Infodemic: Pangolin drama in China; sex, baths and Covid-19 in Ukraine

Natalia Antelava


Welcome back to Coda’s Infodemic. In this newsletter we are tracking how global disinformation shapes the world emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown. 

Today, from drama about pangolins in China to coronavirus-related arrests in Bangladesh, and the power of state-controlled media companies around the world, here are a few narratives — both real and fake — that deserve your attention.  

The Constitutional Court of Romania has ruled to strike down government quarantine and isolation measures, saying that they are “a true deprivation of freedom and a restriction of fundamental rights.” Prime Minister Ludovic Orban (no relation to his Hungarian namesake) has called on residents to ignore the ruling. Meanwhile, the country’s health minister says that he expects the number of new infections to increase because of it. Romania, along with central and southeast Europe, is already seeing a new surge of cases. The court’s decision seems,  at least in part, to be a response to the controversy over remarkably large fines imposed under an emergency decree.

Covid-19 has become a stick that rival Middle East powers are using to beat each other with. Over the weekend, the Qatari-owned New Arab website reported that fresh coronavirus spikes are emerging in Saudi Arabia and the UAE – both part of the quartet of nations that has imposed a diplomatic and economic blockade on Doha since 2017. However, as media in rival Gulf countries have been happy to point out throughout the crisis, Qatar currently has the world’s highest per capita infection rate and very little to crow about.

In Bangladesh, the detention of journalists and even a teenager for criticism of the government’s handling of Covid-19 has led to increased scrutiny of the 2018 Digital Security Act. The legislation criminalizes a variety of forms of speech, including “propaganda” against “the father of the nation, national anthem, or national flag.” The law was cited in the May arrests of 11 people, including a prominent cartoonist, who were accused of “spreading rumours and misinformation on Facebook about the coronavirus situation.” Human Rights Watch has called for the law to be repealed. 

Ukrainian news sites have enthusiastically picked up the rumor that regular sex helps your body fight off Covid-19. The reports quote doctors, sexologists and even a deputy from the ruling Servant of the People party, who wrote on Facebook that “people need regular baths, alcohol and sex” to prevent infection. The idea appears to originate outside of Ukraine and can be traced back to an Instagram post by the rapper 50 Cent, in which he claimed that “sex kills the coronavirus.”

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THE PANGOLIN DRAMA • Isobel Cockerell

Pangolins are not just victims of mass animal trafficking and a possible part of the Covid-19 mutation chain. The scaly mammals have fallen foul of pseudoscience for centuries. Now, China’s Global Times reports that a new drama, which will aim to address misinformation about the creatures, is set to begin shooting in the country. 

The production “also seeks to correct misconceptions about pangolins when it comes to their medicinal value and inform the public about the beneficial role they play in nature,” the report said.  

Context: Pangolin scales are highly prized in Chinese traditional medicine, which uses them to treat “female hysteria” and babies that won’t stop crying. Following the coronavirus outbreak, there was international outcry that the endangered animals were being kept in poor conditions in China’s wet markets. They have since been removed from the country’s official list of species approved for use in traditional medicine – a huge win for environmentalists.

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We recently reported that Facebook is rolling out new labels that identify all posts, pages and ads that are partially or wholly controlled by national governments. 

The platform will be applying the labels over the summer, and a recent report by the Oxford Internet Institute shows just how necessary they are. 

The organization publishes a weekly briefing on the spread of coronavirus misinformation across social media platforms. I highly recommend it. The highlights of last week’s findings include a really useful look at the consumption of mainstream vs state-controlled news. 

The three key narratives it identified in the last week of June were:

  • the supposed victimization of conservatives in the U.S. 
  • political bias behind the reporting of President Donald Trump’s disastrous rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • continuing assertions that the coronavirus is not as dangerous as it is portrayed 

And here is what it found about the way these stories travel:

  • An average article from a state-backed outlet reached over 8,000 users, while the average article from mainstream sources reached just below 4,500 
  • On social media, state-backed news gets over 125 engagements — likes, shares or comments — junk health news over 80, while the average article from a mainstream source gets just over 25
  • In total, 61% of engagement with non-mainstream-media content last week was with state-backed information. Of this, China led the field with 52%, Russia came in second with 42%, and Turkey took a distant third place, with just 4%. 

Want more? For the real disinfo nerds out there, here’s the link to the full report.

Before you go

For a quick break from Covid-19 news, here are two of our recent stories:

Many thanks for reading, and thank you to Dave Stelfox, Gautama Mehta, Isobel Cockerell and Katia Patin for their contributions to this newsletter.

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See you on Friday.