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Interview with Harvard Professor of Health Communication Vish Viswanath; New Law in China Threatens Hong Kong Freedom; Interview with Montgomery, Alabama Mayor Steven Reed. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired May 28, 2020 - 10:30   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: At a time when you and I -- when Americans need the best information available to combat this virus, there is a slew of deliberate disinformation across social media. My next guest says that state actors are behind it.

Vish Viswanath is a professor of health communication at Harvard. He says that state actors connected with certain governments are responsible for spreading false information about the virus.

Mr. Viswanath, thanks so much for coming on this morning. To be clear, this is deliberate, you're saying. These are foreign countries, deliberately trying to spread false information here. Who are those countries and why are they doing this?

VISH VISWANATH, PROFESSOR OF HEALTH COMMUNICATION, HARVARD T.H. CHAN SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Well, thank you for having me. So I have to qualify that. I think what we know is that we have to distinguish between misinformation and disinformation --


VISWANATH: -- increasing blurring of lines between them.

And what we are seeing -- or what researchers or especially computational data scientists who are looking at these things are seeing, that the origin of this misinformation is unclear, but the way it is spreading is that it is starting in some small corners of the internet, what were -- groups that are.


And from there, it is spreading and deliberately being pushed by groups that includes -- the suspicion is that it includes state actors, as well as who find common ground with -- with a variety of interest groups out there.

So what we are -- so the -- the pinning-down with evidence has been very difficult, as you know. I think it requires enormous computational power and these actors are very savvy and sophisticated in hiding their trail.

But what some have argued -- again, the evidence is not really clear but, you know, some have attributed it to Russia, some have attributed it to China --


VISWANATH: -- some have attributed it to Iran. But a lot depends on, again, who within these countries are actually pushing this agenda.

SCIUTTO: Understood. Well, the fact is, it's not that hard to find it from domestic sources as well. I mean, the president, just this morning, retweeted unfounded claims that mask-wearing is not about public health, but social control. I mean, health experts from his own administration say mask-wearing is essential to stopping the spread of this.

How much of this disinformation is coming from domestic sources as opposed to foreign sources?

VISWANATH: This is the most interesting part, what you just said, right? So it is not just foreign and domestic, I think it is what I would call as a confluence of interests of certain groups where (ph) either it is intentional or deliberate.

And here is a good example, what you cited. Forces within our own country are actually either feeding off on other media or other networks' information and amplifying it. This is what I would call as a spiral of amplification, where it might start in a small group somewhere, actively being pushed by groups, but then it gets amplified when it is picked up by, you know, figures of authority who can --


VISWANATH: -- lend voice to this disinformation, you know? So.

SCIUTTO: And it has enormous effect.

Final question, during the 2016 election, there was a lot of deliberate disinformation spread in this country by foreign actors, particularly Russia, to influence that election. And social media companies came under a lot of criticism for not policing it well enough.

How are social media companies doing now? I mean, you saw Facebook saying they're really not going to do anything about it. Twitter has marked some of the president's tweets false. How are they doing? Are they helping here?

VISWANATH: Well, I think, first, let us say that it is very difficult to control this, but it is not difficult to manage this. I think social media so far have been very -- well, considering that it is not an easy problem to tackle, they've been very reactive, which is a surprise.

I think if any group of institutions have the computational prowess and power, it is a social media. I think it's not dependent -- not on the individuals, and I wish we had, you know, social media were much more proactive (ph) in intervening on these things rather than being reactive, when they're being called (ph) to do something. SCIUTTO: Yes, yes. And they've had years to address it, and it ain't

happening. Vish Visnawath --


SCIUTTO: -- thanks so much for -- Viswanath, I should say -- thanks so much for joining us this morning.

VISWANATH: Thank you for having me.


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Well, China has approved an incredibly controversial new law that threatens fundamental freedom in Hong Kong. How countries around the world are acting, and what's the U.S. going to do about this? Ahead.


SCIUTTO: This morning, several countries are expressing deep concern over China's new draconian national security law for Hong Kong.

HARLOW: I mean, it really is. Bottom line, it threatens fundamental political freedom and civil liberties --


HARLOW: -- promised to Hong Kong. Let's go to our David Culver, he joins us from Beijing.

Can you explain to people, at its core, what this would allow Beijing and the central Chinese government to do and operate like in Hong Kong?

DAVID CULVER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Poppy and Jim, I think part of it is also explaining what Hong Kong means to this region. And I can tell you, even as somebody who lives here in Beijing and travels around mainland China, when you go to Hong Kong, you're crossing over that border. And yes, it is a territory of China, but you breathe a bit easier. You don't feel as many people are watching you, certainly didn't feel like the police state that oftentimes you feel here, certainly within the capital of China in Beijing.

So for this to now go through in the National People's Congress, the rubber-stamp legislator, putting it through, not surprisingly, with overwhelming support, as they portray it here, it is really threatening Hong Kong as we know it. And people believe -- particularly those within the pro-democracy movement -- that it's forever changed.

And you mentioned that joint statement, put out by the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, they suggest that it has now eroded the autonomy, and that could now lead to perhaps sanctions against China, it could lead to other ramifications that perhaps, though, Jim and Poppy, the Chinese officials have already calculated and say it's worth the risk.


