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Coronavirus misinformation crosses divides to infect black social media



There’s a kind of public and collective schadenfreude taking shape on black Twitter.

It began after Diamond and Silk, among the best known and most outspoken black supporters of President Donald Trump, were reported to have parted ways with Fox News after they promulgated unproven and dangerous medical advice, false claims, conspiracy theories and misinformation about the coronavirus outbreak.

Some of the posts on the women’s social media accounts have been removed, and at least one account was briefly suspended. The women, who describe themselves as “opinionators,” falsely told their online and television fans that the coronavirus was a ruse to fell Trump in the November election, as well as a fantastic plot crafted and controlled by the “globalist elitists” to manipulate Americans and “wreak havoc on our lives.” They recommended that more Americans should not practice social distancing based on the as-yet medically unproven idea that it would confer lasting immunity against the coronavirus to more of the population.

Fox News, as well as Diamond and Silk, did not respond to requests for comment. But black Twitter, and indeed much of Twitter in general, has had no shortage of responses.

The irony is that the misinformation amplified by Diamond and Silk and others has gained traction in conservative, mostly white social media spaces and black, mostly left-leaning online spaces, too. Concepts similar enough to pass as first cousins on the misinformation family tree have proliferated in social media spaces that do not usually cross or blend.

One example: false conspiracy theories related to the tech billionaire Bill Gates’ health care philanthropy. In conservative white spaces, there are unsubstantiated claims that the coronavirus is Gates’ route to disease profit, a crafty government surveillance system or a man-made population-control mechanism with unfair economic consequences. When those fictional claims moved to conservative black Twitter, misinformation cast the virus as a black population reduction device, a useful if unplanned excuse for aggressive and unfair government monitoring or a poverty boosting tool. Once the misinformation circulated among left-leaning black social media, it often described the coronavirus and the resulting disproportionate death toll as racial population shaping. In those circles, social distancing measures were also sometimes described as a green light for abusive policing.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

“What you have are the same, often very dangerous, ideas repackaged in a way that makes sense to very different groups of people,” said Shireen Mitchell, a researcher who studies online disinformation and harassment. “And it’s distrust in government, in the establishment, in institutions that are the connective tissue — they’re a prevailing theme that makes these wild ideas seem true to those who believe.”

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Years before the word Gamergate took on public meaning, Mitchell identified a pattern of harassment and doxing used to silence black women and girls. Then the same thing began happening to white women in gaming forums. In 2015, Mitchell and a small group of other black feminists began sounding the alarm about suspicious social media posts. They were written by people no one in the activist community had ever heard of, and they relied on sometimes laughable attempts at the black vernacular and cartoonishly offensive, extreme versions of activist ideas. It seemed to Mitchell then that someone was trying to stir up animosity and confusion.

Now, something strange is happening with coronavirus misinformation, and she is deeply concerned that it could have real consequences, such as online voter suppression, the focus of her current work. A lot of coronavirus myths are showing up in social media spaces where voting is the ostensible topic of conversation.

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It was there at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic that utterly false claims of black immunity spread like weeds. That happened while COVID-19 actually proliferated in the United States in ways that would ultimately produce a disproportionate death toll among black, Latino and Native Americans.

Later, unproven stories took hold that the virus was the work product of labs in various countries, including China and the U.S., followed by false claims about vaccine-related moneymaking schemes controlled by a tech billionaire and about the virus’ being spread by cellphone technology. All three ideas jumped from mostly white, conservative circles to mostly black and politically liberal ones, where they have often been amplified by black social media influencers and celebrities.

The problem is so serious that the World Health Organization has called it an “infodemic,” and it secured unprecedented cooperation from many American social media companies to tag, remove and otherwise try to limit the spread of misinformation. But that has had only limited success.

In the early weeks of the crisis in the U.S., there was already some evidence that critical differences of opinion had emerged along racial lines. In a March survey of 673 adults by Northwestern University’s Center for Applied Health Research on Aging, analysts found that black respondents described themselves as less worried and viewed themselves as less likely to get COVID-19, yet also felt less prepared for an outbreak compared to white Americans.

“Bad actors — foreign and domestic — have seized this public health crisis as an opportunity to generate panic and sow distrust by spreading disinformation, often targeted at communities of color,” Ben Block, digital rapid response director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an email. “Amid a chaotic response from the Trump Administration and House Republicans dismissing the guidance of medical professionals, these dangerous disinformation campaigns that spread demonstrably false narratives pose serious threats.”

