The Infodemic—April 6

Natalia Antelava


Welcome! We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what is being done to combat it. If you like what you are seeing, please help me to spread the word and sign up here.

Here are a few narratives – real and fake – that have caught our attention. 

Twenty minutes after Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted into the hospital, Russia’s state news agency published a story headlined: “Source: Johnson will be put on a ventilator.” 

Whether Russians are making things up or just have excellent sources, they have hit fertile propaganda ground. Judging by reactions on social media, the British public is questioning the official line that Johnson is simply undergoing “routine tests.” 

Staying in the United Kingdom, a spate of fires broke out at several different cell phone towers across the country. Police are investigating the fires as potential arson cases, as conspiracy theories continue to fly that the coronavirus was caused by 5G radiation. 

In the UK, the “Stop 5G” Facebook group has half a million members. Last week, we reported the group has gone into overdrive since the Covid-19 outbreak.

This week, video emerged of workers in London being harassed for laying fiber optic cables. “I’m absolutely outraged and disgusted that people would be taking action against the infrastructure we need to tackle this emergency,” the UK’s National Health Service director Stephen Powis said during Saturday’s daily Covid-19 briefing in London.

A prominent, and hardly surprising, disinfo trend in the Middle East is that Israel is behind a deliberate program of coronavirus infection. Iran has previously described the coronavirus as a Zionist plot

Now, here’s an op-ed in the Jordanian Ad-Dustour that accuses Israel of intentionally infecting Palestinians. This assertion has been made a number of times in recent weeks by politicians and internet users. It goes beyond the legitimate highlighting of blockades, poor conditions and lack of resources in Palestinian areas and territories, and owes much to darker theories.

The Philippines is in its fourth week of a lockdown, and according to our editorial partners in Manila, “people are scared and angry.” 

“There are no real government subsidies for food or aid and certainly none for businesses yet,” Filipina journalist Maria Ressa told me in a message. 

Ressa is the co-founder and CEO of Rappler, the country’s most popular independent news site and a top public enemy of the Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte. Rappler’s team does remarkable work on tracking Duterte’s vast disinformation networks and they have now spotted, for the first time, an energized wave of digital resistance to the president’s online toll army. 

Background: Like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, or Donald Trump back in February, Duterte at first dismissed the pandemic. On March 1, he predicted the virus would “die a natural death.” 

By mid-March, much of the country went into a badly planned lockdown. On April 1, people in poorer areas demanded government aid. Duterte went on television to issue a stark warning: 

“I will not hesitate. My orders are to the police and military… that if there is trouble or the situation arises that people fight and your lives are on the line, shoot them dead. Do you understand? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave.”

The day after Duterte issued his shoot-to-kill order, a 63-year old farmer who was not wearing a facemask was shot dead by police. 

This followed a familiar pattern from Duterte’s brutal drug war: rambling threats on television followed by real life violence accompanied with a massive online troll campaign against dissenting voices.  

But Covid-19 seems to have challenged Duterte’s usual blueprint. Maria Ressa believes it is because of two factors:

  • The virus poses a new and universal threat, and people have no confidence in the government’s ability to deal with it
  • Duterte’s trolls working from home are suddenly facing millions of real people also locked in and who have time to become keyboard warriors

Changing discourse? 

It’s too early to tell whether the coronavirus is changing public discourse in the Philippines but there are signs. 

Shortly after his April 1 speech, the hashtag #OustDuterteNow trended number one on Twitter, not just in the Philippines but also worldwide. #Icantstandthepresident topped the trending charts a few days later. 

According to this piece, joining the massive online anti-Duterte wave were “several personalities and celebrities who don’t usually speak up on political affairs online.”

“Duterte’s government,” Ressa told me, “does not know how to deal with the virus or the sudden online resistance to their trolls.”

Hungry for more?

Rappler has an excellent, detailed analysis of the situation in the Philippines. And I highly recommend signing up to Maria Ressa’s newsletter – here is one sample of it. 

And before you go, here’s a whole new level of self-disinformation from one very creative woman’s lockdown. How is yours going?

Stay healthy, and look out for the next edition on Wednesday.