Exclusive: Pandemic relief aid went to media that promoted COVID misinformation

Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter
·17-min read

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials have warned about the dangers of a parallel “infodemic” — the spread of conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation about the virus.

Some of that misinformation, it seems, has been spread by media outlets that have benefited from the federal government’s COVID-19 relief program.

According to a joint analysis conducted by the counter-disinformation consulting firm Alethea Group and the nonprofit Global Disinformation Index, at least five companies behind some of the internet’s top sources of false, misleading or conspiratorial information related to COVID-19, including the Epoch Times, Newsmax and the Federalist, received sizable loans from the federal government as part of the Paycheck Protection Program.

“These outlets are getting money from the government in response to a pandemic that they are having an active role in prolonging,” said Danny Rogers, chief technology officer at GDI, which uses a combination of expert analysis and machine learning technology to track the spread of disinformation narratives online.

As part of a joint analysis with Alethea Group, which was reviewed exclusively by Yahoo News, GDI used this methodology to identify what it said are the top 100 websites that have published the most false, misleading or conspiratorial content about COVID-19 throughout the pandemic.

“We train machine-learning models on a few hundred expertly selected pieces of COVID disinformation from around the internet,” Rogers explained. “Then we have a data platform that crawls roughly 115,000 open web domains, and pulls in about a million pieces of content a day. Each of those pieces of content gets tested against this machine-learning model ... and if the machine-learning model matches, says it’s similar enough, it gets flagged as a piece of coronavirus misinformation.” The top 100 list generated for this particular analysis ranks the websites in order of how often their content was flagged as coronavirus misinformation.

Using a searchable database created by ProPublica, that list was compared against publicly available information from the Small Business Administration on organizations that received PPP assistance in the form of forgivable loans to help businesses keep paying their workers.

“What we found is that some of the companies that took PPP loans from the federal government were publishing false or misleading information about the pandemic, thus profiting off the infodemic,” said Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst who is now vice president of analysis at Alethea Group.

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Lucas Jackson/Reuters, Getty Images.
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Lucas Jackson/Reuters, Getty Images.

NBC News recently reported that PPP loans also went to more than a dozen groups that promote white supremacy, anti-immigrant or antigay agendas. A spokesperson for the SBA declined to comment to the network on individual borrowers or loans, but, according to NBC News, “reiterated that just because a loan was issued by the agency doesn’t mean that the recipient was eligible to receive it or that the loan will ultimately be forgiven.”

The Small Business Administration also declined to comment for this article.

Yahoo News independently identified examples of false, misleading or conspiratorial content about COVID-19 published by five of the companies identified by Alethea and GDI, all of which were asked to comment.

Epoch Media Group

ProPublica’s database shows that between $150,000 and $350,000 of federal coronavirus bailout funds were granted to the Epoch Media Group, a private news and entertainment company with close ties to the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, which is banned by the Chinese Communist Party.

Epoch Media Group owns the Epoch Times, a once-obscure free newspaper and website critical of communist China. In recent years, it has built one of the biggest followings of any news outlet on social media through its aggressive embrace of Facebook, conservative politics and in particular, Donald Trump. NBC News reported in August 2019 that the Epoch Times was the second largest funder of pro-Trump Facebook ads after the Trump campaign.

According to NBC News, the Epoch Times’ “network of news sites and YouTube channels has made it a powerful conduit for the internet’s fringier conspiracy theories, including anti-vaccination propaganda and QAnon, to reach the mainstream.”

The joint analysis conducted by Alethea and the Global Disinformation Index also identified the Epoch Times as one of the top 100 websites producing false, misleading or conspiratorial content about the coronavirus pandemic. One example of such content is a Dec. 2 article titled “Americans Are Suffering ‘Delusional Psychosis’ About CCP Virus, Psychiatrist Claims,” which, the Alethea and GDI researchers said, “falsely claims that government officials were broadcasting “misinformation and exaggeration about the lethality” of the virus.

In an email to Yahoo News, Epoch Times spokeswoman Dana Cheng denied that the Epoch Times has published false, misleading or conspiratorial content about COVID-19, writing that, with respect to the Dec. 2 article, “the claim that it ‘falsely states that government officials have been broadcasting misinformation and exaggeration about the lethality’ of COVID-19 is taken out of context.”

