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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

Senate Subcommittee Hears Broadband Affordability, Regulatory Flex Key to Reducing Hospital Burdens

Health providers testified before a Senate subcommittee that Congress should be open to all forms of telehealth.

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WASHINGTON, October 7, 2021 – A Senate subcommittee heard Thursday that affordability is the greatest barrier to broadband adoption and that lawmakers should exercise regulatory flexibility when it comes to the forms of telehealth to help reduce inessential hospital visits.

Covid-19 often brings about extreme shortness of breath, the severity of which is best assessed by a doctor, Deanna Larson, president of Avel eCARE, told the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, which convened a hearing on the state of telehealth and removing barriers to access and improving patient outcomes.

Patients with affordable, high speed internet access can be monitored at home by doctors so that they don’t enter an emergency room or take up a hospital bed prematurely, she said.

Larson urged Congress to extend or make permanent their regulatory flexibility toward telehealth especially as it relates to being neutral on the kinds of telemedicine, such as phone-only care, asynchronous care, and remote patient monitoring. An economic benefit of which would be keeping medical commerce local, she said. Patients wouldn’t be required as often to move to a higher level of care out of town.

Physicians would have 24-hour access to the patient through video calls, monitoring patients in a way which significantly lightens the burdens of the healthcare system, added Larson. With telehealth, doctors can advise patients on exactly when and if they need to go to an emergency room.

Steps to improve telehealth

The committee also heard testimony from Sterling Ransone Jr., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Ransone, a strong proponent of telehealth, has found that the digital divide touches rural, tribal and urban communities alike and proposed a series of steps Congress could take to increase public health through broadband policy, including investing in universal affordable broadband service, digital literacy services, end-user devices, audio-only telehealth and data collection in the determinants and outcomes of telehealth as it relates to key factors such as race, gender, ethnicity and language.

Defining broadband as a social determinant of health, Ransone highlighted that affordability is possibly the greatest barrier to broadband adoption and that affordability and access disproportionately affect rural communities.

Sanjeev Arora, founder of Project ECHO and distinguished professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico, agreed: “expanding access to high-quality, high-speed broadband connectivity is critical. It’s a prerequisite for the success of any telehealth model in rural communities and urban underserved areas.”

Telehealth isn’t just vital and broadly popular, it is cost saving. Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, who also appeared before the subcommittee, shared an estimate that widespread telehealth availability could save the health care system $305 billion a year.

Carr, in an effort to reduce inessential hospital visits and decrease the risk of spreading Covid-19, endorsed the CONNECT for Health Act, the RUSH Act of 2021, the Telehealth Modernization Act, and the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act, which in combination would remove geographic restrictions to telehealth services, foster use of telehealth in skilled nursing facilities, grant the Secretary of Health and Human Services greater ability to reduce telehealth restrictions and more.

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Expert Opinion

Craig Settles: Libraries, Barbershops and Salons Tackle TeleHealthcare Gap

Craig Settles describes the important role that community institutions have played in promoting connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Photo of Urban Kutz Barbershops owner Waverly Willis getting his blood pressure checked used with permission

Today, Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass., Senator Chris Van Hollen,D-Maryland, and Representative Grace Meng, D-N.Y., led 40 members of Congress to introduce the Securing Universal Communications Connectivity to Ensure Students Succeed (SUCCESS) Act. The bill would extend the Emergency Connectivity Fund by five years and provide $8 billion a year to schools and libraries for student connectivity off-campus.

Barbershops and hair salons are long-time anchor institutions in African-American communities that have shown promise for advancing telehealth. Their partnering with libraries (a broadband anchor institution), and the Biden Administration’s enlisting of 1,000 shops and salons to help combat COVID-19, telehealth and public health in these communities could go into overdrive.

Missing their July 4 COVID-19 vaccination goals, the Biden Administration raised money to transform the shops into mini-medical centers. This success is motivating shop owners to do more. As one of the targets for $7 billion in broadband funds, libraries are idea partners that can provide broadband services, digital content, and digital and health literacy shops’ customers. 

Mike Brown manages a barbershop in Hyattsville, Maryland, and participated in the vaccination program. Brown and others owners talks with their customer about how the vaccines have been proven to work. “I use my platform to advocate for truth and dispel myths,” said Mr. Brown in an Wall Street Journal article, who has also held a vaccination clinic in his shop. “I’ve gotten about 60% of my clients to get vaccinated.”

The program has opened shop owners’ eyes to the power they have to make a difference in the healthcare of their communities. It’s a logical transition from the vaccination program to hypertension screening. Urban Kutz Barbershops in Cleveland have been screening customers for 12 years, recently with telehealth assistance from the famed Cleveland Clinic’s. 

Owner Waverley Willis says “Barbers and hairdressers are part-time marriage counselors, psychiatrists, spiritual advisers, and expert listeners. So many customers listen to our medical advice.” He has made a noticeable impact on many of his customers’ healthy eating habits as well.

Think differently about broadband, public health and telehealth

On July 1, the Federal Communications Commission began a 45-day Emergency Connectivity Fund of $7.1 billion in broadband and digital technology funding to support libraries and schools. By August 13, libraries interested in grants from the program must present a proposal on how they plan to spend money for libraries laptops, hotspots, Internet services, and other resources to advance education and remote learning. 

