The Infodemic: European scientists working on surveillance issue a warning; Bolsonaro’s dangerous rhetoric

Ilan Greenberg


I’m Ilan Greenberg, the publisher and editorial director of Coda back again to track the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what is being done to combat it. 

Here are a few narratives — real and fake — that have caught our attention:

An apparently unabashed success story so far, Vietnam has reported keeping infections below 400 cases and deaths tamped down to exactly zero by imposing strict social distancing rules, cascading public quarantines, and slamming borders shut. Now the country is also an enthusiastic early adopter of another measure growing in popularity: clamping down on speech in the name of public health. Reports are trickling in on an online clampdown.

  • This comes on the heels of neighboring Laos joining Vietnam in arresting people for posting coronavirus information on Facebook that challenged government narratives on the disease.
  • Russia’s remote northern region of Komi has emerged in press reports as the third highest infected region in the country, after the main population centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. That has outraged regional government officials –not the prevalence of Covid-19 cases nor the inability of the public health infrastructure to tackle the spread. It’s the media reporting on the situation that has enraged the government, as this remarkable New York Times story documents.

On Friday I posted in this newsletter about the latest speech infringements coursing through India as the country girds for Covid-19 spread. The country also is running amuck with theories on a virus cure that bolster the government’s anti-secular Hindutva campaign, such as the miracle properties of cow urine. 

Rama-fications: The endurance of folk remedies is not new. But will the trendy embrace of alternative medicine take a hit after the pandemic subsides, when hyped cures built on wishful thinking and pharmaceutical misinformation fail to work?

Another potential implication to contemplate: How will changing mobility patterns, both collective and aggregated, impact our massively datafied lives? That is, now that much of the world has closed up shop and everyone is sticking to home, all those metrics that companies and governments vacuum from our phones, road sensors, and so on have evaporated. 

  • Take weather forecasts. According to Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, the grounding of world airline fleets mean the loss of 800,000 pieces of meteorological data a day, which has led to less accurate weather forecasts and, in the future, a missing chunk of meteorological records. 

Meanwhile, Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung today reports that 300 scientists across Europe are sounding a frightening warning on the potential surveillance abuses packed into an ambitious European project to use a phone app to track Covid-19 data. This is a fascinating turn, as many of these scientists sounding the alarm are among the 130 scientists who signed onto the project just a month ago.

Coda’s Gautama Mehta is reporting on the fast-motion health and environmental disasters unfolding from Brazil’s toxic political rhetoric. His update:

SPOTLIGHT: Bolsonaro’s Dangerous Speech Antics᛫ Gautama Mehta

Yesterday, Brazil was treated to the strange spectacle of its president, Jair Bolsonaro, appearing without a mask in front of a demonstration outside the Army headquarters in Brasilia, surrounded by signs openly calling for a military coup, and cheered by protesters demanding the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court. In a way, this event is the natural culmination of two disinformation trends in Bolsonaro’s presidency: misrepresentation of the virus and the government’s response, and the whitewashing of the Brazilian military dictatorship.

“The Bolsonaro government has been dedicated to minimizing the severity of the pandemic since its very beginning,” Daniel Bramatti, a fact-checker at O Estado de S. Paulo, one of Brazil’s leading dailies, told me in a text message.

The protesters’ calls yesterday for military intervention hold special significance in Brazil, a country which was ruled by a repressive military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, and for which Bolsonaro has long been an apologist. “Bolsonaro frequently lies about the military dictatorship, claiming that the economy was better at the time and that there was no crime and corruption,” said Bramatti. 

On one occasion, Bolsonaro denied the veracity of a notorious 1975 incident in which a journalist critical of the regime was tortured and killed; on another, he denied that the 1964 military coup even occurred.

Bramatti explained that Bolsonaro’s appearance at the rally yesterday was congruent with his usual political tactics:

“Bolsonaro usually instigates his base against those he considers ‘enemies’ of the government, such as the press, communists, and so on. Last week he accused the president of the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court and the governor of São Paulo of conspiring to seize power.”

Bramatti continued: “According to the Bolsonarista narrative, politicians committed to reducing the circulation of people on the streets of the country’s major cities actually want to cause damage to the economy to hit Bolsonaro. The notion that the country was better at the time of the military dictatorship is also part of the Bolsonarista fantasy. Thus, it is not surprising that supporters of the president ask for the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court, nor the fact that Bolsonaro supports this mobilization.”

The latest across the infodemic:

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this morning on ABC’s Good Morning America told George Stephanopoulos that protests on Facebook against stay-at-home orders qualify as “harmful misinformation” and are taken down from the site
  • In case you missed it, late last week the governor of Nairobi decided that alcohol is vital to countering Covid-19; he included small bottles of Hennessy cognac in food packs distributed to Kenya’s poor. 
  • No video for you today. But NPR has a phalanx of excellent comics it dropped today in a podcast to do battle against the Infodemic.

Stay safe and healthy,

Ilan Greenberg

PS. Much appreciation to the Coda staff who contributed today: Gautama Mehta, Chaewon Chung, and Sophiko Vasadze.