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How to Deal With a Crisis of Misinformation

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There’s a disease that has been spreading for years now. Like any resilient virus, it evolves to find new ways to attack us. It’s not in our bodies, but on the web.

It has different names: misinformation, disinformation or what President Trump calls “fake news.” Whatever the label, it can be harmful, especially now that it is being produced through the lens of several emotionally charged events: the coronavirus pandemic, a presidential election and protests against law enforcement.

The swarm of bad information circulating on the web has been intense enough to overwhelm Alan Duke, the editor of Lead Stories, a fact-checking website. For years, he said, false news mostly consisted of phony web articles that revolved around silly themes, like myths about putting onions in your socks to cure a cold. But misinformation has now crept into much darker, sinister corners and taken on forms like the internet meme, which is often a screenshot overlaid with sensational text or manipulated with doctored images.

He named a harmful example of memes: Those attacking Breonna Taylor, the Black medical worker in Louisville, Ky., who was killed by the police when they entered her home in March. Misinformation spreaders generated memes suggesting that Ms. Taylor shot at police officers first, which was not true.

“The meme is probably the most dangerous,” Mr. Duke said. “In seven or 20 words, somebody can say something that’s not true, and people will believe it and share it. It takes two minutes to create.”

It’s impossible to quantify how much bad information is out there now because the spread of it online has been relentless. Katy Byron, who leads a media literacy program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism nonprofit, and who works with a group of teenagers who regularly track false information, said it was on the rise. Before the pandemic, the group would present a few examples of misinformation every few days. Now each student is reporting multiple examples a day.

“With the pandemic, people are increasingly online doomscrolling and looking for information,” Ms. Byron said. “It’s getting harder and harder to find it and feel confident you’re consuming facts.”

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The misinformation, she said, is also creeping into videos. With modern editing tools, it has become too easy for people with little technical know-how and minimal equipment to produce videos that appear to have high production value. Often, real video clips are stripped of context and spliced together to tell a different story.

The rise of false news is bad news for all of us. Misinformation can be a detriment to our well-being in a time when people are desperately seeking information such as health guidelines to share with their loved ones about the coronavirus. It can also stoke anger and cause us to commit violence. Also important: It could mislead us about voting in a pandemic that has turned our world upside down.

How do we adapt to avoid being manipulated and spreading false information to the people we care about? Past methods of spotting untruthful news, like checking articles for typos and phony web addresses that resemble those of trusted publications, are now less relevant. We have to employ more sophisticated methods of consuming information, like doing our own fact-checking and choosing reliable news sources.

Here’s what we can do.

Get used to this keyboard shortcut: Ctrl+T (or Command+T on a Mac). That creates a new browser tab in Chrome and Firefox. You’re going to be using it a lot. The reason: It enables you to ask questions and hopefully get some answers with a quick web search.

It’s all part of an exercise that Ms. Byron calls lateral reading. While reading an article, Step 1 is to open a browser tab. Step 2 is to ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is behind the information?

  • What is the evidence?

  • What do other sources say?

From there, with that new browser tab open, you could start answering those questions. You could do a web search on the author of the content when possible. You could do another search to see what other publications are saying about the same topic. If the claim isn’t being repeated elsewhere, it may be false.

You could also open another browser tab to look at the evidence. With a meme, for example, you could do a reverse image search on the photo that was used in the meme. On Google.com, click Images and upload the photo or paste the web address of the photo into the search bar. That will show where else the image has shown up on the web to verify whether the one you have seen has been manipulated.

With videos, it’s trickier. A browser plug-in called InVID can be installed on Firefox and Chrome. When watching a video, you can click on the tool, click on the Keyframes button and paste in a video link (a YouTube clip, for example) and click Submit. From there, the tool will pull up important frames of the video, and you can reverse image search on those frames to see if they are legitimate or fake.

Some of the tech steps above may not be for the faint of heart. But most important is the broader lesson: Take a moment to think.

“The No. 1 rule is to slow down, pause and ask yourself, ‘Am I sure enough about this that I should share it?’” said Peter Adams, a senior vice president of the News Literacy Project, a media education nonprofit. “If everybody did that, we’d see a dramatic reduction of misinformation online.”

While social media sites like Facebook and Twitter help us stay connected with the people we care about, there’s a downside: Even the people we trust may be unknowingly spreading false information, so we can be caught off guard. And with everything mashed together into a single social media feed, it gets tougher to distinguish good information from bad information, and fact from opinion.

What we can do is another exercise in mindfulness: Be deliberate about where you get your information, Mr. Adams said. Instead of relying solely on the information showing up in your social media feeds, choose a set of publications that you trust, like a newspaper, a magazine or a broadcast news program, and turn to those regularly.

Mainstream media is far from perfect, but it’s subjected to a standards process that is usually not seen in user-generated content, including memes.

“A lot of people fall into the trap of thinking no source of information is perfect,” Mr. Adams said. “That’s when people really start to feel lost and overwhelmed and open themselves up to sources they really should stay away from.”

The most frightening part about misinformation is when it transcends digital media and finds its way into the real world.

Mr. Duke of Lead Stories said he and his wife had recently witnessed protesters holding signs with the message “#SavetheChildren.” The signs alluded to a false rumor spread by supporters of the QAnon conspiracy about a child-trafficking network led by top Democrats and Hollywood elites. The pro-Trump conspiracy movement had effectively hijacked the child-trafficking issue, mixing facts with its own fictions to suit its narrative.

“QAnon has gone from misinformation online to being out on the street corner,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s dangerous.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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