“This article is about an opinion from an expert, which should be presented as one side of the discussion,” she wrote.

However, the article in question is not presented as an op-ed or blog post, but is labeled “U.S. News” and was written by Epoch Times congressional correspondent Mark Tapscott. The opinions reflected in the article are not those of a public health official or well-known infectious disease expert, but Dr. Mark McDonald, a Los Angeles-based child and adolescent psychiatrist.

What the Epoch Times article does not mention is that McDonald is also a member of a controversial group of physicians known as America’s Frontline Doctors, who advocate against the official policies and recommendations of experts in response to the pandemic. During the summer, the group gained national attention with a press conference in Washington, D.C., where several white-coat-wearing physicians discouraged mask-wearing, which several scientific studies have shown is effective in slowing the spread of the virus, and claimed that hydroxychloroquine works as both a “prophylactic” and a “cure” for COVID-19, despite the conclusions of the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization that medication was not effective treatment for coronavirus patients.

Videos of the press conference, which was streamed live on several social media platforms, quickly went viral before they were removed from YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for violating the platforms’ policies regarding COVID-19 misinformation. More recently, McDonald and the self-described America’s Frontline Doctors have been protesting the new coronavirus vaccination programs.

This relevant context is not mentioned in the Epoch Times article, nor is the fact that McDonald’s comments on such topics as holiday gatherings and wearing masks in small, indoor spaces such as elevators directly contradict the official guidance of public health experts.

This particular article is not the only piece of false, misleading or conspiratorial content that the Epoch Times has published about what it calls the “CCP Virus,” referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

In April, the Epoch Times published a 54-minute “documentary” called “Tracking Down the Origin of the Wuhan Coronavirus,” which sought to promote a number of unfounded claims about the genesis of COVID-19, including the repeatedly debunked theory that the virus was bioengineered in a Chinese lab. Scientific studies of the genetic makeup of the virus that causes COVID-19 have overwhelmingly concluded that it was not created in a lab, but originated through natural processes.

One of the main sources featured in the Epoch Times video is Judy Mikovits, the discredited former research scientist who would go on to spout a series of unsupported and conspiratorial claims about the COVID-19 outbreak and the supposedly sinister motives behind the official response to it in the viral “Plandemic” video. “Plandemic,” which was published in May, racked up millions of views across social media in May before it was removed from YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo and other platforms for violating policies against misleading and potentially harmful content.

Facebook posts promoting the Epoch Times video have been flagged for containing false information. However, the video can still be viewed via the social network, as well as on multiple YouTube channels, where one post alone has garnered more than 4.5 million views.

The Epoch Times’ Cheng dismissed the action taken by Facebook as the wrong standard to use as the “measurement for good journalism.”

Newsmax Media

One of the largest loans was approved for the conservative multimedia company Newsmax Media, which received between $2 million and $5 million in federal funds. In recent weeks, Newsmax’s website and television network have emerged as a megaphone for President Trump’s false allegations of voter fraud. But even before the election, Newsmax had been promoting coronavirus conspiracy theories, such as the unfounded, yet widely circulated, claim that COVID-19 was engineered in a lab in Wuhan, China, and is now a “bio-weapon.”

In a statement to Yahoo News, a spokesperson for Newsmax said the outlet “denies it published false or misleading information about the Coronavirus” and that “Newsmax has always encouraged our readers to follow all CDC and general health advice and guidelines when dealing with the virus.” The spokesperson stated that the specific article referenced above, titled “Until the Vaccine, COVID-19 Is a Bio-Weapon” was “written by a blogger who clearly used the word ‘bio-weapon’ in a neutral, generic way that infers the virus was generally a danger to the public.” It also noted that the Newsmax article “cites an NBC News sourced story that suggested the virus emanated from a Chinese lab.”

