Craig Newmark: 'Disinformation' responsible for COVID-19 deaths in US

One of the main culprits in the disinformation campaign, Newmark believes, is Russia, which is working through agents in various countries.

 Craig Newmark with wife Eileen at the Bob Woodruff Foundation's Stand Up For Heroes event, 2018 (photo credit: STEFAN RADTKE)
Craig Newmark with wife Eileen at the Bob Woodruff Foundation's Stand Up For Heroes event, 2018
(photo credit: STEFAN RADTKE)

The founder of craigslist has said that foreign and domestic disinformation campaigns are responsible for some of the COVID-19 deaths in the US.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Post, Craig Newmark explained that America is being targeted by a modern form of warfare: Disinformation. And he says that it is a bigger deal than people think.

“Influence operations, both foreign and domestic, disrupted [America’s] response to the pandemic,” Newmark says. “They delayed it, and they destroyed whatever preparations we had. That’s why a lot more people died in the US.”

Today, Newmark no longer spends his day tied to his online content-sharing and advertising platform but instead devotes his time and energy to philanthropy via Craig Newmark Philanthropies, which he created in 2016.

He is listed as one of the 50 top philanthropists in the US.

 Craig Newmark (credit: BLEACHER + EVERARD) Craig Newmark (credit: BLEACHER + EVERARD)

Newmark retired from his eponymous company several years ago. In his interview, he discussed the current direction of his philanthropic activities, how his technological interests intersect with recent Israeli developments in the field and cited the people who have made the most significant impact on his life.

Through his foundation, Newmark attempts to promote trustworthy journalism, counter disinformation, combat influence operations that destabilize the US and secure the Internet and related systems from cybersecurity attacks.

Newmark says that he is just an “amateur,” and through his funding, he can help others.

“My job,” he explains, “is to help fund studies and then to remind the people doing the work to protect themselves, because the work they’re doing has already gotten under the skin of our foreign adversaries.”

One of the main culprits in the disinformation campaign, Newmark believes, is Russia, which is working through agents in various countries.

“As a sidebar,” he adds, “the people who are promoting disinformation are also the people trying to mainstream antisemitism in the US.”

In Newmark’s view, disinformation campaigns are directly related to the violation of one of Judaism’s sacred precepts as expressed in the Ten Commandments.

“Mr. and Mrs. Levin, my Hebrew school teachers, gave me the basics of being a Jew,” he says. “They also taught me about the Ninth Commandment – ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.’ Bearing false witness is disinformation,” he says.

Regarding the current wave of antisemitism, Newmark says that antisemitism in the US is frequently a public relations strategy, “meaning that a politician may not really hate Jews. But if he thinks that his voters hate Jews, he will talk it up. Bad politicians and bad actors and media are telling antisemites on the ground that it’s okay to attack Jews,” says Newmark, who says that he himself has been attacked on Twitter simply because he is Jewish.

Newmark says that the area that he is most busy with these days is cybersecurity. What exactly does the term mean? Cybersecurity can refer to defending against “phishing” emails when an attacker sends a fraudulent message designed to trick the victim into providing sensitive information, or it can be methods of defending against more insidious attacks on public installations like a city’s water supply or a hospital’s computer system.

“Cybersecurity means that an attacker – a bad guy – tries to do you harm through your networks,” he explains. “If you’re a business or a school or hospital, it could mean getting into your system, finding your most important data, encrypting it, and then saying that we’ll give it back to you if you pay the ransom.” He adds he will soon be speaking with the Ransomware Task Force, a group of organizations centered around the Institute for Security and Technology and the Global Cyber Alliance, which provide solutions and recommendations for ransomware attacks.

Newmark does not hesitate to call cyberattacks a form of warfare. “In a cyberattack, you can transfer money from one bank account to another – those can really kill a company or do damage to an individual, and these things should not happen. This is warfare. The difference between traditional kinetic warfare and cyber warfare is that the attacks right now against Americans are happening on American soil,” he points out.