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The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a party arm dedicated to electing Democrats to the House, began tracking online misinformation after the 2016 election. In March, the organization’s digital rapid response team and an outside research agency noticed an uptick in coronavirus misinformation circulating heavily among black social media users.

“I am not surprised that disinformation is being spread,” Block said in an interview. “I am surprised and troubled by the fact that COVID-19 is being used as a hook and as a way to further spread that disinformation, attaching a pandemic to issues such as voting rights and … health care.”

Democrats fear that misinformation about the disease, as well as some longstanding false claims by Republicans about widespread voter fraud, will dampen support for alternatives to in-person voting.

The risks are clear: At least 52 cases of COVID-19 have been possibly linked to in-person voting or polling site work during Wisconsin’s primary April 7.

A March survey 673 adults found that black respondents described themselves as less worried and viewed themselves as less likely to get COVID-19, yet also felt less prepared for an outbreak compared to white Americans.Frank Franklin II / AP

“There are tons of narratives that present themselves every day,” said Jacquelyn Mason, a research analyst at First Draft News who is studying disinformation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the election. “Considering the current climate and how detrimental that could be to a lot of people’s health and welfare, we decided to do some work in this world, where you can really begin to see some consistent themes circulating in different communities.”

In April, anti-social distancing sentiment moved from online commentary to protests at some statehouses. Researchers and reporters have uncovered the role of conservative commentators and commercially motivated online agitators in drawing mostly white and conservative protesters to the events. There, because of a lack of social distancing and inconsistent mask use, the virus itself may have spread.

Mason said she has also noted a growing number of posts in black social media networks expressing fatalistic, infection-is-inevitable messages. She said rumors have increased among black people on social media about hydroxychloroquine — a longtime anti-malarial medication that was touted by Trump as a treatment for COVID-19 and purchased by the Bureau of Prisons but later proven to be dangerous or ineffective. Unsubstantiated claims have spread that it will be tested on black subjects who are unwilling or have not been informed. Both could dampen acceptance of future treatments and vaccines.

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“If we take a laundry list of all the ways America has done black folks, Latino folks, Native American folks, Asian folks wrong, all sorts of things start to feel very plausible,” said Niambi Carter, an assistant professor of political science at Howard University who researches and writes about public opinion and political behavior. “There is a well-earned distrust in some communities that allow conspiracy theories to flourish. They seem to explain real things, even if totally false. And where black people are concerned, sometimes the seemingly unbelievable turns out to be true.”

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The truth, Carter said, is that in black America, “all roads effectively lead back to Tuskegee.” That is a reference to the 40-year government-funded experiment conducted on hundreds of black men who, without their knowledge, were not treated for syphilis but instead were allowed to suffer and die from it and pass it on to others. It ended in 1972. The U.S. government has also been involved in birth control experiments and involuntary sterilization programs conducted in Puerto Rico and on the mainland on Native American women, as well as the poor.

Belief in conspiracy theories and the spread of misinformation does not begin and end with black social media users, said Michelle Amazeen, an assistant professor of mass communications specializing in media, propaganda and misinformation at Boston University.

What Amazeen and her research partner, Erik Bucy, a professor of strategic communication at Texas Tech University, found is that what makes a person vulnerable to misinformation is media knowledge — how well a person understands how news is gathered and what standards a piece must meet for publication or broadcast at different types of outlets and, therefore, which sites, publications and outlets are reputable and reliable sources of accurate information.

People most vulnerable to misinformation, they found, were more likely to believe and share “news” gleaned on social media. They also found that those people were more likely to overestimate how well they understood a topic.

“It’s really like 2016 again,” Bucy said. “The crisis of COVID has produced this explosion of scams, misinformation and maybe more. There’s all kinds of great, high-quality, accurate information out there, but you have to go and get it and be aware of where to find it. And that, it turns out, is the problem for a lot of people.”

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Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster



Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”


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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

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Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.


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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

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Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.


Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

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Survey says: Amazon, Google more trusted with your personal data than Apple is




MacRumors reveals that more people feel better with their personal data in the hands of Amazon and Google than Apple’s. Companies that the public really doesn’t trust when it comes to their personal data include Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.

