NY Times reporter Davey Alba on covering COVID-19 conspiracy theories, facing online harassment

By Lucy Westcott/CPJ James W. Foley Fellow on May 21, 2020 12:42 PM ET

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump hold signs during a rally to call for the reopening of California's economy after the lockdown closure, implemented to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, in Woodland Hills, California, on May 16, 2020. NY Times reporter Davey Alba recently told CPJ about her experiences covering coronavirus conspiracy theories and facing online harassment. (AFP/Mark Ralston)

Over the course of Davey Alba’s career as a tech reporter, her beat has transformed from covering the latest gadgets and phones to investigating the creeping influence and massive power wielded by tech companies over peoples’ everyday lives. As the coronavirus pandemic has spread across the globe, Alba, who covers tech and disinformation at The New York Times, has also been reporting on how conspiracy theories about the virus have flourished on social media.

Alba faced a vicious campaign of online harassment after she co-authored a recent story with reporter Sheera Frenkel about how social media companies were responding to President Donald Trump’s comments suggesting that disinfectants and ultraviolet light could treat the virus. After The New York Times contacted YouTube about a video that appeared to support similar questionable scientific claims, YouTube removed the video. That incident became a focal point of the online harassment against Alba, as people lashed out at her, claiming that she was responsible for getting the video taken down.

CPJ spoke with Alba via phone on May 11, 2020. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get on the disinformation beat?

I’ve been a tech reporter for a decade. The field itself and the coverage of tech reporting has really evolved into dealing with issues such as democracy and tech’s invasive effects on our lives. It’s more focused on people and how technology can be harmful to the lives of people, how it can be suppressive, and how it intersects with civil liberties.

Disinformation is something I fell into. I grew up in the Philippines and about three years ago I noticed that my friends and family were really addicted to Facebook. They were taking news cues from Facebook in a really alarming way. Then there was the rise of the authoritarian [Philippine President] Rodrigo Duterte. His campaign really unfolded on Facebook. I did an investigation into that when I was at BuzzFeed News and I wrote a piece about how Facebook helped fuel the drug war in the Philippines because of so much pro-Duterte rhetoric on the platform. A lot of that reporting just was sorting out the rumors and the narratives about how this all unfolded in the Philippines.

Did you face online harassment and abuse because of that piece?

Definitely. Being a reporter on the internet, especially being a woman of color, gives you a little taste of harassment. That was my first exposure to organized harassment. After that was published in 2018, I was accused of not understanding the context properly in the Philippines because [some readers] saw me as Filipino-American. I think I did the best job I could do having grown up there and with most of my childhood friends and my close family still living there.

I got a lot of digital safety tips after that episode. I locked down my accounts, I turned off DMs, I made my Facebook private. There were pretty niche tips I followed too, like deleting my cover photo on Facebook for some time, because your cover photo is still public to outsiders even if you’ve locked all the other things in your Facebook account.

Your first story about the coronavirus was on March 8, 2020. Tell me about the early days of your coverage, and when you started to see that this topic would dominate your beat.

Weeks before that piece was published, as soon as the virus was starting to be in the news regularly and when it came to the U.S., bad information about the virus really ramped up. In the early days, it was a free-for-all. We saw a lot of really weird things, all the basic tricks: Phishing campaigns, people squatting on domains for coronavirus [by registering websites]. Bad actors often exploit an information void and fill it with bad information that they use for their own purposes. That could be making money for a cure they’re selling on the internet or pushing an anti-vaccination agenda. That was a very vulnerable time.

Then, a lot of more established conspiracy groups weaponized the virus information void and filled in the blanks, shoehorning details to make the pandemic fit neatly into their existing narratives. For example, QAnon, the conspiracy group, brought the virus into its narrative by branding it as yet another development of the global elites trying to wrest power and control the population. It’s this narrative of the deep state and people who are tangentially in power wanting to make a play for power and undermining the president.

