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Democratic senator criticizes Pence for not addressing online coronavirus misinformation

Democratic senator criticizes Pence for not addressing online coronavirus misinformation
© Aaron Schwartz

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTrump tells GSA that Biden transition can begin Hillicon Valley: Leadership changes at top cyber agency raise national security concerns | Snapchat launches in-app video platform 'Spotlight' | Uber, Lyft awarded federal transportation contract Democrats accuse GSA of undermining national security by not certifying Biden win MORE (D-Va.) on Wednesday strongly criticized Vice President Pence for not doing enough to combat the spread of misinformation online about the coronavirus in his role as the leader of the coronavirus task force. 

Warner, who serves as the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote in a letter to Pence that he was “deeply concerned” that the task force’s failure to address the online misinformation would undermine the overall response to the national threat posed by the coronavirus. 

“It is essential that the Administration communicate timely and accurate information to the American public,” Warner wrote. “This should include a coordinated effort to address potentially harmful misinformation spread through social media and other sources.”

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Warner pointed to concerns that President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Trump's remaking of the judicial system Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit MORE’s messaging around the coronavirus, which Warner described as “injudicious and false,” could lead to an increase of misinformation spread across social media platforms. 

The senator cited one specific incident last week when Trump said that Americans who suspected they had the coronavirus should continue going to work, and another incident in February when Trump said cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. were decreasing and “close to zero.”

“Such remarks stoke and legitimize already widespread online misinformation concerning the virus,” Warner emphasized to Pence. “There are indications that at least some of the misinformation is derived from, or at least amplified by, malicious foreign actors. Additional misleading statements from members of the Administration, combined with intentional falsehoods pushed by these malicious actors, will only make matters worse.”

Social media platforms and other major tech groups have struggled to address the rapid spread of misinformation around the coronavirus in recent weeks.

Warner’s letter was sent the same day top executives from groups including Twitter, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple participated in a White House summit in order to discuss ways to get accurate information out to the public about the coronavirus, but also stem the spread of misinformation. 

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"Today’s meeting outlined an initial path forward and we intend to continue this important conversation," U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios said in a statement following the summit. 

Concerns around foreign misinformation were hammered in last week when Lea Gabrielle, the coordinator for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, testified to a Senate subcommittee that foreign adversaries including Russia were trying to take advantage of concerns around the coronavirus to target Americans. 

“The coronavirus is an example of where we have seen adversaries take advantage of a health crisis where people are terrified worldwide,” Gabrielle testified. “We’ve been watching the narratives that are being pushed out, false narratives ... the entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation has been engaged in the midst of this health crisis.”