The NBC link embedded in the Newsmax article directs to an error page. The citation appears to be referring to a May 8 report by NBC News about “a private analysis of cellphone location data [which] purports to show that a high-security Wuhan laboratory studying coronaviruses shut down in October.” The Newsmax article points to NBC’s coverage of this report as indication that “some kind of anomaly” or “accident” took place at the Wuhan Virology laboratory. However, it does not mention that the NBC News article makes clear that “intelligence analysts examined and couldn’t confirm” the claims set forth in the private report, which “offers no direct evidence of a shutdown, or any proof for the theory that the virus emerged accidentally from the lab.”

The Federalist

Another recipient of pandemic relief funds was the conservative website the Federalist, which received between $150,000 and $350,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program.

In the early days of the pandemic, the Federalist repeatedly downplayed the severity of COVID-19, and published content promoting unproven and dangerous alternatives to recommended health measures. Months after public health experts, including officials from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned against describing the new coronavirus by the location or ethnicity of people first infected by it, the Federalist continues to defiantly attach the “Wuhan Virus” tag to its pandemic coverage.

In late March, the Federalist’s Twitter account was temporarily suspended after tweeting a link to an article on its website titled “How Medical ‘Chickenpox Parties’ Could Turn The Tide Of The Wuhan Virus,” which argued in favor of a “controlled voluntary infection” program to promote “herd immunity” among young people. Though the Federalist identified the article’s author, Douglas Perednia, as a “a physician in Portland, Oregon,” a number of other news outlets quickly confirmed that Perednia was not, in fact, a practicing doctor but rather, as the New Yorker reported, a “retired entrepreneur with a medical degree — he did residencies in dermatology and internal medicine more than thirty years ago.”

Twitter said the Federalist article and the tweet promoting it were in violation of the social media platform’s then-newly released rules against coronavirus-related content “that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information.” Among the types of tweets subject to removal under Twitter’s COVID-19 policies are those that encourage people to defy social distancing guidelines or describe “harmful treatments or protection measures which are known to be ineffective.”

One day before the Federalist article was published, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear admonished young people in the state for “coronavirus parties” held in violation of its social distancing guidelines, after someone who had attended such a gathering tested positive for the virus. “No more of these,” Beshear said. “Don’t be so callous as to intentionally go to something and expose yourself to something that can kill other people. We ought to be much better than that.”

Many epidemiologists and public health officials, including the World Health Organization’s director-general and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have since spoken out forcefully in opposition to the concept of deliberately exposing certain populations to the virus as a shortcut to attain herd immunity. In an interview with Yahoo News in October, Fauci called such proposals “nonsense” and “very dangerous.”

As of Dec. 21, the article that had triggered a temporary Twitter suspension was still available on the Federalist’s website, as was another that had been published the following week by an anonymous author titled, “Why Severe Social Distancing Might Actually Result In More Coronavirus Deaths.”

A spokesperson for the Federalist did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Liftable Media

Another beneficiary of the federal government’s pandemic bailout program was Liftable Media, a relatively little-known, yet highly influential conservative media company run by Floyd Brown, a longtime Republican consultant behind Citizens United and the infamous “Willie Horton” TV ad, who took over for his son Patrick, Liftable’s founder, last year. The company received between $350,000 and $1 million from the federal government.

An in-depth investigation published by the New York Times last year described Liftable’s network of partisan-outrage-inducing fake news websites and related Facebook pages as a “potent online disinformation mill.” Liftable’s sites reportedly garnered nearly a billion page views in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, and were hit hard by Silicon Valley’s subsequent efforts to crack down on disinformation. The Liftable-owned website Western Journal has been blacklisted by Google, for what it deemed deceptive business practices, as well as by Apple News, for promoting “views overwhelmingly rejected by the scientific community.” And the incorporation of fact-check ratings into the Facebook algorithm has significantly reduced traffic to stories posted by Western Journal and other Liftable-owned sites like Conservative Tribune.

Still, Liftable’s sites have managed to retain a large Facebook audience as they’ve waded into the waters of coronavirus misinformation.

