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Public Knowledge’s Internet Superfund is a Vaccine Against Toxic Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories Run Rampant

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Photo of Public Knowledge CEO Chris Lewis in August 2015 by New America used with permission

June 4, 2020 — In a video that quickly went viral, discredited medical researcher Judy Mikovits claimed that the novel coronavirus was intentionally unleashed upon the world by Bill Gates’ elite cabal and that wearing masks can worsen COVID-19 symptoms, among other conspiracies.

Facebook, YouTube and other platforms quickly scrambled to scrub “Plandemic,” which had already generated millions of views, from their platforms. But in doing so, they jiggled a hive of conspiracy theorists who have since redoubled their efforts in accelerating the spread of misinformation.

The rise and rapid spread of completely false and yet weirdly compelling news documentaries presented as truth is an example of how toxic the internet seems to have become. It’s a perfect example of what inspired the Washington-based advocacy group Public Knowledge to propose an internet “Superfund” that would “clean up” other people’s toxic messes — just as the original Superfund did in the 1980s.

‘Plandemic’ shows ‘how complex misinformation has become’

“‘Plandemic,’ I think, is a wonderful model of how complex misinformation has become,” said Lisa Macpherson, a senior fellow at Public Knowledge and lead researcher on the organization’s Superfund. Public Knowledge is a 19 year old organization that promotes freedom of expression, an open internet and access to affordable communications tools and creative works.

Photo of Public Knowledge Senior Fellow Lisa Macpherson courtesy @lisahmacpherson on Twitter

The video is “very professionally produced,” Macpherson told me in a phone interview. “It looked for all the world like a credible, professionally produced piece of content. It doesn’t have seedy production value.”

While I haven’t officially seen “Plandemic” – I didn’t want to lend credit or contribute to the spread of spurious information – I did watch a video by “Doctor Mike,” a real doctor who translates the knowledge of the medical community into accessible YouTube clips, including an analysis fact-checking the video, lie-by-lie.

The seemingly straightforward action of striking down this video is made complicated by the hydra-like nature of conspiracy content on the internet: “If I see the phrase ‘Whac-A-Mole’ one more time…” Macpherson jokingly grumbled.

Screenshot of video “Doctor Fact-Checks PLANDEMIC Conspiracy”

Banned on big tech platforms, “Plandemic” resurfaces through conspiratorial relinks

“Plandemic” has resurfaced through links that redirect to a Google Drive file containing the video, through videos that have been re-edited to fool Facebook and YouTube AI content moderation or through full-length videos appearing on obscure websites.

It’s as if the hydra is sprouting new heads that host a third eye, a shorter neck or a new face.

Not only is the beast harder to kill, but it emboldens other creatures to spring forth from the abyss. “Plandemic” and similar misinformation stunts have “activated very strong and active anti-vax communities” who are often motivated to act in anticipation of a vaccine, Macpherson said.

Engraving of Hercules battling the hydra

If dangerous falsehoods about the coronavirus were to be accepted by even a small portion of the population, it would cause pockets of outbursts in the future.

It’s “quite literally life or death,” Macpherson said. In the long run, she added, it will likely cause “continued undermining in the belief of our authorities, the government, journalism [and] trust and belief in each other as citizens.”

An Internet Superfund to clean up other people’s toxic messes

“As the platforms have gained power and influence and a role in people’s lives, like many industries before them, [the big tech platforms] need to take accountability,” Macpherson said. That need for accountability, she said, motivates her research into a proposed Internet Superfund that would compel platforms to pay local journalists and fact-checking organizations to perform an information-detox service.

Public Knowledge’s Superfund is designed to call to mind the Superfund enacted in the 1980s by the Environmental Protection Agency. That Superfund identifies parties responsible for hazardous substances released into the environment and either compels polluters to clean up the sites or bills them polluters for a clean-up service provided by another organization.

The proposal is accompanied by another effort of Public Knowledge: their misinformation tracker. The tracker provides a roundup of the latest chatter in the news regarding misinformation, listing “primary case studies” such as Google and Facebook and “secondary case studies” such as Pinterest and TikTok.

“It’s a novel idea,” Public Knowledge CEO Chris Lewis said about the Superfund, comparing today’s online misinformation to environmental pollution.

