The Infodemic: Oxford study details global Covid-19 effect on big tech; Erdogan vs. infection-rate info; India’s new misdirection

Natalia Antelava


Welcome! We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what is being done to combat it. Here are three big disinformation trends we spotted this week:

Coronavirus is forcing tech giants to rethink their attitude towards disinformation in ways that no political crises had. 

Two prominent examples include YouTube’s decision to take down all videos linking 5G to Covid-19. And Facebook announced that Whatsapp will impose new strict limits to slow the dissemination of fake news. At the end of March, Twitter set the new tone by taking down two tweets by Brazil’s President Bolsonaro that were critical of quarantine measures (the only other world leader this has happened to so far is Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro). 

But there is still a long way to go as Consumer Reports’ Kaveh Waddell found out when he loaded up several Facebook ads with hoaxes. His ads told people to “stay healthy with small daily doses of bleach” and promoted the idea that “social distancing doesn’t make any difference.” Facebook approved all seven of them. Here’s Wadell’s great Twitter thread with links to his piece. In case you were wondering, no, he didn’t post the ads.

Dig deeper:A new study from the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford says that the platforms are more likely to respond to Covid-19-related misinformation than, for example, political misinformation.

This is how the study ranks individual platforms: “59% of false posts remain active on Twitter with no direct warning label. The number is 27% for Youtube and 24% for Facebook.”

The second trend isn’t new but it is intensifying: for authoritarians, the lockdown is an excuse to lock up. Here are just three examples we’ve spotted: 

Reporters without Borders says seven journalists have been arrested in Turkey for reporting on the pandemic and charged with “spreading panic.” At least 385 people are being investigated for critical social media posts. Turkey’s infection rates are rising fast, but President Erdogan says “the wheels of the economy must keep turning.”

Next door in Iraq, the government is furious with the Reuters news agency for reporting that the country’s real Covid-19 numbers are “thousands more cases than officially reported.” Authorities are now threatening to suspend Reuters’ license to operate in the country.

Why this is significant: Over the years of covering wars in Iraq, Reuters journalists — like those working for other foreign outlets — have faced countless risks. But this is the first time that the Iraqi government has threatened a Western media outlet with a suspension like this one.

In Sri Lanka, the country’s acting Inspector General of Police ordered the arrests of those who criticize officials’ response to the pandemic. According to the Daily Mirror, the justification is that “several individuals have published several posts and videos in social media criticizing and obstructing government officials’ duties while highlighting minor shortcomings.” 

The United Nations has warned that the pandemic is stoking xenophobia and hate all around the world. This week, we spotted striking examples of this trend in India. Coda’s Gautama Mehta dives in below, so keep reading.

Spotlight: India ᛫ by Gautama Mehta

Comb through Indian social media, and you’ll see thousands of stories claiming that Muslims have attempted to deliberately spread the virus by licking platescoughing on fruitsspitting on police officers, and sneezing in unison.

This disinformation trend isn’t new but it is intensifying, and having a real and scary impact on the country’s already marginalized communities. 

One town in Madhya Pradesh put up a banner last month denying entry to Muslims on a road sign board.

The new wave of the coronavirus fake news started picking up after it was widely reported that a religious gathering held in Delhi on March 8-10 was responsible for spreading a large proportion of India’s new infections. 

The group that hosted the gathering, Tablighi Jamaat, made a perfect scapegoat: it is a fundamentalist Muslim sect. But a report from Scroll describes the coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat case as “sensationalist” and irresponsible and points to a likely sampling bias.

Officials around the country have tracked down attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat event for testing, and this has not been done for any of the various other religious gatherings that took place around the same time, including several widely criticized Hindu festivals.

It’s not just the Muslims. Dalits, members of the lowest social group in the Hindu caste system, are facing physical violence due to the pandemic, according to Ajay Kumar of the Dalit rights group RIGHTS-Kerala.

Kumar told me he knew of cases of people who had been chased out of their villages on suspicion of spreading the virus. A central tenet of the oppression of Dalits has been forcing them to work in “unclean” professions like cleaning sewers and toilets; for this reason they have long been considered impure. With hygiene elevated to paramount significance by the coronavirus, these old stereotypes can be deadly.

Background: All of this is happening at the time of already resurging Islamophobia and heightened religious tensions in India. In December, Parliament passed a law which provided a path to citizenship only for non-Muslims from nearby countries, inciting a wave of protests around the country by those who saw this as discriminatory against Muslims. This was followed in February by riots in Delhi in which Hindu mobs attacked Muslim communities, resulting in dozens of deaths (most of whom were Muslim) and the burning of several mosques, while police largely stood by.

Hungry for more?

If you need a quick break from Covid-19, here is a piece about a little noticed but consequential visit of far-right European politicians to Kashmir last October. 

And for those of you sticking with the Covid-19 info-diet, here is some light coronavirus relief and a great example of creativity that the quarantine has unleashed. 

Any special skills you’ve acquired in a lockdown? Let us know, and send me tips, feedback and questions. And of course, if you like what you are reading, please forward this to a friend.