SCIUTTO: So you have Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatening sanctions, some of which could be significant for Hong Kong, its financial position, et cetera. How seriously --

CULVER: Right.

SCIUTTO: -- is Hong Kong taking that, and how seriously is the Chinese government taking that?

CULVER: Well, the Chinese government, as they have moved forward with putting this out there -- I mean, they've tested the water, certainly, but -- they feel like this is a genuine national security threat right now, and that's certainly the narrative that's being promulgated here. I mean, you see it in how they're even wording things.

I mean, you perhaps hear them as protestors, they describe them here as rioters who are demonstrating terrorist acts. So they are certainly portraying it as safeguarding the national security. And for them, going forward, this will end that chaos.

HARLOW: David, very quickly for --


SCIUTTO: Well, it's a description, they've used, we should be clear, for a whole host of dissidents who have ended up in jail purely for expressing their opinion about the government --


SCIUTTO: -- sorry, Poppy.

HARLOW: No, no, you're so right, Jim.

CULVER: Right.

HARLOW: We have to go, but we should talk another day about -- I mean, the big-term picture of this in terms of Taiwan and the South China Sea and, you know, where this goes from here. So we'll have you back, David, thanks very much.

CULVER: Oh, there's so much to go on with this. Yes, I look forward to that, guys.

HARLOW: Yes, OK. Thanks.

SCIUTTO: The mayor of Montgomery, Alabama says the coronavirus cases there are now at crisis levels. He joins us, next.



SCIUTTO: Well, Alabama is facing a daunting COVID crisis right now. The state saw its biggest single-day increase of COVID-19 cases this past Monday, 646, this according to the state's health department.

HARLOW: In most cases, hospitals are running out of PPE and ICU beds. The big question this morning: If this is happening in Montgomery, is Alabama reopening too soon? Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed joins us.

It's really nice to have you. You've been outspoken about this now, in the last few weeks. And I just want you to listen to this from Dr. David Thrasher, a critical care doctor in Montgomery. Here's what he told our colleague Erin Burnett last night.


DAVID THRASHER, CRITICAL CARE PULMONOLOGIST: We have three ICU beds today available in the entire city. You give me a good nurse, a ventilator, and a monitor, put them in a parking lot, you've got an ICU. So we can move people around, but the ICU beds per se, only three available in the city. And we've got to observe some of these for strokes, heart attacks and other stuff.


HARLOW: Is that the predicament your city's in right now?

MAYOR STEVEN REED (D) MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA: Actually we're down to two this morning, as of the last update I had. So we're not doing better, we're actually doing worse unfortunately. And I agree with Dr. Thrasher on this, and many other doctors that I've heard from, we are in a place that, you know, would be considered a crisis at this moment. We have not gotten out of this.

And unfortunately, people believe that the pandemic is over, and they believe that we get a chance to determine when things go back to normal, and we don't. And so I'm certainly concerned about those who may be sick and those who may have some illnesses not being able to get the attention that they may need.

SCIUTTO: You're aware of the political momentum here, driven by -- some by the president. But for reopening, that momentum is strong, as well as people's impatience. And I just wonder, even given the hard data you're seeing there, this increase in cases, are you concerned that there's just no political will at this point to turn it around and get people to, you know, tighten restrictions again?

REED: Unfortunately, I think you're correct because people are ready to get back to the way they were doing things. They have COVID fatigue, and they want things to be right back to how they were. But we can't do that yet, we can't do that and risk the long-term setbacks that we may have due to some of the rush, if you will, to get things going. We can't fast-forward to the end of this movie --


REED: -- and we're trying to do that right now in the way we are approaching this process. And I think that's why we're seeing the spikes, not only in Montgomery but also throughout Alabama. And that is problematic for our business owners, it's problematic for our schools, it's problematic for our hospitals, our first responders and our entire community.

HARLOW: A few troubling statistics about Montgomery on top of all that you've just laid out. Younger people, right? The doctor said 40 percent of the COVID-19 cases are among younger people, between 25 and 50. And the number of total cases in Montgomery has tripled in the last 30 days. You have said the hospital workers are just exhausted and overwhelmed by this.

REED: They are. And we're hearing that, you know, from inside the hospitals. And again, it's not just a matter of moving in ICU beds, it's not just a matter of creating that. It's a matter of what the domino effect is. Our hospitals and our health care system are approaching a very dangerous point, a very critical point right now, and we have to do everything in our possibilities -- within our control, if you will -- to reduce the possibility of us going over that cliff.

And I want us to make sure that we wear our masks, I want us to make sure that we're staying at home as often as we can, and I want people to practice social distancing here in the city of Montgomery and those that work here.

Too often, the people who are becoming impacted by this are people who work in our service and manufacturing industries, they're people of color, and they are frontline workers who are really doing great work, but we're exposing them because we don't think it can impact us, not considering what it may do to someone who comes in contact with us, and the impact it may have on them.


HARLOW: Yes. Well, we wish you luck. It is incredibly challenging to navigate. Thank you, Mayor Steven Reed of Montgomery, Alabama, we appreciate you.

REED: (INAUDIBLE) pleasure.

HARLOW: The mayor of Minneapolis says George Floyd's death was murder. So what will happen now, after a night of protests that turned violent.