Platforms have an incentive to promote content that keep users on platforms, which means they often highlight “content that draws [users] for a reaction … That content isn’t always factual, and it can be hateful,” Lewis said.

In light of this behavior, Lewis said it was fair for tech platforms to be treated like companies compelled to act by the environmental Superfund.

Public Knowledge is still waiting for opposition it expects to the ‘Internet Superfund’

It’s too early to say how an Internet Superfund will be received by big tech.

“I think we’re still waiting to see who disagrees with the idea,” Lewis said, since the proposed superfund was only recently announced.

But one can take guesses. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Facebook executives shelved internal research suggesting that aspects of their platform exacerbate polarization and sow misinformation and conspiracies.

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of the biggest tech platform on the planet, will probably have something to say about an Internet Superfund that interferes with his business model.

Lewis has identified some potential helpers in the halls of Congress. “Certainly, it starts with members of the Senate Commerce Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee,” he said.

Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif might be likely to support such a proposal, Lewis added.

He also expressed hope that Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., would take an active interest in any proposed legislation after she signaled approval at a Senate Commerce hearing in May, saying that she was “intrigued” by Public Knowledge’s proposal.

Screenshot of Sen. Maria Cantwell from a Senate Commerce hearing in May 2020

Dealing with bad information is only half the problem: How to support good information?

Just as important as the compulsion part of the proposed Superfund is the development of a new revenue stream to support local journalism.

Policy backing is necessary to ensure the model works, Lewis told me, because he “certainly [doesn’t] want the opportunity to support local journalism… to be subjected the charitable capabilities of a technology company.”

Facebook announced a donation of $1 million to local journalism organizations in March in response to the crisis, and other tech companies have followed suit. The generous actions of tech companies have been criticized by some for appearing to be temporary measures to help ameliorate the so-called Techlash.

However, Lewis also balked at suggesting a fully compulsory approach. “We’re looking for a market-based solution,” he assured me.

The spread of misinformation is sometimes called a second virus, materializing in Facebook’s Newsfeed and YouTube’s “Recommended for you” playlist to target the malicious and unwitting.

“It’s not an easy problem,” admitted Macpherson.

Health

States Lagging on Bills to Implement 988 Suicide Hotline Mandate as Deadline Approaches

As of June 7, 20 states have passed legislation to implement the 988 suicide hotline mandate, according to FCC data.

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Screenshot from the FCBA event on June 8

WASHINGTON, June 15, 2022 – Only 20 out of the 35 states that have introduced legislation for a new suicide hotline have made the legislation law as of June 7, according to information from the Federal Communications Commission, as the July 16 implementation deadline nears.

States are required to implement the infrastructure and the funding for a 988 number that will go to the National Suicide Hotline, but only four states have passed bills to finance it, Emily Caditz, attorney advisor of the Wireline Competition Bureau under the FCC, said at a Federal Communication Bar Association event last week. Those states – Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington – fund the implementation from fees on cellphone lines.

James Wright, chief of crisis center operations at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, suggested that “key partnerships between state and local governments” will be necessary to help states meet this deadline.

Laura Evans, director of national and state policy at Vibrant Emotional Health, said this funding will “make sure we have robust capacity for the anticipated 9-12 million contacts we expect to come in that first year.”

The commission ordered the adoption of the nationwide line nearly two years ago, on July 16, 2020.

According to the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, “988 is designated as the universal telephone number within the United States for the purpose of the national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system operated through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.”

“America’s suicide rate is at its highest since World War II,” said former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at an FCC event in December of 2019. “A simple three-digit code for a suicide hotline can reduce the mental stigma surrounding mental health and ultimately save lives.

Caditz said the implementation of text messaging “is especially popular with groups that are at heightened risk of suicide or mental health crises, including teenagers and young adults and individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, deafblind, or speech disabled.”

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Health

Digital Literacy Training Needed for Optimal Telehealth Outcomes, Healthcare Reps Say

Digital literacy should be a priority to unlock telehealth’s potential, a telehealth event heard.

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Photo of telehealth consultation from Healthcare IT News

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2022 – Digital literacy training should be a priority for providers and consumers to improve telehealth outcomes, experts said at a conference Tuesday.

