Coronavirus: Covid-19 crisis is thriving in a 'Superbowl of disinformation'

People walk past a sign reading "coronavirus - I check my sources before sharing news" to warn people about fake news in Abidjan on March 24, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - From using a hairdryer to blow hot air up your nose, to using social media to claim the Covid-19 virus is a bioweapon, the coronavirus pandemic is the first truly global, and existential, crisis to meet the age of disinformation.

And this is proving a huge challenge for the scientific and media communities, as well as social media platforms as they struggle to penetrate a blizzard of quackery, misinformation and conspiracy theories sometimes propagated by governments themselves.

An example of the latter, was when Twitter on March 29 took down two tweets from Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro under "rules to cover content that could be against public health information provided by official sources and could put people at greater risk of transmitting Covid-19".

Iran and China have also been accused of disinformation, specifically of playing down the early manifestations of what would become a global pandemic.

Subsequently on March 12, a suggestion by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian that the virus had been brought to China by American soldiers was also seen as disinformation in Washington.

The crisis is the "Superbowl of disinformation", said Professor Danny Rogers, co-founder of the non-profit Global Disinformation Index and an assistant professor at New York University.

"All of a sudden, everyone is looking at this all-you-can-eat buffet of confirmation bias and finding whatever little bits of information feed their most addictive parts of their personality.

"Everyone's coming out of the woodwork. It's a global pandemic, it is health related, everyone's emotions are high and everything is going wrong all at once," Prof Rogers told The Straits Times.

Apart from frauds and charlatans peddling miracle cures, there are also "geopolitical actors trying to save face and blame everyone else, or stoke existing rivalries or whatever it is, (and) all the racists out there trying to pin the blame on a certain ethnic group", he said.

But social media platforms are also discovering clarity.

Taking down President Bolsonaro's tweets would not have been done if the issue was purely political.

"When it comes to health information, there are legal liabilities, there's obvious understanding of the risk of harm," Prof Rogers said.

"All of the difficult questions we've been wrestling with are suddenly a lot more crystal clear. The risk of harm to people's health and lives from this kind of stuff is a lot more immediately apparent."

Brazil, which as of April 6 had 11,490 cases and 492 deaths, has seen its President dismiss Covid-19 as a "little flu". But it also offers a lesson in pushing back.

Brazilians in a traditional form of protest have taken to going to their windows and banging pots and pans to drown out the President when he speaks on television.

Democracy is working in Brazil, said Ms Anya Prusa, senior associate at the Brazil Institute of the Wilson Centre, a Washington think tank. Polarised, partisan debate has been set aside.

"Citizens and also the levers of government have been working," she noted in a virtual panel discussion on disinformation on Tuesday (April 7).

"The people have a voice, the other branches of power have a voice. We've seen the judiciary saying President Bolosonaro can't share messages that are against social distancing."

Prof Rogers predicts that in the end, there will be a reckoning as to how much disinformation has hampered the fight against the Covid-19 coronavirus.

"We're only at the beginning of this," he said.

"Once the dust settles… it will be much more apparent that places that did not take this seriously, where their information environment was dominated by various categories of disinformation, will see directly correlated worst outcomes."

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