The survey asked over 1,000 internet users in the U.S. how much they trusted certain companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon to handle their user data and browsing activity responsibly.

Amazon and Google are considered by survey respondents to be more trustworthy than Apple

Those surveyed were asked whether they trusted these firms with their personal data “a great deal,” “a good amount,” “not much,” or “not at all.” Respondents could also answer that they had no opinion about a particular company. 18% of those polled said that they trust Apple “a great deal” which topped the 14% received by Google and Amazon.

However, 39% said that they trust Amazon  by “a good amount” with Google picking up 34% of the votes in that same category. Only 26% of those answering said that they trust Apple by “a good amount.” The first two responses, “a great deal” and “a good amount,” are considered positive replies for a company. “Not much” and “not at all” are considered negative responses.

By adding up the scores in the positive categories,

Apple tallied a score of 44% (18% said it trusted Apple with its personal data “a great deal” while 26% said it trusted Apple “a good amount”). But that placed the tech giant third after Amazon’s 53% and Google’s 48%. After Apple, Microsoft finished fourth with 43%, YouTube (which is owned by Google) was fifth with 35%, and Facebook was sixth at 20%.

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Rounding out the remainder of the nine firms in the survey, Instagram placed seventh with a positive score of 19%, WhatsApp was eighth with a score of 15%, and TikTok was last at 12%.

Looking at the scoring for the two negative responses (“not much,” or “not at all”), Facebook had a combined negative score of 72% making it the least trusted company in the survey. TikTok was next at 63% with Instagram following at 60%. WhatsApp and YouTube were both in the middle of the pact at 53% followed next by Google and Microsoft at 47% and 42% respectively. Apple and Amazon each had the lowest combined negative scores at 40% each.

74% of those surveyed called targeted online ads invasive

The survey also found that a whopping 82% of respondents found targeted online ads annoying and 74% called them invasive. Just 27% found such ads helpful. This response doesn’t exactly track the 62% of iOS users who have used Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature to opt-out of being tracked while browsing websites and using apps. The tracking allows third-party firms to send users targeted ads online which is something that they cannot do to users who have opted out.

The 38% of iOS users who decided not to opt out of being tracked might have done so because they find it convenient to receive targeted ads about a certain product that they looked up online. But is ATT actually doing anything?

Marketing strategy consultant Eric Seufert said last summer, “Anyone opting out of tracking right now is basically having the same level of data collected as they were before. Apple hasn’t actually deterred the behavior that they have called out as being so reprehensible, so they are kind of complicit in it happening.”

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The Financial Times says that iPhone users are being lumped together by certain behaviors instead of unique ID numbers in order to send targeted ads. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that the company is working to rebuild its ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data.”

Aggregated data is a collection of individual data that is used to create high-level data. Anonymized data is data that removes any information that can be used to identify the people in a group.

When consumers were asked how often do they think that their phones or other tech devices are listening in to them in ways that they didn’t agree to, 72% answered “very often” or “somewhat often.” 28% responded by saying “rarely” or “never.”

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Google’s John Mueller on Brand Mentions via @sejournal, @martinibuster



Google’s John Mueller was asked if “brand mentions” helped with SEO and rankings. John Mueller explained, in detail, how brand mentions are not anything used at Google.

What’s A Brand Mention?

A brand mention is when one website mentions another website. There is an idea in the SEO community that when a website mentions another website’s domain name or URL that Google will see this and count it the same as a link.

Brand Mentions are also known as an implied link. Much was written about this ten years ago after a Google patent that mentions “implied links” surfaced.

There has never been a solid review of why the idea of “brand mentions” has nothing to do with this patent, but I’ll provide a shortened version later in this article.

John Mueller Discussing Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

Do Brand Mentions Help With Rankings?

The person asking the question wanted to know about brand mentions for the purpose of ranking. The person asking the question has good reason to ask it because the idea of “brand mentions” has never been definitively reviewed.


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The person asked the question:

“Do brand mentions without a link help with SEO rankings?”

Google Does Not Use Brand Mentions

Google’s John Mueller answered that Google does not use the “brand mentions” for any link related purpose.

Mueller explained:

“From my point of view, I don’t think we use those at all for things like PageRank or understanding the link graph of a website.

And just a plain mention is sometimes kind of tricky to figure out anyway.”

That part about it being tricky is interesting.

He didn’t elaborate on why it’s tricky until later in the video where he says it’s hard to understand the subjective context of a website mentioning another website.