In that vein, Newmark says that he is interested in learning more about Israeli cyber technology. “Something I think I’ll be starting soon is getting to better know Israeli cyber technology and try to help people make better use of it.” He points out the lethal potential of cyber warfare, saying that “You can do more damage to an enemy by attacking their systems, their logistics, their morale.”

HOW CAN people solve the problems of disinformation, antisemitism and cyberwarfare? Regarding disinformation, Newmark admits that there are no great solutions. He says that organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and Common Sense Media are asking social media platforms not to amplify disinformation, which can help to tone down the level of disinformation.

In order to counter the effects of antisemitism in the US, Newmark supports the Anti-Defamation League. “They’re now building the technology tools that look throughout the entire Internet and to check for patterns of antisemitism, which can be valuable in terms of disrupting it. I can only suggest people support the ADL and spread the word.”

Newmark hopes to combine his efforts in working with cyber technology to counter antisemitism. “One way to fight antisemitism is to make Israel stronger – and the only way I think I know how to do that is to learn Israeli cyber technology and then to talk about it because a lot of it is really good.”

Newmark has visited Israel twice over the past ten years and expects to return one day soon. “I have a feeling that part of my mission is to learn more about Israeli cybertech and then to talk about it in the US. I will be very quiet about it because that’s what works for me. I am not good at being loud. I’m not really a leader. Except I lead from the bottom.

“I’m a nerd from the 1950s,” says Newmark, smiling. Born in 1952 in Morristown, New Jersey, Newmark was studious and well-mannered (he remains exceedingly polite), and as a Hebrew school student, maintained perfect synagogue attendance on Shabbat. He even purchased trees for planting in JNF forests in Israel. Sixty years after attending Hebrew school, Newmark still retains fond memories of his Hebrew school teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Levin, who helped influence his life and the directions he took.

Newmark graduated from Case Western Reserve University and worked for IBM for 18 years.

In 1995, after moving to San Francisco, he founded craigslist as an email distribution service. Today, the web-based craigslist provides classified advertising services in more than 700 cities and 70 countries around the world, attracting almost 500 million people to the site each month.

“One problem with being a nerd,” says Newmark, “is that we tend to take things literally.”

When the Levins told him about the responsibility of being “his brother’s keeper,” Newmark, an impressionable Hebrew school student, didn’t grasp its metaphorical meaning. It was only later in life that he realized that while he couldn’t help everyone, he could help others. “So maybe this means I’m not going to be able to take care of everyone, but I can make life better for some people. And given that I’ve been lucky in business, I can make life better for a lot of people.”

The second individual whom Newmark says impacted his life was Anton Schulzki, his high school history teacher, who, he says, taught him the political values that he cherishes, including the Bill of Rights, due process and equality under the law.

Finally, he considers the late Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) as his “rabbi,” saying “I learned from him to trust myself and to know that there really is a God, that I need to make commitments based on my values, follow through and stand up for what’s right.”

Returning to his nerd theme as our conversation approaches its conclusion; Newmark says that all of his success can be attributed to being in the right place at the right time. “While I am a ‘chnun’ (Hebrew for nerd), in my attempt to simulate human social skills, I’ve accidentally created a lot of networks and relationships, and all this has worked by accident. This makes me the Forrest Gump of the Internet.” With a trace of merriment in his eye, Newmark cannot resist and continues, “Because, you know, cybersecurity is like a box of chocolates.”

Craig Newmark, self-proclaimed nerd, continues to confront the problems of antisemitism, disinformation, cybersecurity and truth in journalism, with the life lessons learned in Hebrew school. Ultimately, he is optimistic that things will work out.

“The deal is that good things are happening amongst all the bad. I do have faith that the good will overcome the bad. Maybe that’s naive of me, but I’m convinced.”

This article was written in collaboration with Craig Newmark Philanthropies.