The Infodemic: allegations of Olympic lies in Japan; an anti-coronavirus app in India

Natalia Antelava


Welcome back and very warm welcome for those of you joining for the first time. This newsletter lands in your inbox three times a week to help you understand how the global spread of coronavirus disinformation is affecting us all.  Can you think of friends who will enjoy this? Tell them to sign up. 

Today, we’re checking in on Japan and India to see how narratives – both real and fake – are shaping this pandemic. Let’s dive in!


“We are so confused, people are crying out for help.” began the email I received from a friend from Tokyo. 

As Japan’s number of confirmed cases surpassed more than 15,400 and more than 600 deaths, my friend Kentaro is among many Japanese suspecting the government of a cover-up. 

Among them is former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio who says the Japanese government prioritized the Olympics over human lives and accused the Tokyo mayor of hiding the real number of infections.

Context: from the very start of the outbreak, Japan has been criticized for lack of testing — a big contrast with its neighbors. But what fuels these allegations of intentional cover-up is the numbers of reported infections shooting up as soon as Japan announced its decision to cancel the Olympics. While the cover-up theory is picking up online, we haven’t yet seen any evidence that there was a deliberate decision to suppress the numbers. 


India’s new contact tracing app looks like the latest step in the country’s creep toward a surveillance state. 

Aarogya Setu, or “Bridge to Healthcare,” allows users to report their symptoms and uses GPS and Bluetooth to alert them to the presence of infected people nearby.

  • It is now mandatory for anyone with a smartphone who is employed in either the public or private sector to download the app. (That’s unconstitutional, a legal scholar argues.) 
  • Police in the city of Noida have announced they will be punishing those who refuse to download it with a fine of 1,000 rupees or up to six months in jail. 
  • New smartphones will reportedly soon be sold with the app pre-installed.

Unlike similar apps in countries like Israel and Singapore, Aarogya Setu is not open-source, which means it’s difficult to determine how securely user data is protected. And it’s not clear who developed it. 

“What we’re lacking most is transparency and accountability,” Nikhil Pahwa, editor of MediaNama, a publication focusing on digital rights and policy in India, told me.

There are other issues too. 

A French hacker known by the pseudonym Elliot Alderson, a longtime gadfly of India’s surveillance state, analyzed Aarogya Setu and found serious flaws: by spoofing his own location, he could see how many people were infected anywhere in India.

“I was able to see if someone was sick at the PMO office or the Indian parliament. I was able to see if someone was sick in a specific house if I wanted,” he tweeted, adding a list of locations he saw:

  • 5 people felt unwell at the PMO office
  • 2 unwell at the Indian Army Headquarters
  • 1 infected people at the Indian parliament
  • 3 infected at the Home Office

But are they actually infected?

We don’t know, and that is perhaps the biggest problem with the app. While stripping Indians of privacy, it is unlikely to help them against the virus.

“The potential for false positives on Aarogya Setu is very high because Bluetooth is not directional,” Pahwa said. “I may be on one floor and someone else may be on the floor above mine in an apartment building, and there’s a potential that the app will show us as having been in contact.”

Here’s a Covid-19 narrative I hadn’t thought about until I got a message from one of you.

I don’t have the permission to use the reader’s name, but her message singled out a powerful narrative running through Covid-era Britain: patriotic pride in volunteers. 

An infusion of patriotism accompanies any national crisis, anywhere, but our reader says she is angry because the government, supported by the mainstream media, is using patriotism to spin its own “delinquency” in dealing with Covid-19. 

“They are promoting the notion that us Brits are the only nation with a supply of decency when the government has little of either. If there are public equivalents in Asia, India, China, Iran, etc, we’re not hearing about them. Are there any?” 

We checked and the answer is yes – there are plenty. Here are just a few examples: 

  • In South Korea, tens of thousands anonymously donated money and masks to different places in need including public health centers and welfare facilities
  • In Iran, hundreds of women volunteered to uphold a sacred Islamic custom and wash bodies of Covid-19 victims 
  • In the Philippines, Barangay Health workers have been volunteering to look after people in isolation units
  • In Pakistan, 500,000 signed up to the voluntary corona Relief Tiger Force 

And yet, maybe the British volunteers are special after all. 

Inspired by the incredible story of 100-year-old Captain Tom Moore, a 98-year-old World War II veteran in Russia sent him a video message: “Together we beat Nazis back in 1945, together we’ll beat this virus,” she said. 

So far Zinaida Korneva has raised over $10,000 for Russian doctors. Not quite Moore’s staggering $40 million for Britain’s National Health Service but it’s a start.   

Thank you for reading. Have a great weekend and keep the messages coming.

See you on Monday,

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