In late August, the Facebook pages of Western Journal and Conservative Tribune contributed to the spread of a rumor that falsely claimed that the CDC had quietly updated its COVID-19 data to reveal that just 6 percent — or less than 10,000 — of the coronavirus deaths recorded at that point had actually been caused by COVID-19. In reality, as of Aug. 31, the CDC reported that a total of 182,622 Americans had died as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The rumor, which was circulated widely across social media by QAnon followers and President Trump, among many others, apparently stemmed from a warped reading of an Aug. 26 update to a report on the provisional COVID-19 death counts by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. The report is updated weekly and is based on data from death certificates.

Under a section titled “Comorbidities,” the report reads: “For 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned. For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death.” On Aug. 30, Western Journal published its own article about the NCHS update under the headline, “CDC Now Says 94% of COVID Deaths Had an Underlying Condition,” which has since been revised to read: “CDC Says ‘Comorbidities’ Present in 94% of COVID Deaths.”

A correction at the bottom of the article, dated Sept. 16, explains that the new headline — one of “several corrections” made to the article “for clarity” — was intended “to remove the implication that all such ‘underlying’ conditions were pre-existing, rather than a result of the COVID infection, which they certainly were in many cases.”

“We also revised wording in the first sentence that may have implied the same idea to some readers,” the correction note continues. “Finally, we have added language to make it clear that the presence of comorbidities in a COVID patient does not imply, and certainly does not mean, that the patient’s death was not a direct result of COVID-19 infection.”

Before these revisions were made, however, inflammatory language was used to promote the more misleading original version of the article on social media.

On Aug. 30, the Conservative Tribune shared a link to the article on its Facebook page, which has more than 3.7 million followers and is “liked” by over 4 million, with the caption, “Clearly the virus is not nearly as deadly as the establishment media and the left have made it out to be.”​

The next day, the Western Journal Facebook page, which has more than 4.4 million followers of its own, posted a link to the article alongside a meme quoting a tweet from right-wing provocateur Dinesh D’Souza wrongly suggesting that only 10,000 Americans had died from COVID-19 and urging President Trump to “get to the bottom” of the CDC’s alleged inflation of coronavirus fatalities. That particular post has been shared more than 6,500 times.

A representative for Liftable Media did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Yahoo News.

Prager University

The analysis by GDI and Alethea also flagged Prager University, or PragerU, as both a top source of COVID-19 misinformation and recipient of a PPP loan of between $350,000 and $1 million. Despite its name, the nonprofit co-founded by conservative talk show host Dennis Prager is not an academic institution but a right-wing media company targeting Generation Z with popular five-minute videos. By 2018, PragerU’s videos had reportedly racked up more than 1 billion views. A live counter on its website currently boasts “4.5 billion views & counting.”

Though PragerU owes its vast reach to YouTube, the nonprofit has also clashed with the video-sharing platform over restrictions it has imposed on access to some of PragerU’s videos on topics including gun rights, Islam and abortion. In 2017, PragerU sued YouTube’s parent company, Google, accusing the tech giant of censoring conservative content and violating PragerU’s right to free speech. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court in Seattle unanimously upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit, finding that YouTube is not a public forum subject to First Amendment scrutiny.

PragerU proudly promotes a playlist of videos “Restricted by YouTube” on its homepage, and in recent months has posted others that have been removed from YouTube and other mainstream social media platforms for promoting false information about cures or treatment for COVID-19. Such videos include clips from the July press conference in Washington, D.C., where members of the self-described America’s Frontline Doctors spouted a variety of false and misleading claims about COVID-19 and how it should be treated.

Videos of the press conference, which was reportedly hosted and paid for by the Tea Party Patriots, a right-wing political nonprofit, were promoted by Trump and quickly racked up millions of views across social media before being removed from YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for violating the platform’s policies regarding COVID-19 misinformation. They’re still available on PragerU’s website, however, along with a link to a petition to “stop Big Tech censorship.”

The website also features an interview with Dr. Stella Immanuel, one of the participants in the controversial press conference, on PragerU’s “Candace Owens Show,” and a recent “Fireside Chat” video in which Prager laments the implementation of mask mandates and quarantine measures and declares, “There is no doubt in my mind that the medical profession will be held guilty of mass deaths because of its condemnation of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, which should be taken by everybody who has any signs of COVID.”

PragerU did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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