A generous interpretation of “education“ enables libraries to serve any patrons with broadband. If libraries are situated in areas in which there are no ISP services, they can request money from ECF to build their own broadband infrastructure for unserved patrons. Unlike traditional E-rate proposals, ECF doesn’t require a competitive bid for services, meaning libraries can present a quote from the first vender they contact.

Libraries partnering with shops and healthcare organization could give shops laptops, telehealth software, and portable hotspots to provide hypertension screening and other healthcare services that are suited to their customers’ needs up to three years. Shop owners often don’t have computing devices or Internet access in their shops. Telehealth devices such as portable digital blood pressure monitors and digital scales will have to be provided separately and possibly through funds from another government agency such as Health & Human Services.

For hypertension screening, for example, shops can take customers’ blood pressures digitally. The healthcare provider takes that data through telehealth and recommends treatment when necessary or advisable. The partner likely would have established rates for their healthcare services. Shops can then decide on additional telehealth services they want to provide.

The shops could work with libraries to develop health information and interactive Web content to reduce hypertension and other medical issues through healthier living, plus the libraries can provide telehealth services beyond what the shops can do.  

Libraries and shops can also designate customers who need a laptop, hotspots and telehealth software for chronic illnesses such as severe hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, mental health treatments, and so forth. However, these devices in this scenario would need to be given out for longer periods then just a couple of weeks. For occasional medical appointments, libraries can loan out laptops and hotspots for limited times such as two or three weeks. Libraries are good at delivering digital training and literacy programs.

Why barbershops, hair salons and libraries? 

Facilitating telehealth and healthcare does have an educational element for barbershop and hair salon customers as well as for general library patrons. These health services and information help both groups of people learn more about their own health, enables them to react effectively to medical issues, and be more proactive in taking care of their health.  

The ability for shops and salons to reach and impact African-American communities is legendary. “This type of barbershop health initiative has been shown to be effective,” said Cameron Webb, a senior White House health equity adviser on the coronavirus. Willis adds, “On more than one occasion, a guy’s blood pressure would be so high we would urge him to skip the haircut and go straight to the emergency room.”

The author of this opinion is municipal broadband expert and industry analyst Craig Settles.

Libraries have years of experience introducing new technology such as broadband to underserved populations. Matt McLain, Associate Director for Community Engagement at Salt Lake County Library, said, “We’ve had a pretty good amount of success reaching Hispanic populations at their markets. We have Asian markets out here too. And our health initiatives are quite important with the church leadership in these communities.”

The healthcare and broadband gaps are real and they are deadly! So many elements of the COVID pandemic reiterates the deadliness of those gaps. According to the Centers for Disease Control, of the data collected as of June 14 nearly two-thirds of people who got at least one dose of the vaccine were White. Only 9% were African-Americans. 14 million urban household cannot get any broadband, without which you cannot get telehealth, and 75% are Black or other people of color. 

There may never be as many federal broadband and health-related grant programs as we are seeing now. Partnership potential between libraries and haircare shops are many. Will public health practitioners and advocates, broadband builders, and community leaders step up?

Craig Settles conducts needs analyses with community stakeholders who want broadband networks to improve economic development, healthcare, education and local government. He hosts the radio talk show Gigabit Nation, and is Director of Communities United for Broadband, a national grass roots effort to assist communities launching their networks. He recently created a guide to help librarians uncover patrons’ healthcare needs, create community health milestones and effectively market telehealth. 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 expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Health

Institutions Must Continue Riding Telehealth Growth Momentum for Post-Pandemic Care

Governments and health providers have an opportunity to carry the momentum of 2020 for telehealth’s future.

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Anthem President Gail Boudreaux

July 15, 2021 — The average healthcare organization completed two years’ worth of digital transformation during the first two months of the pandemic, according to IDC Health Insights data. This is only the beginning of telehealth advancement, and governments and health providers should continue to push for further development even after the pandemic slows, the Western Governor’s Association said in a virtual event last month.

The WGA launched its Western Prosperity Roundtable to work on policies such as telehealth and other technologies that have the potential to connect unserved and underserved communities.

While telehealth technologies have been gaining traction for some time, the past year led to a tremendous increase in usage. David Pryor, regional vice president and medical director for Anthem Inc., said that 2020 saw 80 times more utilization of telehealth than the year prior.

With the help of innovation, health centers were able to pivot from in-person care to digital. Digital kiosks have been implemented in states such as California to help improve specialty care and decrease language barriers. These kiosks give patients access to cameras put them in touch with healthcare professionals for important services including mental health.

Empirical experiences

In one experience that Pryor shared from a frontline women’s health clinic in California, a deaf patient came in for an exam and the clinic was able to utilize the video feature with a sign language interpreter on the digital kiosk. “The patient started to cry because she [had] never had such a caring visit,” Pryor said.

Technology advancement has created opportunities for those that previously were overlooked, including rural communities that were forced to commute long distances to receive healthcare and urban centers that lacked options.

The WGA aimed for the panel to push state legislators to continue increasing healthcare access for their constituents through digitalization.

Some states have established their ongoing commitment to telehealth already. In a statement released in August 2020, the Governors of Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington shared their goals to support telehealth services for residents of their states. “Telehealth is here to stay.” they wrote. “We will have individual state-driven approaches to implementing telehealth policies, but our work will be guided by seven overarching principles: access, confidentiality, equity, standard of care, stewardship, patient choice, and payment/reimbursement.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Congress has created and helped fund several programs, many of which focus on telehealth, programs to help accelerate broadband deployment across the country in efforts to connect minority communities, Tribal lands, and other qualifying households.

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