no. The 35 names that are published can be reviewed and a quick scan shows that most of them have a degree and/or experience which might be relevant, but what about the rest of the signers? At this point we not only have to take their word for it that there are this many signatures, but also that the signers are actually doctors or scientists. And we have to take their word for it that they all have relevant expertise (a physicist who signs this should be considered less authoritative than a virologist, for example). All we have is “trust us.” This is another big red flag.

Seventh, does the author attempt to put the number of signers in context? Yet again, no. This list is claiming people from all over the world. The New England Journal of Medicine found that there were over 9 million doctors worldwide in 2014, and that’s likely an underestimate in 2021. 3000 divided by 9 million is 0.03%. That’s a tiny minority of doctors. I’m sure more will add their names to the list, but at this point it’s likely that the signers do NOT represent the predominant thinking of medical experts on COVID. And this doesn’t even include the number of relevant scientists, of which there are at least as many. Which is another big red flag.

Simply put, this is almost certainly disinformation put out by and advocacy group masquerading as journalists in an attempt to influence policy.

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