Samira Ahmed: Hello and welcome to Newswatch with me, Samira Ahmed. Coming up... With protests and conspiracy theories abounding from coronavirus to QAnon, how to separate truth from fiction. We talk to Mike Wendling from the BBC News anti-disinformation unit. Last weekend saw the latest in a series of protests against mass vaccination, the compulsory wearing of facemasks, lockdowns and other coronavirus restrictions. Crowds in London were addressed by David Icke and Piers Corbyn, but Pauline Pauley watching Saturday's BBC One bulletin was prompted to ask:
Why was the anti-lockdown protest in central London not covered on tonight's bulletin? This was a major incident with over 15,000 protesters, yet you chose to ignore it. WHY?"
The protest was covered elsewhere on the BBC, including on the News Channel, but events like it have prompted similar complaints in recent weeks. Demonstrations across the country have seen claims that coronavirus does not exist or is not fatal, and also posters promoting QAnon, a bizarre theory that President Trump is waging a secret war against elite paedophiles. BBC Trending has been looking at the role of social media in news for some years, but earlier this year, the BBC set up an anti-disinformation unit specifically to examine conspiracy theories and the propaganda being spread on online forums such as Facebook. Its establishment concerned Joanne Dean, who tweeted:
This seems very sinister to me. It really isn't the role of the BBC 'Anti-Disinformation Unit' to sit in judgement of what people think.
And Neil H also dismissed what he called the "Soviet-style, Pravda" disinformation unit.
Well, one of the editors of that unit, Mike Wendling, joins me now. And Mike, you wrote a book about the online rise of the alt-right in the run up to the election of Donald Trump and had been reporting on conspiracy theories as editor of BBC Trending as well, so, thanks for coming on. Why did the BBC feel the need to set up this separate unit?
Mike Wendling: Because basically, in the world of social media, we find that conspiracy theories, disinformation, misinformation, often from individuals, groups, even nations spreads faster and farther than ever before. It's systematic and thus we need a systematic way to look at this and report on it, and to help people sift fact from fiction. One of the correspondents that you mentioned said that we are wanting to police what people think. That's not true at all. We don't want to make people think a particular way. We want to give them the facts, we want to equip them with the facts so that they know what they think.
Samira Ahmed: Coronavirus has obviously sparked a lot of conspiracy theories. We saw it in that protest in London last week. What sorts of work has the unit done on that issue?
Mike Wendling: The World Health Organisation called what happened in the wake of the pandemic an infodemic. Basically, a flood of information. Not all of it was accurate, in fact, a lot of it was not accurate or unproven or scientifically unsound. What we've been doing is we've been trying to help listeners and viewers and readers navigate some of this stuff, and to find out who is driving a lot of the viral misinformation, as well as the disinformation that's been sparked by individuals or groups, and we've even traced it back to some governments. People have died because they have gotten bad information, they've gotten wrong information about the virus. They've taken drugs that were fatal, they've taken treatments that didn't work, they've sought treatment because they heard things online about the virus that were untrue, and a whole range of things have happened to people with negative consequences because of things that they read online.
Samira Ahmed: With something like the QAnon conspiracy theory, is there a danger of giving that the very attention it craves?
Mike Wendling: Absolutely, and we always think carefully before we amplify any particular conspiracy theory or any particular influencer who's pushing a conspiracy theory. We have a pretty simple task, and one of the things that is involved in that task is whether it meets a certain sort of threshold. Is it going viral across platforms? Are not hundreds, but maybe thousands, tens of thousands, millions of people seeing it? Once it gets to a particular level where it's that widespread, and also when it's causing real-world harm, because we know that QAnon, people linked to the QAnon movement and with QAnon beliefs, have been either accused or convicted of violent acts. When it reaches that sort of level where there is actual harm involved, it's kind of our duty to take a look and do some responsible reporting around that.
Samira Ahmed: To take a recent example, there were all kinds of slanderous conspiracies being spread around ahead of the presidential debate particularly about Joe Biden. What did the unit do about those?
Mike Wendling: Well, yeah, that's very interesting. I mean, the specific rumour that we're talking about is that Joe Biden was wearing an earpiece and somehow being fed what was being said in his ear. We broke that down, we looked at the claims. We consider that actually, the earpiece conspiracy theory has been leveled at presidential candidates from both US political parties for the last 20 years. We found no basis in facts for this when we reported on it. We reported it on BBC online and on our TV and radio outlets. We look at things from a variety of perspectives. It's not as if we're only knocking down the things that might look at Joe Biden, might make Joe Biden look bad. Obviously, the President has been diagnosed with coronavirus just in the last few hours. We have seen an explosion online of conspiracy theories and unfounded rumours related to that, and we're busy reporting on that right now.
Samira Ahmed: Mike Wendling, thanks so much.
Mike Wendling: Thank you.