Last Monday, Popular Information reported that Monty Bennett, a multi-millionaire Trump donor, scooped up $96.1 million from the Paycheck Protection Act — a government fund meant to support struggling small businesses. Bennett owns and operates a large group of hotels, including luxury properties like The Ritz-Carlton. Even as the coronavirus eroded his business in March, Bennett paid himself millions in bonuses and dividends.
The article went viral on Twitter, attracting over 16,500 retweets.
Now, in a corporate press release, Bennett says he will return all the loans.
Bennett blamed the "recently changed rules" by the federal government. But this is misdirection. On April 23, the Treasury Department released new guidelines asserting that it is “unlikely” that any public company “with substantial market value and access to capital markets” qualifies for the loans. But well after those guidelines were released, Bennett insisted he was keeping the money.
What happened since then? There has been intense public scrutiny of Bennett's actions. The loans were no longer just a windfall. They were a liability for Bennett, his companies, and the Trump administration.
COVID conspiracies infect Facebook
Facebook has taken a number of steps to try to limit misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic on its platform. The company says that it has "removed hundreds of thousands of pieces of misinformation that could lead to imminent physical harm." This includes "harmful claims like drinking bleach cures the virus and theories like physical distancing is ineffective in preventing the disease from spreading."
For the first time ever, users that "have liked, reacted or commented on harmful misinformation about COVID-19 that we have since removed" are being directed to "COVID-19 myths debunked by the WHO [World Health Organization]."
Other pandemic misinformation is, like most other content, subject to Facebook's fact-checking program. In March, the company says, its "independent fact-checking partners" published 4,000 articles related to the virus. Based on that work, Facebook displayed misinformation warnings on "about 40 million posts related to COVID-19."
So are Facebook's efforts succeeding? It's hard to say what Facebook would look like in the absence of these actions. But misinformation about COVID-19 continues to run rampant on the platform.
Popular Information was able to identify dozens of posts widely shared on Facebook over the last 30 days that promoted the dangerous "plandemic" conspiracy theory. Its proponents assert that the coronavirus pandemic was created and planned by elites like Bill Gates to seize power and control. None of the posts identified were fact-checked or removed by Facebook.
For example, Rashid A. Buttar, who falsely claims that vaccines cause autism, has a verified page on Facebook with 223,593 followers. Buttar has "spent years selling skin drops at $150 a bottle as a treatment for diseases ranging from autism to cancer" and has been reprimanded for unethical treatment of patients.
In a rambling April 24 Facebook post, Buttar asserted that "Messages about the PLANdemic coming from USA TODAY, CNN and Anderson Cooper are about as accurate as a blind woman throwing a rock to hit a flying bird." These media reports, Buttar said, contain "lies to prevent people from going back to work." The post also promoted an upcoming appearance on InfoWars, a conspiracy website that also claims the coronavirus is a hoax engineered by the elite. The post was shared more than 1700 times.
In a series of videos and posts on his page, Buttar encourages people not to comply with social distancing recommendations. Buttar also claims that hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug touted by Trump, has a 99% success rate against COVID-19. (A study actually found it has no benefit and is associated with a higher death rate in COVID-19 patients.)
In a video that has been viewed nearly 500,000 times, Buttar claims that hospitals are intentionally killing people. There is a conspiracy, Buttar says, to drive up the death rate to marshall support for a mandatory vaccine.
None of Buttar's recent posts have been fact-checked. It is not clear whether any were removed by Facebook.
Another Facebook page, The Dollar Vigilante, has over 136,000 followers. An April 22 Facebook post, which has been shared 171 times, promises proof that the "Covid Plandemic Panic Was Created By Media and Government."
The post links to a website with a lengthy video that explains that social distancing regulations have nothing to do with the coronavirus but are being imposed to engineer a financial collapse. COVID-19, the video says, is "hardly killing anyone." The website also claims that COVID is an abbreviation for "Certification Of Vaccination ID," a claim that was debunked a Facebook partner. But this post has no misinformation warning.
If Facebook is committed to preventing "harmful misinformation about COVID-19 from spreading," why is this content allowed to spread widely on the platform? As Popular Information previously reported, Facebook's fact-checking program is very small. The company claims fact-checkers produced 4,000 articles related to COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook in March. That sounds like a lot, but Facebook has over 2 billion active daily users around the world. The reality is that very little on Facebook is fact-checked.
Facebook also says, separate from its fact-checking program, it will "remove COVID-19 related misinformation that could contribute to imminent physical harm," including "claims that physical distancing doesn’t help prevent the spread of the coronavirus." But the company does not consider "conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus" as likely to create physical harm. So these posts are not removed — and few are fact-checked.
"We’re working to keep people safe by removing COVID-19 related misinformation that could lead to imminent harm, applying warning labels from fact checkers and promoting authoritative information at the top of News Feed," Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told Popular Information.
Studying the infodemic
An investigation by the BBC and the counter-extremism think tank Institute of Strategic Dialogue also looked at coronavirus misinformation on Facebook. The study sought to compare the reach of websites pushing misinformation about the virus to accurate information from the World Health Organization and other reputable sources.
The study focused on 34 websites that were identified by Newsguard, a watchdog group, "as having shared information about the coronavirus that was 'materially false.'" The study found that the "34 websites together received more than 80 million interactions" since January. The World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control, meanwhile, garnered just 12.6 million total interactions.
The misinformation included "almost 150,000 interactions for HumansAreFree.com, which made claims that the 'plandemic' had been prepared years before the outbreak." There were also "about 1.7 million interactions for RealFarmacy.com, which falsely claims that personal ultraviolet lamps are a safe remedy for coronavirus."
The Epoch Times, which Newsgaurd says is publishing "materially false information about the virus," had 48 million interactions with its content on Facebook since January, swamping authoritative government sources of information.
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