Brand Mentions Are Useful For Building Awareness

Mueller next says that brand mentions may be useful for helping to get the word out about a site, which is about building popularity.

Mueller continued:

“But it can be something that makes people aware of your brand, and from that point of view, could be something where indirectly you might have some kind of an effect from that in that they search for your brand and then …obviously, if they’re searching for your brand then hopefully they find you right away and then they can go to your website.

And if they like what they see there, then again, they can go off and recommend that to other people as well.”


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“Brand Mentions” Are Problematic

Later on at the 58 minute mark another person brings the topic back up and asks how Google could handle spam sites that are mentioning a brand in a negative way.

The person said that one can disavow links but one cannot disavow a “brand mention.”

Mueller agreed and said that’s one of things that makes brand mentions difficult to use for ranking purposes.

John Mueller explained:

“Kind of understanding the almost the subjective context of the mention is really hard.

Is it like a positive mention or a negative mention?

Is it a sarcastic positive mention or a sarcastic negative mention? How can you even tell?

And all of that, together with the fact that there are lots of spammy sites out there and sometimes they just spin content, sometimes they’re malicious with regards to the content that they create…

All of that, I think, makes it really hard to say we can just use that as the same as a link.

…It’s just, I think, too confusing to use as a clear signal.”

Where “Brand Mentions” Come From

The idea of “brand mentions” has bounced around for over ten years.

There were no research papers or patents to support it. “Brand mentions” is literally an idea that someone invented out of thin air.

However the “brand mention” idea took off in 2012 when a patent surfaced that seemed to confirm the idea of brand mentions.

There’s a whole long story to this so I’m just going to condense it.

There’s a patent from 2012 that was misinterpreted in several different ways because most people at the time, myself included, did not read the entire patent from beginning to end.

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The patent itself is about ranking web pages.

The structure of most Google patents consist of introductory paragraphs that discuss what the patent is about and those paragraphs are followed by pages of in-depth description of the details.

The introductory paragraphs that explain what it’s about states:

“Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs… for ranking search results.”


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Pretty much nobody read that beginning part of the patent.

Everyone focused on a single paragraph in the middle of the patent (page 9 out of 16 pages).

In that paragraph there is a mention of something called “implied links.”

The word “implied” is only mentioned four times in the entire patent and all four times are contained within that single paragraph.

So when this patent was discovered, the SEO industry focused on that single paragraph as proof that Google uses brand mentions.

In order to understand what an “implied link” is, you have to scroll all the way back up to the opening paragraphs where the Google patent authors describe something called a “reference query” that is not a link but is nevertheless used for ranking purposes just like a link.

What Is A Reference Query?

A reference query is a search query that contains a reference to a URL or a domain name.

The patent states:

“A reference query for a particular group of resources can be a previously submitted search query that has been categorized as referring to a resource in the particular group of resources.”


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Elsewhere the patent provides a more specific explanation:

“A query can be classified as referring to a particular resource if the query includes a term that is recognized by the system as referring to the particular resource.

…search queries including the term “” can be classified as referring to that home page.”

The summary of the patent, which comes at the beginning of the document, states that it’s about establishing which links to a website are independent and also counting reference queries and with that information creating a “modification factor” which is used to rank web pages.

“…determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective count of reference queries; determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective group-specific modification factor, wherein the group-specific modification factor for each group is based on the count of independent links and the count of reference queries for the group;”

The entire patent largely rests on those two very important factors, a count of independent inbound links and the count of reference queries. The phrases reference query and reference queries are used 39 times in the patent.

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As noted above, the reference query is used for ranking purposes like a link, but it’s not a link.

The patent states:

“An implied link is a reference to a target resource…”

It’s clear that in this patent, when it mentions the implied link, it’s talking about reference queries, which as explained above simply means when people search using keywords and the domain name of a website.

Idea of Brand Mentions Is False

The whole idea of “brand mentions” became a part of SEO belief systems because of how that patent was misinterpreted.

But now you have the facts and know why “brand mentions” is not real thing.

Plus John Mueller confirmed it.

“Brand mentions” is something completely random that someone in the SEO community invented out of thin air.


Ranking Search Results Patent

Watch John Mueller discuss “brand mentions” at 44:10 Minute Mark and the brand Mentions second part begins at the 58:12 minute mark

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