As the virus progressed, [disinformation and conspiracy theories] became more organized and coalesced around certain topics, certain figures, certain specific rumors. Since then we’ve written specifically about [Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist] Bill Gates, and how a lot of conspiracists see him as one of these global elites who is trying to control the population given his past work on vaccines. Another one is [director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] Dr. Anthony Fauci. Once the false narrative about him went truly viral, he had to get a security team because he started getting death threats.

The president of the United States is a very central figure in coronavirus conspiracies. That was another flashpoint and cause for that campaign of harassment against me.

You tweeted about the large amount of online harassment directed against you based on your story about Trump’s disinfectant comments, and the fact that YouTube removed a video that seemed to support these comments after The New York Times inquired about it. Why do you think this particular story touched a nerve?

That story followed a televised coronavirus briefing involving the president. He had made comments throwing out the idea that disinfectants could be injected into the body and that UV light could be used as a treatment inside the body. We wanted to look at the disinformation that stemmed from those comments, trying to see whether people actually believed them and whether there were real world harms associated with them.

In the process of reporting I had noticed a few pieces of information that had become weaponized by a lot of the usual suspect conspiracy groups. One that they latched onto was a video of a supposed technology of UV light that could be shone inside the body. A catheter would be inserted into a coronavirus patient’s breathing tube and that catheter would have LED lights and it could shine UV light into the body. I noticed that that video, an illustrated video of this technology, had been posted in so many replies and in discussions about the president’s comments, sort of justifying that this existed, suggesting that it could be effective.

I asked our sources at various social networks whether the video violated their policies of coronavirus misinformation. All of these companies now have individualized policies about virus misinformation when it can potentially cause harm to the public. I don’t have the power to just ask a tech company about a piece of information that’s out there on the internet then have it automatically taken down. All I can do is ask about it and they make their own decisions.

And yet people were accusing you of deliberately getting the video removed from YouTube. Was that what drove this recent campaign of harassment?

The ability to write a headline that said, “New York Times reporter censors TK piece of content” is very seductive to people with a certain point of view. (Several far-right websites wrote about the video’s removal from YouTube.) Hilariously, the very first piece written about me, and most other pieces, said I was a man--they kept saying “he.” It was hilarious because my Twitter profile picture was right beside the tweets that they embedded.

I also kind of saw it as feeding into wider sexist dynamics on the internet, that only male reporters can be taken seriously. They don’t really see women of color journalists as worthy actors in this space.

Did the harassment you faced last month target you as a woman of color?

Absolutely. As soon as there was that targeted harassment with people individually messaging me through all channels, through email, through Instagram direct messages, through my website, on all fronts, they started to make targeted insults. I got a lot of, “Go back to the Philippines,” and “We don’t want you here.” A lot of really nasty anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-everything comments.

But I think that talking about it openly, especially after time has gone by, is really helpful. It’s getting power back from this whole incident. It can be so exhausting when it’s happening and talking about it can be re-exposing yourself. I got two waves of that, first when I was tweeting about it during the reporting process and second when the piece came out.

I learned a lot. I was blocking a lot of people on Twitter for a while. That ended up being weaponized against me because people started making new accounts saying, “Oh, of course you blocked me, you don’t want to hear different points of view.” So, I switched to muting accounts instead, and that was helpful. People can’t see that you muted them, but you stop getting notifications about their hateful messages.

How can journalists stay safe when we’re often encouraged to show our personalities and personal lives on social media?

It’s really tough because to have a career in journalism today and have your work out there requires you to give a little bit of personal information showing your voice, showing your personality. Newsrooms and editors sometimes want it both ways where they want these really voice-y, personality-driven reporters and at the same time, they don’t want any of the controversy that may come with that. The people who end up being in the most vulnerable spot are the journalists themselves. For young journalists especially, it’s important to be aware of all these forces at work and protect yourself as necessary. You just have to be mindful of everything you post online.

Finally, I want to keep this in perspective. I’m not a journalist out there in the hospital covering the virus. Those people are my heroes, because they are really putting their lives on the line.

For more information on protecting yourself online, journalists should look at CPJ’s advice on protecting against targeted online attacks and protecting your digital security during the pandemic. Read CPJ’s Safety Advisory on covering the coronavirus pandemic, available here in over 35 languages.