The Infodemic: Junk science in France; the Uyghur lockdown; rising tensions in Belarus

Gautama Mehta


Welcome back to Coda’s Infodemic and thank you for joining us! We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world that is emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown. Before we dive in:

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And now, from India to Belarus, here are a few narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours. Today’s Infodemic is brought to you by Coda’s Gautama Mehta

In France, a graph purporting to link lockdown measures around Europe to increased deaths spread far and wide online. The graphic first appeared in an article written by oncologist Gérard Delépine for the web outlet France-Soir on June 5, and has since attracted over a million views on Facebook alone. But researchers say the graph and the article simply got the link between coronavirus deaths and the severity of lockdown rules backwards — instead of deaths being caused by strict quarantines, the restrictions were brought in because of high mortality rates. “This graph inverts the link between cause and effect,” Pierrick Tranouez of Rouen Normandie University told Le Monde. 

Last week, Uzkbekistani social media users noticed something strange about photographs of a charity campaign carried out by the city government of Tashkent. Police officers delivering aid packages to low-income, disabled and elderly residents appeared to have masks crudely Photoshopped onto their faces in pictures published online last week. The city’s internal affairs department admitted to editing the images, in order to avoid public criticism of the cops for not wearing masks. Face coverings are mandatory in public places in Uzbekistan’s capital, which has seen a recent spike in coronavirus cases.

In the Infodemic, we’ve followed the increasing threats to press freedom in India during the coronavirus outbreak. These concerns are back on the public agenda now that an editor at the independent news site Scroll faces likely arrest after being accused by Uttar Pradesh state police of defamation and actions “likely to spread infection of disease danger­ous to life.” A source for an article about the impact of the lockdown on an Uttar Pradesh village claimed that the piece misrepresented her, but Scroll has stood by its story. Press advocacy groups condemned the extreme response of state authorities as thinly veiled intimidation.

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What We Are Following:

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law a bill that aims to sanction China for its treatment of the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang. Human rights groups estimate that a million Uyghurs are imprisoned in re-education camps in the northwestern region. 

The bill was signed shortly after excerpts from an explosive new book by Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton revealed that Trump said that President Xi should “go ahead” with building his mass concentration camps.

  • Information from Xinjiang is scant, but reports have emerged that under lockdown, Uyghurs were not allowed to leave their homes, even for groceries. Residents were dependent on the state to deliver essentials, and videos have emerged of Uyghurs saying that they and their families were starving when the supplies failed to materialize 
  • To date, the region has reported just 76 coronavirus cases and six deaths, a conspicuously low number, given Xinjiang’s population of almost 22 million people

Why this matters: Over the past month, things have been returning to normal in Xinjiang. As the indoctrination and detention programs kick back up, explained Timothy Grose, professor of China studies at Rose-Hulman University in Indiana, “normal in Xinjiang is not good.”

Stay on the story: We are digging into what has happened to Uyghurs in Xinjiang during the pandemic, so stay tuned for updates. In the meantime, I recommend you check out this excellent piece by our reporter Isobel Cockerell, which also just won the European Press Prize. Congrats! 

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Belarus’s lax response to the pandemic, which I reported on in April, may be tipping the scales against President Alexander Lukashenko, who is up for re-election in early August.

Over the weekend, more than a hundred protesters and journalists were arrested across the country during demonstrations against Lukashenko’s campaign and the June 20 arrest of leading opposition candidate Viktor Babariko on corruption charges.

Much of this may sound like business as usual in Belarus, where the political opposition and media have faced prison terms and censorship throughout Lukashenko’s six terms in office. However, the government’s misinformation and dismissive response during the pandemic has acted as a “trigger for many people, pushing them to become politicized,” said Artyom Shraibman of Sense Analytics, a consultancy group in Minsk.

As universities, public transport and even large-scale sporting events carried on in Belarus, Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, made a series of poorly received comments. He told infected doctors that they were to blame for not following protective measures, responded to rising unemployment figures by telling people to “take jobs you don’t like,” and, yesterday evening, made a speech warning against “corona-psychosis.” 

Background: Belarus was Europe’s only country to remain open during the pandemic, but not because of low infection numbers. It actually has one of the continent’s highest per capita rates — 58,505 people have been infected as of today.

The real reason Lukashenko kept businesses open was the deplorable state of the nation’s economy. A decade of economic stagnation and a recession earlier this year are the longer-term causes of the protests, explained Shraibman, but coronavirus has acted as a catalyst. 

“Protests have been happening in neighborhoods in Minsk, in the suburbs, where they never happened before,” he said.

“Coronavirus was the last straw that pushed me to announce my candidacy,” the jailed opposition candidate Babariko said last week.

Hungry for more? Check out I recommend this piece on how Covid-19 helped the QAnon conspiracy theory gain traction in Germany.

Many thanks for reading. Coda’s Isobel Cockerell, Mariam Kiparoidze and Sasha Tyan contributed to this newsletter. 

Gautama Mehta 
Reporter, Coda Story