Digital literacy training will unlock telehealth’s potential to improve health outcomes, according to the event’s experts, including improving treatment for chronic diseases, improving patient-doctor relationships, and providing easier medical access for those without access to transportation.

Julia Skapik of the National Association of Community Health Centers said at the National Telehealth Conference on Tuesday that both patients and clinicians need to be trained on how to use tools that allow both parties to communicate remotely.

Skapik said her association has plans to implement training for providers to utilize tech opportunities, such as patient portals to best engage patients.

Ann Mond Johnson from the American Telemedicine Association agreed that telehealth will improve health outcomes by giving proper training to utilize the technology to offer the services.

The Federal Communications Commission announced its telehealth program in April 2021, which set aside $200 million for health institutions to provide remote care for patients.

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Expert Opinion

Craig Settles and Sean Gonsalves: Telehealth For All is a ‘Stroke of Genius’

Without access to a secure broadband connection, the co-author of this Expert Opinion would have died.

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Craig Settles (left) and Sean Gonsalves are the authors of this Expert Opinion.

My colleague Craig Settles likes to say he had a “stroke of genius” when writing his last book about building the gigabit city. “I literally had an ischemic stroke at 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday night,” he recalls. “If I had been in a low-income urban community with poor communication infrastructure, or in a rural area with bad broadband, I’d probably be dead.”

The “genius” part was realizing broadband is magic that directly or indirectly enables us to perform minor and major miracles that we could not do before, but faster and easier.

When Craig moved to Alameda, California, situated less than five miles from the heart of Silicon Valley, he could not get cell service without a signal booster, and even then it was sketchy. Several years later the service was better, which allowed him to speed-dial his best friend who called 9-1-1.

The neurologist who set up the stroke center in Alameda Hospital had mirrored much of its technology and servers in her home so she could see everything the ER staff was seeing as they administered life-saving procedures within 25 minutes of Craig’s gurney hitting the ER door.

While Craig counts his blessings, over 14 million urban households do not have broadband in their home – 75 percent of whom are African American and other people of color. Millions more technically have home Internet service but don’t have the connection speeds and capacity to use the applications needed for remote work and school, or telehealth.

And don’t forget the 4 million rural homes that do not have broadband subscriptions.

Broadband as Social Determinant of Health

The essential nature of broadband came to the fore with the onset of the pandemic. And it compelled states and local communities across the nation to take the connectivity crisis far more seriously, especially with the influx of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Although advocates commonly, and understandably, tout the importance of broadband access in the context of remote work and schooling, what often gets overlooked are the transformative powers of telehealth and its potential to drive broadband adoption.

It’s no exaggeration to say that broadband is a major social determinant of individual health as it enables access to virtual healthcare and facilitates a host of other things critical to health, such as education, employment, housing, and social services, all of which require broadband, most especially for telehealth applications.

More than video chats with your doctor, telehealth uses high-speed Internet connectivity to observe, diagnose, initiate or otherwise medically intervene, administer, monitor, record, and/or report on the continuum of care. Public health, in particular, can leverage telehealth to a great advantage.

Yes, healthcare providers are increasingly integrating telehealth into the delivery of care. But, if the patients most in need of better access to healthcare do not have access to broadband, as well as computing devices and digital skills, tremendous healthcare benefits and cost-savings will be needlessly missed.

This suggests that “fiscally conservative” elected officials, many of whom claim to support universal access to broadband while lamenting the high cost of healthcare, have been thinking about this whole thing backwards. Instead of wailing about the cost of building universal robust broadband infrastructure that could be used for telehealth, why not flip the script?

Achieving universal broadband infrastructure that would last a lifetime would cost on the order of $100 billion, which is just two and a half percent of what we spend on healthcare in this country every single year. Hundreds of academic and industry studies say that even the most conservative telehealth initiatives save more than two and a half percent of system costs.

Talk about a return-on-investment! A hint of this can be seen in a study done by the National Center for Biotechnology Information which found there were as many as 3.5 million potential preventable adult inpatient hospital stays in 2017 alone. That amounted to $33.7 billion in health care costs just for that year.

Telehealth can eliminate many of those stays. And in terms of improving health outcomes, the study further found that the elderly, men, Black communities, and those insured with Medicaid would reap the biggest benefits.

