Infodemic: the Sino-Aussie spy war; Maria Ressa and the Rappler case; fake cures in India

Natalia Antelava


Welcome back to Coda’s Infodemic, and a special welcome if you are joining for the first time. We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world that is emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown. 

  • At Coda we believe that now, more than ever, the world needs journalism that cuts through the noise of the 24-hour news cycle. If you agree, please consider supporting our work 

Let’s dive in. Today, from Brazil to the Philippines, here are a few narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours. 

After months of escalating tensions between the two nations, China is upping the ante against the Australian government’s call for an inquiry into Beijing’s official coronavirus narrative. In a counter-espionage offensive that seems more Harriet the Spy than James Bond, the Chinese authorities say they are cracking down on Australian intelligence operations in China. This morning, the Global Times revealed that Chinese operatives have seized a cache of Australian spy gadgetry – including a stash of dollar bills, a pair of pink woolly gloves, a $10 compass, a mask and a subway map of Shanghai. “Did they find a fake mustache too?” asked one Twitter user, after Hong Kong Free Press editor Tom Grundy posted the article. 

In India, celebrity yoga guru Baba Ramdev launched an ayurvedic treatment, which he claims cures the coronavirus. Last week, he was ordered to stop advertising the product, named Coronil, under the wonderfully titled Magic Remedies Act. Ramdev was subsequently charged by Jaipur police with making misleading claims about Coronil’s effects. He claims that the treatment was subject to a clinical trial at a hospital in the northern city, but now the hospital is saying that no such testing took place.

Brazil’s legislature is preparing to vote tomorrow on a new draft of a controversial bill that attempts to regulate fake news. The bill is opposed not only by supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro, whose sons and other close allies are under an unrelated Supreme Court investigation for allegedly disseminating fake news, but also many civil liberties advocates. Human Rights Watch issued a statement last week arguing that the bill poses a serious threat to freedom of expression and privacy rights.

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What We Are Following:

Fillipino journalist Maria Ressa is back in court in Manila today, as her legal team files an appeal against her June 15 conviction on cyber-libel charges. The guilty verdict means that Ressa, founder and CEO of the investigative news site Rappler, is facing up to six years in jail. Another Rappler journalist was also convicted and both have since been released on bail. The case has caused a global outcry, with Human Rights Watch describing it as a “devastating blow to media freedom in the Philippines” 

But Ressa’s case matters far beyond the Philippines and the media industry. 

“Democracy is dead, and part of what killed it are social media platforms,” Ressa said in a powerful interview with the BBC’s HardTalk program this weekend. 

The interview itself underlined her point. 

When HardTalk was launched in 1997, its goal was to hold the powerful to account, grilling politicians and public figures. 

But in recent years, such figures have increasingly migrated to the comforts of social media platforms where they have full control of the narrative. 

They certainly don’t need to be on programs like HardTalk. So, these days it is more often those who have experienced abuses of power who also end up at the receiving end of HardTalks’ aggressive devil’s advocacy. 

Maria Ressa spent much of the interview explaining the absurdities and inconsistencies of the legal case against her. What she wished she had talked about more — she told me later — is the demise of digital public space and dangers that it holds for all of our societies. 

Facebook has been an instrument in President Duterte’s vicious campaign against Ressa and her team. Globally, Ressa has become a crucial voice, explaining the role social media platforms play in making our societies increasingly illiberal. Her core argument is that social media platforms have become behavioral modification systems, and that their very design is a problem. 

This thread does an excellent job of dissecting some of her arguments. They include the following points:

  • Digital space is optimized for engagement over truth. It prioritizes virality over the quality of information and, therefore, is bound to create a very unstable media ecosystem
  • Building a financial model on the targeting of human behaviour, based on detailed models of our lives, with little to no accountability, is itself an inherently illiberal act
  • A system that replaces the editorial, funding and distribution systems of the free press with the incentives of the newsfeed algorithm creates an environment in which disinformation thrives 

It would have been good to have Facebook executives in the HardTalk chair, addressing some of these issues. 

If you want to hear from Ressa herself, I urge you to tune into a panel discussion organized by the International Center for Journalists and Columbia University’s Tow Center. I’ll be joining her, the Tow Center’s Emily Bell, ICFJ’s Julie Posetti and BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko for a discussion about the impact of the Covid-19 on journalism. That’s tomorrow at 4pm GMT/11AM EST. You can sign up here, so come along.  

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Before you go, here are three piece I’d like to recommend:

  • Russian journalist Karina Orlova writes about shocking racism coming from influential Russian liberals, who position themselves as alternative to Vladimir Putin
  • Coda’s Chaewon Chung on tensions raised by North Korea’s retaliatory balloon drop 
  • And Rachel Sherman follows up on the saga of Madagascar’s coronavirus “cure” 

Many thanks to Coda’s Isobel Cockrell and Gautama Mehta for their contributions to the newsletter. I also love getting your tips, feedback and questions, so please reach out anytime. And spread the word by forwarding the Infodemic to a friend.