Globalist Perspective

COVID 19: How to Fight the Infodemic Wars

Beyond containing the COVID 19 virus, we must also contain the “infodemic” — the glut of misinformation from various sources. What does that take?

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Takeaways


  • Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have as much potential for keeping informed -- as for being misinformed.
  • Combating the information and propaganda wars requires truthful journalism. But the print media are on a downward business cycle.
  • Owing to the coming recession, the media landscape could become a wasteland sooner rather than later. This would undermine democracy.
  • As the Fifth Estate, social media has overtaken the conventional media (the Fourth Estate). The main providers therefore have a special responsibility to combat misinformation.

The coronavirus crisis has also delivered an overload of information. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus the Director General of the World Health Organization, helpfully described it at the beginning of February as an “infodemic.”

With that term, he was referring to a glut of misinformation deriving from various sources. At moments like this, there is never any shortage of troublemakers who seek to hijack the great public nervousness for their own ulterior, often very dark motives.

Exploiting an already impaired media sector

The fact that, even before the onset of COVID 19, there was a brutal crisis among the independent news media only adds to the trouble-making potential for the infodemic specialists.

The added fact that the onset of a grave economic recession further dampens already lower advertising revenues even more will exert an additional price on the media to play their filtering role.

Infodemics are often conflated with misinformation. But both go hand in hand, because a surfeit of information brings with it more possibilities for misinformation.

The responsibility of Zuck’s “Fifth Estate”

That is a worrisome development, especially now that the “Fifth Estate” (as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook refers to social media) is starting to overtake the Fourth Estate (the conventional media in their broadest sense).

In the United States, social media (20%) rank ahead of printed newspapers (16%) as the primary source of news, although television still outstrips both (49%), according to a 2018 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.

True, social media rely heavily on the written and audiovisual media. And, of course, rumors are as ancient as human society itself. Even so, an article in the MIT Technology Review describes the situation as “the first true infodemic.”

Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Reddit and Google issued a joint statement mid-way through March promising that they were working together to combat misinformation.

Noble intentions

The main social media providers emphasized to focus on “authoritative content” and the sharing of “critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies.”

However, social media are insufficiently regulated. In addition, their entire business model runs counter to any notion of effective regulation.

Still, especially in view of the lockdown measures, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp particularly have become an essential source for keeping informed. But also — and here’s the catch — for being misinformed.

To its credit, Facebook also has such items as an Open Source COVID 19 Medical Supplies page for sharing designs of basic protective medical equipment for domestic 3D printers.

The EU’s strategy

The crisis has induced the EU to deploy its Rapid Alert System against disinformation for the first time, although it is very light on deploying actual firepower in that battle.

So far, the EU’s East Stratcom service and EUvsDinsinfo have been focused on detecting disinformation campaigns coming from Russia (although with no proof that they stem from the Russian government, which flatly denies involvement).

More from the rumor mill

China is also weighing in on the infodemics fights, especially in its propaganda war with the United States. Among the false claims being put out by different actors are that:

• The coronavirus is a biological weapon developed by one of the great powers,

• It did not begin in Wuhan, but in the United States or some U.S. laboratory in another part of the world,

• The infection was caused by immigrants to the EU, or

• It is related to Chinese 5G technology.

Other efforts at manipulation have sought to spread the rumor that a vaccine already exists and is being withheld so the pharma industry can extract more profit.

The global battle over the pandemic narratives

In light of that pitched battle, it is little wonder that Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, refers to a “global battle of narratives” over the pandemic that is now being waged.

How to succeed in the “infodemic” wars?

The best instrument for combating the infodemic wars is truthful, high-quality journalism. But the print media sector has long been caught in the claws of a downward business cycle.

The situation is so grave that a group of European journalists, experts and MEPs have written a letter to the European Commission urging it to support trust in public action and help with a series of measures, both in the short and medium terms, to sustain the media in these testing times.

An impressive performance

Thankfully, many news media are actually managing very well to get the information out, thanks to elaborate remote working schemes being in place. More impressively yet, this is happening in nearly all European countries.

But the economy has never before stalled as it has now, and all the independent and commercial media that were hanging on by advertising are suffering.and searching for survival life-lines .

Still, the media are asking governments for different forms of help (subsidies, institutional advertising, etc.). Italy has launched a plan to aid newspaper kiosks and the people who run them.

In Spain, private media companies are asking the government for help and, together with the advertising industry, “concrete proposals” to incentivize investment in the sector.

In this context, it is worth remembering the words of Thomas Jefferson. He stated a general preference for having “newspapers without a government” over having “a government without newspapers.”

Owing to business realities and the coming great recession, the information landscape could become a wasteland sooner rather than later. This would greatly undermine democracy.

Editor’s Note: Adapted from an earlier version which appeared on Andres Ortega’s Global Spectator column, which he writes for the Elcano Royal Institute.

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About Andrés Ortega

Andrés Ortega is senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute, a major Spanish foreign affairs think tank.

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