The Infodemic: North Korea’s lack of transparency on Covid-19 feeds disinfo in South Korea; New Zealand is not immune to 5G conspiracies
Welcome! We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what is being done to combat it. Below are a few narratives – real and fake – that have caught our attention.
New Zealand has received much-deserved praise for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis and for managing to not just flatten but actually squash the curve. But the country is not immune to the accompanying infodemic:
- New Zealand’s social media is full of theories linking 5G to coronavirus
- Mobile operators have called on police to investigate a string of threats and attacks on cell phone towers in the country, some of which have caused “irreparable damage” at a time when telecommunications is essential
- Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has condemned the conspiracy theories as “just not true”
Background: Beliefs that 5G suppresses immune systems and causes cancer predate the pandemic, but the spread of Covid-19 has sent 5G conspiracy theorists into overdrive. Earlier this month, we reported on a Stop 5G UK Facebook page, which was filled with apocalyptic messages and videos, claiming that the “virus is a result of 5G exposure, a mass depopulation project, a plot led by Bill Gates, or a ploy to vaccinate people with a tracking microchip.”
An interesting development: Looks like Facebook just took down most of Stop5G pages, something the company has refused to do in the past.
Sweden has remained largely open, keeping most people at work and isolating only the elderly and the vulnerable. The approach has been widely debated and criticized, especially as the number of deaths in Sweden began to climb.
Over the weekend, Swedish radio ran a story saying that ice rinks might have to be used as morgues if the number of deaths continues to increase.
The report went largely unnoticed in the West, but the Russian state media hopped on the story, spinning it beyond recognition.
- RT reported that “Sweden using ice rinks and shipping containers as morgues overflow due to Covid-19 deaths.” The article never links back the original sources of the story.
- Sputnik described Sweden’s “overloaded morgues,” and the story is now being picked up by Russian language outlets.
Why this merits attention: It is a great example of how you can find a grain of truth in all effective disinformation campaigns.
It is also a perfect illustration of how Russia’s state media constructs a narrative around Covid-19 as a geopolitical failure of the West. The disastrous situation in Europe and the United States have given Kremlin-funded outlets plenty of disinformation fodder.
Here’s another example: many websites are openly blaming the pandemic on the United States. This article, for example, says the virus was developed by USAID-funded research programs.
Speaking of disinformation fodder: the lack of transparency about Covid-19 in North Korea seems to be fueling a wave of pre-election disinformation in South Korea.
Coda’s Chaewon Chung has more below, so read on!
SPOTLIGHT: South Korea ᛫ Chaewon Chung
The outside world has praised South Korea’s government for its handling of Covid-19, but inside the country far-right groups are working hard to undermine the success by spreading Covid-19 related fakes ahead of a parliamentary election on Wednesday.
Far-right influencers and thousands of their supporters have accused the government of blocking people from getting tested until the election and spread the news that President Moon Jae-in had tested positive (he hadn’t).
Many of the fakes also managed to weaponize the lack of transparency around the Covid-19 situation in North Korea. Conservative voters in South Korea have long been skeptical about the Moon administration’s more liberal approach to dealings with the North. Covid-19 has allowed South Korea’s disinformation merchants to capitalize on this skepticism.
On April 5, a far-right YouTuber posted a video that claimed South Korea’s government was producing one million face masks a day for export to North Korea. The video went viral. The comment section filled with angry reactions.
I spoke to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification who said that North Korea has not requested any medical supplies.
The ministry dismissed the videos as “baseless” and “fake news,” and asked the Korea Communications Standards Commission to request that YouTube pull them.
What makes the disinformation so potent is that South Koreans can only speculate about what is really happening in the North.
One Twitter user said, “it is possible that the North Korean government would execute those who are infected to prevent further spread in their country.”
A Japanese news outlet reported that more than 100 North Korean soldiers died, possibly from Covid-19 near the border with China.
Pyongyang says it has no cases of coronavirus. The World Health Organization’s representative in North Korea said last week that the country had conducted 709 tests and none were positive.
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification says they respect North Korea’s self-reporting on Covid-19, but most people are skeptical.
“It is the nature of a socialist country to cover up information,” said Nam Sung-wook, North Korea studies professor at Korea University. “Throughout history, North Korea has never once admitted the damages made by any disease or virus outbreak. They are afraid to hurt their country’s system. But there is no one who would believe their claims.”
Hungry for more?
I want to give a plug to Reporters without Borders who have launched an impressive Covid-19 tracker looking at how the pandemic is affecting freedom of expression.
The site is worth checking it out, but it won’t cheer you up. Here are three stories, all from China, RSF is highlighting:
- Ai Fen, the head of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital and one of the original whistleblowers, has been unreachable since March 29, when she criticized the government’s censorship around the epidemic in an interview for Ren Wu magazine.
- Chen Quishi is a lawyer who became well-known last year by making videos of the demonstrations in Hong Kong and who took a train to Wuhan on January 23 to find out what was going on. His video interviews with families and coverage of chaos in hospitals were viewed by hundreds of thousands and censored by China’s platforms. But on February 6, his account was deleted and he has been missing since.
- Fang Bin is a textile businessman in Wuhan who documented overcrowded hospitals and showed the bodies of coronavirus victims inside buses turned into makeshift hearses. He has been missing since February 9.
As RSF puts it, “without the censorship imposed by Beijing, the Chinese media would have informed the public about the gravity of the epidemic much sooner, sparing thousands of lives and possibly avoiding the pandemic.”
P.S. Many thanks to Coda’s Anastasia Ghviniashvili and Caitlin Thompson who helped to pull this newsletter together.