Disinformation

The Infodemic: Is Britain’s Telegraph falling for an oligarch’s spin machine? Plus in Tajikistan, a diagnosis that no one believes

Welcome back! We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what is being done to combat it. Here are two narratives that caught our attention today:

An Oligarch’s Spin Machine

A new ranking on pandemic philanthropy shows top contributors to the fight against the coronavirus in proportion to the size of the populations they are trying to help. 

Bill Gates is in 9th place. Jeff Bezos occupies 11th. Mark Zuckerberg: 37th. A billionaire you’ve probably never heard of tops the charts.

I’d like to link to the chart but the only place where it exists is behind a paywall in this article about an oligarch from Georgia – country not the state – who is profiled by Britain’s newspaper The Telegraph.

The article headlined “The former factory worker who is now the world’s most generous donor in the fight against Covid-19” names a few other billionaires but really only focuses on Bidzina Ivanishvili. According to the piece the billionaire: 

  • made his fortune buying businesses during the Russian privatization era and selling them on at a vast profit.
  • donated $30 million of his $4 billion fortune to the fight against coronavirus. 
  • “has demonstrated great support and compassion for his fellow Georgians”, according to the Georgian prime minister quoted in the piece 
  • used to be Georgia’s prime minister himself

The article skips through other billionaires on the list, like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Australian businessman Andrew Forrest. 

The facts presented by Telegraph are correct. Bidzina Ivanishvili was indeed a prime minister and he did donate $30 million to Georgia since the pandemic began. 

But as I read the Telegraph piece in my lockdown in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, what stands out are the things not mentioned: 

  • Bidzina Ivanishvili is Georgia’s de-facto ruler. He is currently the chairman of the ruling party. With much of the cabinet composed of his former employees and his investments everywhere, the country, many Georgians joke, has become his Ltd. 
  • Ivanishvili has a murky past, ties to the Kremlin and appeared alongside Vladimir Putin, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in Panama Papers leaks. 
  • Before coronavirus and ahead of parliamentary elections in November, his party and Georgia’s fragile democracy were both in trouble. Amid street protests, U.S. senators wrote a letter to the government saying they were “increasingly concerned” about the state of democracy in the country. The coronavirus crisis has conveniently ended opposition protests against Ivanishvili’s party. And U.S. senators have backed off. 
  • The government has received some praise for containing the spread through early and strict lockdown measures (there are under 500 cases and 6 deaths) but has been criticized for the lack of testing. 
  • The official response is that Georgia can’t afford quality testing. But opposition media have accused the Georgian government of spending money on expensive lobbying firms in Washington and London and trying to buy good press.

Why This Matters: The Telegraph article is a good example how easy it is for lazy clickbait journalism to become a source of misinformation. 

The story also raises important questions about the role of billionaires, whether they are oligarchs or not, in the post-Covid19 world, says Oliver Bullough, author of the excellent Moneyland:

“Philanthropy is all very well and, in a crisis, I suppose we’re delighted to get cash from wherever we can find it. But, to really deal with crises, we need to prepare for them, which involves slow, patient, methodical, clever governance, not flashy attention-grabbing gifts,” 

“If we learn anything from this crisis, I hope it’s that we need to make sure billionaires pay their taxes so governments can work better. If that means we have fewer billionaires, well, that’s a price we’re just going to have to pay.”

“PNEUMONIA” IN TAJIKISTAN ᛫ Mariam Kiparoidze

The April 19 death certificate read: “pneumonia, Type 1 flu (H1N1) and grade 3 obesity” for Jaloliddin Pirov, a 37-year-old employee of the prosecutor office in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital. 

But when Pirov’s body was brought home, his family was not allowed to open the casket. Family members said that Pirov was buried by medics who wore protective equipment.

Officially, there are no coronavirus cases in Tajikistan, but authorities are having a hard time explaining a massive rise in pneumonia cases, which now include over 100 doctors who are reported to have been infected. 

At first, officials blamed pneumonia on “unfavorable weather conditions” and have since argued that cases were in fact fewer than this time last year. But amid reports of mysterious deaths and secret burials, no one believes them. 

“People start to have doubts when they see ambulances visiting their neighbors at night,” said Jamshed Ma’ruf, editor-in-chief of the Tajik fact checking website Factcheck.tj.

Ma’ruf describes a dire situation in hospitals, where medics are being told to buy protective equipment themselves. He said that some doctors have taken vacation to avoid working under those conditions. 

The Ministry of Health denies all of this and has been working to silence those who are questioning the official line. The authorities have blocked several independent newsrooms operating in the country, including Prague-based Abkhor.com. The handful of independent reporters still working in the country say they face enormous difficulties getting information from the government. 

Confusing the situation further is that until now, WHO representatives inside Tajikistan have backed up the government’s assessment of the situation. But this week, WHO is sending a crew to Tajikistan to verify their assessment. 

Ahead of the visit, authorities closed schools and kindergartens, suspended football championships, banned group gatherings outside and asked the elderly to stay in.

Tajik officials say these are just precautionary measures.

Hungry for more?

  • Mat Nashed reports from Egypt on doctors who fear that new fake news laws and the extended state of emergency mean they can’t speak out about a shortage of protective gear and poor crisis management.
  • And before you go, let’s nip back to Georgia, but wait – which one? Don’t ask Fox News. This week Georgians woke up to this: 
  • The news that Fox News thought protests in a Georgian town of Marneuli was to open up America even made local TV. 

Ooops. 

See you on Friday.
Natalia 

Natalia Antelava

Natalia Antelava is the Editor-in-Chief of Coda Story.

Get in touch via [email protected]

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