Misinformation, disinformation and just plain lies about Covid-19 are boiling up on the Internet and spilling over into real life. Peter Bale explains how some powerful forces use the chaos and trolling for their own reasons.
By Peter Bale
Christchurch, NZ, man Raymond Coombs, 38, thought it would be hilarious to pretend he had Covid-19 and cough over fellow shoppers at the Barrington Fresh Choice near Addington this week. Why? He had seen similar prank videos on YouTube and thought it would be a laugh.
“The truth of the matter is that I don’t watch the news. I just listen to what people write on Facebook, I didn’t know it was such a big deal, to be honest,” Coombs said after leaving the Christchurch District Court, having earlier apologised and pleaded guilty to a charge of offensive behaviour.
Judge Jane McMeeken was not amused. “Many people are suffering.Your behaviour would’ve added to that suffering,” she told the court after remanding him on bail for sentencing next month.
Coombs’ failed attempt at comedy would normally be written off as the actions of, well, a dickhead, but these disturbances keep breaking out into the real world, thanks to the ‘information’ circulating in news feeds of people all over the world.
This week, Spark, 2degrees, Vodafone and the Rural Connectivity Group detailed in an extraordinary statement how they had all experienced threats or actual attempts of sabotage of cell towers in recent days, including attempted arson. All because thousands have ‘learned’ on the internet that 5G towers had somehow ‘caused’ Covid-19.
Misinformation v disinformation
This pandemic is proving a fertile breeding ground for three types of toxic information and it’s being exploited mercilessly right under your nose, accidentally by your friends, deliberately by those who want to create chaos, and by politicians who seek to control the narrative.
Misinformation is the kindest label for a form of public lying, the accidental or just misinformed sharing of incorrect information, or perhaps correct data in the wrong context. Journalists need to work hard not to do it, and politicians can cause problems with it.
Disinformation is a whole lot nastier and those who deploy it best are evil geniuses who know how to create chaos and compel a reader or a section of society to lose their grip on reality and mistrust facts. Russia is arguably the world champion.
Bald-faced lies, statements you don’t give a damn about being true or not, require a higher level of brass-neckery. A galaxy of stars vie for a Pinocchio award, from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and of course, US President Donald Trump.
A global crisis such as Covid-19 offers fertile ground for misinformation, often from “friends” on Facebook, disinformation deliberately sown by Russia or China to erode confidence in western leaders and institutions, and some fabulous lies often qualified with “people are saying” or “I’ve heard”.
All three types of bad information lead to despair.
‘Where can I get facts,’ you might scream after friends on Facebook quote mysterious doctors saying hot drinks will help you avoid Covid-19. ‘Is my government lying to me,’ you might cry as you hear 5G communications masts cause Covid-19. ‘He can’t being lying, he’s the President,’ you might think as you watch a White House press conference.
The Washington Post reckons Trump made 16,241 “false or misleading” statements in the three years to January 20 this year. PolitiFact tries to keep up in real-time and struggles to stay on top of the baloney about the coronavirus crisis.
Trump’s motives, apart from what many people might say is a pathological inability to tell the truth, is to redefine the truth, to choose his own “alternative facts”. In doing so he sows confusion about what the media, judiciary, rivals or institutions say. In that way, it’s remarkably similar to the disinformation methods of Russia and China.
Disinformation is an explicit and essential tool of communists and other totalitarian regimes, as famously described by writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, a work utterly relevant now in the internet age.
“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true…,” Arendt wrote.
Let’s look at how China has deployed disinformation on Covid-19 and infected global conversations about a virus born there.
As Italy’s health service crumpled under Covid-19, China gained propaganda points (and, yes, offered real help) by sending medics and equipment, a story amplified by its CCTV global television network and news agencies. Less visibly, China also sent automated bots into action on Twitter to own and dominate the conversation about Italy’s crisis.
Nearly half of the tweets published between March 11 and 23 with the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia (Go China, go Italy) and more than one third with the hashtag #grazieCina (thank you China) came from bots driven by China, according to the Sinocism newslette, reporting on an analysis by Italian investigative website Formiche.net.
Russia … has perfected the art of destabilising the very idea of facts, truth or certainty.
