Disinformation

The Infodemic: Another Nobel laureate in a disinformation scandal. Plus Facebook shuts down accounts but is it enough?

Welcome back! We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what is being done to combat it. Let’s dive in:

A NOBEL FAKE

Japan’s Nobel Laureate Tasuku Honjo says he had nothing to do with a claim that coronavirus is man-made. 

  • Last week, a fake letter from one of Japan’s leading scientists circulating on social media said the coronavirus was manufactured by China and didn’t come from bats. Several versions of the letter surfaced on WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook.
  • The post, which uses aggressive language against China, also claims that all the technicians who worked in the Wuhan lab have died.
  • Kyoto University has now issued a statement stating Honjo had no connection with the post. 

“In the wake of the pain, economic loss, and unprecedented global suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I am greatly saddened that my name and that of Kyoto University have been used to spread false accusations and misinformation,” he said.

  • Among those who shared the original fake was Alan Sugar, Chairman of Amshold Group who has 5.3 million followers. “I just passed it on, I didn’t write it,” he tweeted after being attacked for spreading fake news.

Background: Nobel laureates’ authority and prestige make them an ideal vehicle for coronavirus misinformation, whether by hijacking their name or by their own spreading. We saw this in the earlier case of French virologist and Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier, who has gained notoriety for endorsing the theory that the virus is engineered, based on shoddy science.

Honjo, an immunologist, was co-awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on cancer therapy.

PLATFORMS TAKE MORE ACTION, BUT IT’S NOT ENOUGH

Over the weekend, Facebook and Youtube deleted several accounts for spreading medical misinformation. 

  • The conspiracy theorist David Icke, best known for popularizing the idea that the world’s governments are run by alien lizards in human form, saw his YouTube channel and Facebook account removed
  • Platforms made the decision after widespread pressure from groups like the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which drew attention to Icke’s promotion of claims that the virus did not exist in an open letter to social media platforms.

A lesser known set of accounts deleted by Facebook over the weekend belongs to News Front, a site operated out of Russian-occupied Crimea. Here’s what we know about them: 

  • News Front is operated by Konstantin Knyrik who has been one of the key disseminators of fake news in Europe.  
  • The site operates in several languages, including Russian, English, German, French, Italian, Bulgarian and Spanish, and its accounts have been circulating all sorts of fake theories related to Covid-19.
  • They’ve also published Holocaust denials and praise of Adolf Hitler, and run headlines like “The Jewish Pioneers of Sexual Degeneracy in 1920s Berlin.”
  • News Front first caught our attention for being very active about spreading disinformation during the 2017 European migration crisis. 

Big Picture: Covid-19 is forcing platforms to take anti-disinformation measures they flat out refused to implement against political disinformation. But it still takes enormous pressure to get platforms to act:

  • Facebook made changes last month to its policies on Covid-19 misinformation only after campaigners from Avaaz showed evidence of insufficient labeling of false content and long delays in acting on reports of misinformation. “Facebook sits at the epicenter of the misinformation crisis,” according to Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz.
  • Facebook reported a 70% drop in forwarded messages on its Whatsapp platform after the company limited bulk forwarding as a measure against disinformation. But what does that mean? Imran Ahmed, who heads up the Center for Countering Digital Hate, says  no one knows. He told the BBC that using the 70% figure “seems to mask a lot of complexity on a topic where the nuance is critically important. What metric are they using for that?”

The bigger question still is how much can platforms really achieve by just deleting malicious accounts? In the Covid-19 crisis, it looks like a game of whack-a-mole.

FOLLOW UP 

  • Tajikistan: In a recent Infodemic, we reported that for weeks the Central Asian state of Tajikistan denied having any coronavirus cases and that WHO ended up sending a team to check whether it was true. On the eve of their visit, Tajikistan admitted an outbreak. Since then, doctors have been complaining bitterly about a “catastrophic” lack of preparedness and PPE.
  • Madagascar: Two weeks ago, we reported on the President of Madagascar Andry Rajoelina promoting a fake coronavirus cure: tea, called ‘Covid-Organics.’  Looks like it’s taking off. Rajoelina has now sent its first shipment of ‘Covid-Organics’ to Guinea-Bissau.

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

  • Here’s a fascinating read from the MIT Technology review on how doctors building up following on social media can actually undermine science 
  • “I became a pariah” Coda’s reporter Ramsha Jahangir on how coronavirus victims’ data is leaked on social media in Pakistan
  • And watch this poignant interview with an Amazon warehouse worker  

Thank you for reading, and if you find this interesting help us spread the word by forwarding this newsletter to a friend. 

I’ve also loved all the tips and questions you’ve been sending our way. Keep them coming.

See you on Wednesday,

Natalia 

P.S. It takes a village, in this case a team to bring you this newsletter. Many thanks to Coda’s Gautama Mehta, Dave Stelfox and Ariam Alula for their contributions. 

Natalia Antelava

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

Get in touch via [email protected]

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