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COVID-19 Misinformation & Disinformation

WWMT publishes COVID-19 conspiracy theory, will delay airing

Kalamazoo’s mainstream TV station was set to air debunked misinformation on the origins of the new coronavirus and allegations of complicity by the U.S. government’s infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Update: since this story was first published, Sinclair Broadcast Group ordered all stations to delay airing the episode.

Kalamazoo’s most prominent TV station WWMT has published online a syndicated program of its owner, Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcasting Group, that provides air time for a conspiracy theory about the COVID-19 pandemic that has been derided as misinformation and disinformation by scientific and media experts.

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The show was set to air Sunday but has been delayed after WWMT received numerous email complaints. The website version was taken down Saturday afternoon.

The show, America This Week with Eric Bolling, included a five-minute segment with both the head of right-wing nationalist policy group Freedom Watch and a disgraced virologist, who allege COVID-19 was developed in a bioweapons laboratory in China with U.S. government assistance, including by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID).

The pair claimed to be considering a class action lawsuit against Fauci, one of the founding members of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force set up in January, for his alleged role in the pandemic.

The five-minute interview with the two was followed by a two-minute discussion with a doctor who called the claims a conspiracy theory.

The virologist was made famous earlier this year when a new video alleging COVID-19 was designed to create profit for vaccine manufacturers, called “Plandemic,” became popular on the internet before it was taken down by YouTube and Facebook and debunked by scientists and fact-checking organizations.

“Problematically, it advocated against wearing masks, claiming they would “activate” the virus, and laid the foundations for eventual refusal of a COVID-19 vaccine,” Kate Starbird, a principal investigator at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, wrote this week in an essay on disinformation in the pandemic. “Though many of these false narratives had emerged elsewhere online, the “Plandemic” video brought them together in a single, slickly produced 26-minute video. Before being removed by the platforms for containing harmful medical misinformation, the video propagated widely on Facebook and received millions of YouTube views.”

Despite being a proven way to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19, the opposition to wearing masks is partly due to the proliferation of false information.

Starbird said it’s unclear whether the video should be considered misinformation or disinformation. The London-based internet verification organization First Draft says “Disinformation is false information that’s created and shared to deliberately cause harm” and “Misinformation is false information that’s shared by people who don’t realize it’s false and don’t mean any harm. Often they’re just trying to help.”

Either way, the elevation of the content and message from the “Plandemic” video’s creators and backers can give it an appearance of legitimacy, especially if it’s broadcast by a community’s local TV station.

According to WWMT’s website, which published both a story about the America This Week episode and makes it available to watch, the July 22 episode was to air Sunday evening on both of WWMT’s digital channels 3 and CW7.

It had not been broadcast, a WWMT employee said when NowKalamazoo called the station requesting comment.

WWMT News Director Matt Johnson then issued a statement on the segment which was emailed to NowKalamazoo: “After further review of this week’s planned episode of America this Week with Eric Bolling, we have decided to delay its airing for one week. We recognize that this segment can be elevated with additional context, and as such we will spend the coming days bringing together other viewpoints to air on the show. All stations have been notified not to air this episode and will instead be re-airing last week’s episode in its place.”

Johnson was not made available for a phone interview.

Sinclair, which bought WWMT in 2011, produces or syndicates a number of programs and segments and requires local stations to air them or face repercussions, according to a former senior WWMT news employee.