Russian President Vladimir Putin does nothing without a motive and whether it is sending a planeload of medical gear to New York or aid to Italy, he’s not a philanthropist.
“This is a half-propaganda, half-intelligence operation,” Sergio Germani, director of Italian think tank Gino Germani Institute for Social Sciences and Strategic Studies told CodaStory, which tracks disinformation.
Germani, who researches Russia’s role in Italy, says Moscow is using the Covid-19 outbreak “to strengthen anti-EU feelings and to reinforce the impression that the EU is crumbling, to make propaganda gains and gather intelligence at the heart of NATO”.
Whether on Facebook or Twitter or infecting discussions in mainstream media, shifting conversations in the direction you want or just creating chaos is a cost-effective method of waging a cold war of information. And the west’s soft underbelly is badly exposed.
Russia, still using approaches developed in the forerunners of the KGB since Tsarist times, has perfected the art of destabilising the very idea of facts, truth or certainty.
In cases from the occupation of Crimea to the shooting down of the MH17 Malaysian Airlines jet over Ukraine and on to the Skripal chemical weapons murder in the United Kingdom, Russian official and unofficial outlets spread conflicting narratives, lies and obfuscation so such an extent that only the most forensic analyst can filter out the truth from the noise.
“More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful,” author Peter Pomerantsev writes in his book on disinformation “This is Not Propaganda.” [But] it also has given the powerful new ways to crush and silence dissent. More information was supposed to mean a more informed debate, but we seem less capable of deliberation than ever. More information was supposed to mean mutual understanding across borders, but it has also made possible new and more subtle forms of conflict and subversion.”
Pomerantsev writes about Russian propaganda and disinformation but also the Philippines and many other countries where authoritarian regimes secure control by destabilising the concept of truth and trying to control the narrative.
Only last week, Twitter deleted 20,000 accounts of Serbia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Honduras, and Indonesia, accusing them of a “targeted attempt to undermine the public conversation”. (The Guardian).
All of them are attentive students to the way the right in the United States embraced direct reach on the internet to communicate and poison the well of lucid conversation with accusations of “fake news” and mainstream media conspiracies.
That, plus the assistance given by the Internet Research Agency in Russia, created the conditions for Trump’s rise.
John Naughton, a Cambridge academic, has a theory on why the alt-right has been so successful in exploiting the inherent freedoms of the internet: “People who belonged loosely to this side of the political system were essentially excluded from public discourse. But it just so happened, they didn’t go quiet. They went to the net. So, for the best part of 20 years, a network of right-wing echo chambers has been established, upon which was built the infrastructure of Trump’s campaign.”
*Hence my headline which comes from a 2003 book by American comedian Al Franken who you might remember became a Democratic Party US senator only to be undone and resign in an early phase of the #metoo movement.
“Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” was a satirical attempt to expose how the American right (almost alone among political factions) had weaponized disinformation. That’s 13-years before the election of Donald Trump.
If this all makes you feel hopeless and depressed there are media organisations, fact-checking groups and places you can go to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
– A California group called The Trust Project has created a sort of health mark for journalism where corrections and intent are clear. Early members include The Washington Post, The Economist, Sky News UK, and many non-English publishers.
– Coda Story, a news service based in Georgia and the United States, dedicates much of its deep reporting to disinformation and trying to “stay on the story” longer in order to break through the superficiality of much reporting.
– First Draft News, a non-profit service aimed mainly at journalists, created by academic Claire Wardle, offers resources to help debunk conspiracies and drill back through disinformation to find the underlying facts.
– For most people, brands with reputations for accuracy over decades are perhaps the best way to avoid being sucked into the vortex of nonsense: Reuters News is online and free, The Guardian leans left in the UK but is honest about that and open and free, The New York Times has made its coronavirus coverage open and free. The Economist is on the right but scrupulous about sourcing, corrections and fact checking.
Peter Bale is a London-based journalist and editor and who has worked for the Wellington Evening Post, Reuters, the FT Group, The Times of London and CNN Europe. He is working with Newsroom while stranded near Auckland, NZ.
First published at Newsroom, NZ. Friday 11 April 2020. See; https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2020/04/10/1120753/lies-and-the-lying-liars-who-tell-them