The Infodemic: Fake images in Ecuador; predictions in India too good to be true; Armenia runs out of hospital beds
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.
Below are a few narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.
While Covid-19 cases in India hit a new record with nearly 10,000 confirmed in just the past 24 hours, the Indian health ministry put out a document filled with rosy predictions. The paper, published in an epidemiological journal by two Indian public health officials, was picked up widely by the nation’s media, with many headlines suggesting the country’s epidemic will end by mid-September. Problem is, it is riddled with errors and possibly even plagiarized, according to this forensic takedown by The Wire Science. This is in keeping with a trend for the Indian Covid response, according to writer Vasudevan Mukunth: “These flaws only highlight the low bar of research and evidence government officials have accepted in the last few months to draft policies that affect millions.”
The coronavirus blame game between China and the United States turned into a spat about vaccines this weekend. On Sunday, Republican Senator Rick Scott said that China is trying to undermine U.S. efforts to develop a vaccine and that the intelligence community has “provided information” about the alleged sabotage. In response, the Beijing-based Global Times fired back, saying that politicians like Scott “seem to ignore China’s repeated and consistent stance on making the vaccine a global public good.”
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan says that Armenia has run out of hospital beds, as numbers of infections continue to climb. Pashinyan was also diagnosed with Covid-19 on June 1. Meanwhile, Armenia’s neighbor and adversary, Azerbaijan, has announced a strict lockdown, in response to another spike in cases. Keeping the geopolitical tensions alive throughout the pandemic, a prominent Azerbaijani media outlet also claimed that Pashinyan is faking his illness to avoid having to travel to Moscow for a military parade later in June.
High temperatures will help control coronavirus, says Mohamed Hassan, Egypt’s assistant minister for public health. Sounds like wishful thinking, considering that the only thing science has established for sure is that we simply don’t know how the virus reacts to hot weather. This follows a trend we are noticing all across the world: governments eager to ease restrictions are trying extra hard to put a positive spin on their fight against Covid-19.
Poland is another case in point. Over the weekend, President Andrzej Duda praised his government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis as he campaigned ahead of the June 28 presidential election. But on the same day, the country’s health ministry recorded an unprecedented increase in the number of infections. The government, whose popularity has been hit hard by the fallout of the lockdown, has been desperate to open up the economy. Duda and his right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party are suddenly facing a serious new rival: liberal Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski.
The real disinformation crisis behind fake images in Ecuador ᛫ Gautama Mehta
Among the most memorable images of the pandemic were those contained in video footage that showed bodies piling up in the streets of the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil.
But now — even as we are finding out that Ecuador is indeed one of Latin America’s worst-hit countries, and that Guayaquil was the epicenter of its pandemic — it has become clear that some of the images that circulated widely in April on social media and in the international press were, in fact, fake:
- Video presented in international news outlets as depicting the cremation of bodies in the streets actually showed burning tires
- Photographs claiming to show mass graves dug for coronavirus victims in the countryside were unrelated and taken before the pandemic. For context, mass graves are sadly not that uncommon in Latin America — one of the photographs was from Mexico, where thousands of unmarked graves have been found during the country’s long drug war
- A video circulated on social media that supposedly showed that Ecuadorians were throwing their coronavirus dead into the sea was really filmed in 2014, and depicted migrants washing ashore on a beach in Libya
What’s behind it: A flood of misinformation has been posted to social media by a network of trolls allegedly allied to former president Rafael Correa, who is living in Belgium in exile and is wanted in Ecuador on corruption charges. According to Arturo Torres of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Correa set up an online propaganda network while still in office, and now uses it to attack the government of his successor, Lenín Moreno.
But this is where it gets really dirty: What has received less attention is that Moreno’s government stands accused of using Correa’s apparent disinformation campaign to deflect criticism of its own mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis.
Although some of the photographs from Guayaquil were fake, the situation there was dire. Mortuary systems were overwhelmed for days, meaning that many bereaved families had nowhere to take their dead.
Why this matters: Moreno’s regime has used the threat posed by fake news to justify heavy-handed actions like the arrest of a Guayaquil resident for making a video critical of the government’s Covid-19 response. More recently, Ecuadorians have taken to the streets in their thousands to protest Moreno’s cuts to public spending, which many argue disproportionately target the poor. Human Rights Watch criticized the government for beating and injuring protestors at a demonstration last month.
Hungry for More:
- Coda’s Isobel Cockerell spent weeks reporting on a hugely consequential yet little-known movement that targets young women around the world. This is her piece, and it’s a must-read.
- And, across Europe, leaders have been desperately seeking new ways to secure their borders. We report on how concerns over migration have contributed to the evolution of new forms of authoritarian technology.
As always, it takes a team to bring you this newsletter: Gautama Mehta, Chaewon Chung, Dave Stelfox and Katia Patin contributed to this one.
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See you on Wednesday.