So why not exploit the math, and pay for broadband using healthcare savings? Let’s connect every home, hospital, and community anchor institution in the country to robust broadband, and transform healthcare while bringing it into the 21st century. The municipal broadband model in which local communities build and own the infrastructure is ideal.

Telehealth Can Drive Broadband Adoption

Looking at it this way, universal access to telehealth has the potential to simultaneously solve the connectivity crisis and ensure that millions of families can lead healthier lives.

Here are six tactical ways of using telehealth to maximize public health in a community along with increasing broadband adoption.

  1. Re-inventing the doctor’s office visit for a variety of healthcare practices

Understanding telehealth, all you need are four walls, an Internet connection, a computer, a healthcare partner, and a healthy imagination to create a range of practical telehealth solutions.

Transform barbershops and hair salons into Covid vaccination and hypertension screening centers. The school nurse’s office can now become school telehealth centers. Libraries are starting to add telehealth kiosks.

Libraries Without Borders uses interactive Web health content, laptops, and wireless gear to outfit intercity laundromats on Saturdays. Tucson used ARPA funds to build out a wireless network on top of the city’s fiber infrastructure and gave 5,000 low-income homes the ability to have telehealth resources.

  1.  Telehealth can marry chronic healthcare, home care, and public health

Frederick Memorial now distributes hundreds of tablet computers for remote patient monitoring  in patients homes to check their vital signs, changing medical conditions and treatments, with data that goes to the hospital daily.

Urban hospitals should partner with ISPs to leverage the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program subsidy of up to $30 per month for Internet service and up to $75/month for households on Tribal lands. ACP also offers a $100 discount on computing devices.

  1. Enhance the emergency response and Emergency Department to save more lives and money.

African Americans and other populations of color have the highest rates of strokes, heart attacks, and other medical trauma. We could reverse the trend of hospitals that abandon poor urban communities and replace them with city telestroke or telehealth critical care “broadband subnetworks” that are hosted by major hospitals and linked to Federally Qualified Health Center, clinics, and other facilities.

  1. Expand efficiency of mental healthcare delivery

Mental health professionals getting to see patients in their homes and therefore providing an alternative to needing to go to a therapist’s office can not only eliminate no-show appointments but can provide those most in need of therapy with broader access to a variety of specialists.

Leveraging telehealth can be especially empowering for underserved communities in which approximately 30% of African American adults with mental illness receive treatment each year, compared to the U.S. average of 43%, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

But as Carly McCord, Director of Clinical Services at the Texas A&M Telehealth Counseling Clinic, rightly points out: “Often we’re talking about intensive therapy, like treating PTSD, which you can’t do with crappy Internet connections. When your patient’s disclosing a trauma and your connection glitches, or you miss a word and have to say, ‘I’m sorry. Can you repeat that? ‘This is a huge problem.”

  1. Improving senior care and facilitating aging in place for our nearly 60 million seniors

Three-in-four older Americans want to stay in their homes and age in place, according to a AARP survey. And, if offered a choice, about 53 percent of respondents say they would prefer to have their health care needs managed by a mix of medical staff and healthcare technology.

A key broadband element in this telehealth equation is “smart home” technologies that include wirelessly-controlled sensors. Some sensors now can determine whether a person sat up in bed or actually fell on the floor, if patients are eating regularly, or if they are taking their medications on time.

  1. Re-imagining what hospital care can be

In areas prone to natural disasters, make prior arrangements with hotels, college dorms, warehouses, and other facilities where you can bring in generators, computers, telehealth equipment, and wireless intranets.

Use these buildings for seniors with health conditions who have been displaced: people with chronic illnesses and patients with non-serious injuries from the disaster should those people not have easy access to other residential or healthcare facilities.

Building and subsidizing access to robust community-owned broadband networks is a wise investment because it will improve health outcomes and return significant community savings for decades to come.

And with a flood of federal funds available to build broadband infrastructure and advance digital equity, we have a once-in-a-life opportunity to stitch this all together and deliver telehealth for all.

Sean Gonsalves is a Senior Reporter, Editor and Communication Team Lead for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative. Saved from a stroke by telehealth, Craig Settles pays it forward by uniting community broadband teams and healthcare stakeholders through telehealth-broadband integration initiatives. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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