The Infodemic: Japanese official’s racist COVID hot-take; Facebook labels “state-controlled” media; French doctors present anti-vax gift to Africa

Natalia Antelava


Welcome back, and a very special welcome to all our new subscribers. We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world that is emerging from the lockdown. 

Coronavirus may no longer be the only news on our screens, but infection numbers are still rising around the world, and disinformation about Covid-19 continues to spread. Below are a few narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours. 

“Do not lie, do not steal, do not betray!” That’s the best antidote to coronavirus, according to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico. When asked why he is not social distancing, he says that he doesn’t need to, because he is a good person. This accentuates the government’s confusing messaging, amid rapidly rising coronavirus cases. Another example: Face masks are mandatory but Obrador’s home secretary doesn’t wear one. Instead, Sánchez Cordero says that she uses “citrus-based nanomolecules” to protect herself.  A few drops, according to her, are enough to destroy viruses. Meanwhile, a month ago Alejandro Giovanni López, a bricklayer was arrested and detained by police for not wearing a mask on a public road. Hours later, he was reported dead. If you read Spanish, Animal Politico has good context here

Australia’s flagship 60 Minutes show is in trouble for giving airtime to coronavirus conspiracy theories. On Thursday, it aired a segment with Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans — also known as Paleo Pete — who has recently switched from peddling anti-vaccine propaganda to Covid-19 disinformation. Last month, Evans was hit with a $25,000 fine by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for promoting a $15,000 light machine as a remedy for what he referred to as the “Wuhan coronavirus.” A few weeks later, Australia’s Channel Seven dropped Evans from the “My Kitchen Rules” cooking show, on which he was a judge for 10 years, owing to his controversial health claims.

In Japan, deputy Prime Minister Aso Tarō used the racist colonial term “mindo” to explain the nation’s low number of coronavirus deaths. “Mindo” means “level of civilization” and it is a term that Japanese used to justify the colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Responding to public criticism over use of such a loaded word, Taro said that he just wanted Japanese people to be proud of the fact that their country was able to control its Covid-19 death toll.

And a bit of good news, for a change: it has taken ages, but Facebook is finally starting to label state-controlled media on its pages. The company spent months studying ownership structures of media companies around the world and trying to figure out what qualifies as “state-controlled.” Here’s the criteria they’ve come up with. Insiders say, “Places like China were easy, but we struggled with companies like Al Jazeera” that have high editorial standards, but are nevertheless state-controlled. It looks like Al Jazeera will be flagged, but we’ll know more as the company starts rolling out the measure more widely. They’ve already started in the United States. Definitely one to watch. 

Anti-vaxxers in Africa: A couple of weeks ago, we reported on a debate about vaccination in Nigeria, fuelled, in part, by a controversial interview broadcast on French TV. 

  • In the footage, two French doctors discussed Africa as a suitable venue for testing Covid-19 vaccine 
  • The interview caused outrage across the continent and fed into an already raging argument about vaccination 
  • But the real consequences are only now becoming apparent. French publication Jeune Afrique reports that ever since the French television discussion aired, doctors in Cote d’Ivoire have seen a significant drop in vaccinations and visits to vaccination centers 

Bolsonaro’s welfare lies: In the last Infodemic, we debunked Bolsonaro’s welfare lies, showing how his promises of increasing welfare payments to those in need during the coronavirus crisis turned out to be fake news. Well, it’s now official:

  • The Brazilian Finance Ministry announced it is redirecting the equivalent of more than 16 million dollars from a program intended for aid to poor families in the country’s northeast, Brazil’s poorest region
  • The money will be allocated instead to the government’s communication budget, in other words, PR for Bolsonaro’s government. 
  • Meanwhile, Brazil’s Covid-19 death rate continues to grow. There is now one death per minute. Brazil has just surpassed Italy to become the third-worst-hit country by death count, after the U.S. and the U.K.

LGBTQ shaming in Putin’s refrendum: Earlier this week, we reported on a jaw-droppingly homophobic video, designed to get people to vote for constitutional amendments that will keep Putin in power until 2036.

  • The video, set in the future, shows a gay couple adopting a boy from a Russian orphanage. The camera zooms in on the visibly upset child, as a somber voice asks “Is this Russia you’d choose?” 
  • The video, which was published by pro-Kremlin outlets, has now been pulled off YouTube. Coda’s Russia editor Katerina Fomina managed to speak to an actor who starred in it, and asked how he could take part in such a hateful campaign 
  • Alexander Filimonenko said that he was full of remorse and had now decided to vote against the constitutional amendments in favor of Vladimir Putin. He also said that he would like the video “to go away”  
  • That’s unlikely. Our reporting has already shown a direct correlation between hateful messaging on pro-Kremlin media and brutal attacks on gay men and women 

On the other side: the lockdown has created an unexpected opening for Russia’s LGBTQ community. Check out this piece by our reporter Isobel Cockerell and Magnum’s Thomas Dworzak, who have been hanging out at secret Zoom parties.

It takes a team to bring you this newsletter: Gautama Mehta, Rachel Sherman, Chaewon Chung, Sasha Tyan and Dave Stelfox have all contributed today. Here are a couple of their recommendations: 

  • Dave Stelfox says this “honest, forthright op-ed in The National on racism in the Arab world, inspired by recent events in the U.S.” is worth your time. It also explains how coronavirus is not helping matters.
  • Sasha Tyan flagged that today marks three years since the Qatar blockade began. Disinformation around the issue has always been a problem, but coronavirus has made it so much worse. Her recommendation is this piece from Middle East Eye, which reads: “Last March, a network of fake accounts accused Qatar of spreading the virus to Argentina, while Saudi-based journalist Noura Al-Moteiri propagated coronavirus conspiracy theories claiming that Qatar had given money to China to help the development of the disease, in order to harm the Saudi and Emirati economy.”

And my recommendation is for you to dig into Coda’s original reporting on issues that are shaping the world we live in. We always want to hear what you think, so hit reply anytime if you have questions, tips or feedback. 

Thank you for reading, and see you next week!


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