Infodemic: The future of TikTok, Pakistani Eid apps and global authoritarian power grabs

Natalia Antelava


Welcome. We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are the latest narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

Chinese state media is furious about President Trump’s proposed ban on the video-sharing app TikTok. Similar to Western outlets, opinion sections across China see the possible outlawing of the platform as another nail in the coffin for China-US relations. Global Times editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin, said that TikTok presents a challenge to US tech hegemony and that the American “Zoomer” generation – for whom the app is an essential part of digital life – poses a threat to Trump’s election campaign. “Trump wants to kill TikTok,” said Hu in a video message. “He has reason to worry that the American teenagers will use the app to make trouble for him.” Many young people spent the weekend posting urgent, tearful and possibly premature final messages to the platform. “This isn’t just an app. It’s a family,” wrote Hope Schwing to her eight million followers. “You have all made so many of my dreams come true at such a young age.” Another user, named Quen Blackwell, told her 2.8 million followers, “Do not panic, do not panic, VPNs exist.” 

At least 1,200 women have disappeared in Peru since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Minister of Women and Vulnerable Populations Gloria Montenegro. Montenegro also says that the country has registered 600 cases of sexual abuse and 36 femicides. Peru has one of the highest rates of violence against women in Latin America, but the situation has worsened during the coronavirus outbreak, as women have found themselves locked in with male aggressors.

Fearing a spike in Covid-19 cases, authorities in Pakistan closed animal markets ahead of the annual festival of Eid al-Adha. Instead, Pakistanis have moved its rituals online. Special qurbani — meaning sacrifice — apps have allowed users to order animals without gathering in the streets. The services can deliver animals to their homes, slaughter them and distribute meat to the poor. Similar apps have gained popularity in Bangladesh and Indonesia. However, a coronavirus-free Eid comes at a cost. The price of sacrificial animals has risen by up to 15% this year. 

Executions of civilians, repression of indigenous people and corrupt mismanagement of the pandemic — these are three hallmarks of the rule of Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Añez. A report by Harvard Law School has detailed widespread human rights abuses committed by the nation’s government since Añez came to power in a November 2019 coup. And now she is using the pandemic as an excuse to stay in office. Below, we explain how this makes Añez part of a dangerous global trend, so keep reading.

Global Election Delays by Gautama Mehta

Is the pandemic a real threat to democracy worldwide? There seems to be an emerging trend of governments using the coronavirus as a pretext to undermine electoral processes. 

“There is certainly a pattern of autocrats and aspiring autocrats around the world using the Covid pandemic as an excuse to consolidate power,” said political scientist Michael Paarlberg, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, via email.

Have a look at the past 10 days: 

  • On July 23, Bolivia’s interim government postponed its presidential election for a third time, setting a new date of October 18. The move prompted a new round of accusations that Añez is using the pandemic as a tool to stay in power. 
  • On July 30, Donald Trump suggested that the US delay its November presidential election, citing the alleged problems of postal votes. A record number of Americans are predicted to use mail-in ballots to avoid Covid-19 exposure.
  • On July 31, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam delayed parliamentary elections by a full year. She cited virus concerns, but critics said the move was intended to hold off pro-democracy voters angered by June’s security bill, which granted sweeping powers to Beijing.

Of course, these developments exist within their own political contexts. According to Steven Levitsky, a political scientist at Harvard and co-author of “How Democracies Die,” the Bolivian electoral delays are short-sighted and desperate moves by an unpopular government trying to forestall its own end. He described the regime’s thinking as being, “Well we can’t win this week, so let’s kick the ball forward.”

Even so, the damage could be lasting. And, even if it is unlikely that Trump could successfully postpone the U.S. election — his administration has already walked back the comments — his words could cast doubt on the legitimacy of the future result. 

“By screaming about fraud and how there aren’t conditions to vote and the elections should be postponed, he’ll convince up to 40ish percent of Americans that the election is not free and fair,” Levitsky said.

Hungry for more?

  • Robbie Williams, Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton and British rapper Wiley are the three latest super-spreaders of conspiracies online.  We explain in this piece in Coda’s channel tracking the ongoing War on Science 
  • In our Authoritarian Tech channel, a look at how the use of surveillance cameras is exploding in cities across the world — but there is little correlation between the number of cameras and crime figures

Many thanks for reading and see you on Friday.