Categorized | World

The Uphill Battle Against COVID-19 Misinformation

Anti-mask protest

Image by gerrypoppleston

Since the World Health Organisation declared a “global pandemic” on 11th March we’ve seen a broad spectrum of responses from different states in their attempts to handle the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19). The success or failure of various states to deal with the pandemic has been well reported, with several leaders ranging from Germany’s Angela Merkel to New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern seeing significant bumps in their popularity as a result of perceived success, while other leaders, like Trump and Boris Johnson, have received less favourable reviews. But global viruses are not just matters of public health, they also bring up epistemological issues about which sources of information we can trust and how to convince people of the truth.

Misinformation surrounding viral pandemics is certainly nothing new. Contrary to narratives from the time, the 1918 “Spanish Flu” did not originate in Spain, nor did it kill the majority of people infected. Case fatality rates were around 2.5% and were exacerbated by overcrowding and poor hygiene in hospitals. The misinformation surrounding COVID-19 is a different beast altogether. COVID-19 rather than being remembered as the “China virus”, as Trump would suggest, should be remembered as the “Facebook virus” – the first global pandemic in the age of mass social media. Social media has responded to Coronavirus in the exact ways one would imagine, with different users sharing and liking different views on the spread and handling of the virus. Far-right groups have used an atmosphere of heightened tension to push back against migration and liberal democracy, and scientific advice becoming drawn into a whirlwind of debates on individual liberty and the power of the state. Seemingly straightforward statements like “wearing masks reduce the risk of spreading droplets,” have turned into ideological battlegrounds, with Democratic voters in the United States being 23% more likely than Republican voters to say they wear masks “all or most of the time”. The pandemic is a chilling global experiment not just in how to contain highly contagious viruses, but in how to contain highly contagious misinformation.

How have states responded to diverging media narratives and attempted to get a grip on messaging? Well, in some cases, the driving force of conspiracy theories have not been fringe twitter groups and far-right organisations, but state leaders themselves. The hypermasculine ‘ironmen’ leaders who have built a cult of personality around toughness, from Trump and Bolsonaro to Vladimir Putin, made considerable efforts to downplay the threat of the virus and to insist that the virus would pose no threat to them personally, with Bolsonaro calling the virus a “measly cold”. In these instances, state leaders embraced the art of disinformation in order to bolster their image and distract from having some of the highest fatality rates in the world. However, most high-profile state leaders have attempted to use their media platform to combat the fictitious narratives that have arisen around the virus. Chancellor Merkel was lauded back in April for her concise and accurate description of the coronavirus transmission rate. In spite of the government’s best efforts, Germany has not remained immune to virus misinformation.

On the 30th of August “anti-Corona” protests erupted in Berlin and London, both fuelled by common narratives of misinformation. In Berlin, far-right organisations, such as the “Reich Citizens”, attempted to storm the Bundestag, while speakers talked of the dangers of 5G, a well-established conspiracy theory. Protestors also waved signs in support of QAnon, a fast-spreading theory that President Trump is waging war against elite Satan-worshippers in America. In London protestors chanted similar notes about 5G, the danger of vaccinations and that the virus is a “hoax”. The similarity of protests in Berlin and London seem to indicate that the spread of virus misinformation in certain countries is not necessarily linked to how well the state has been seen to cope with the virus itself. Pew Research showed that 88% of Germans thought their government had coped well with the virus compared with 46% of Britons, but far-right organisations and social media groups have still succeeded in spreading conspiracy theories in both countries.

One country that has so far experienced success on both fronts is Taiwan. Four academics based in Australia and the United States conducted a statistical analysis of virus misinformation using Google’s Fact Check Explorer computing interface to track fact-checking posts from January to July across various different countries. The country with the highest proportion of misinformation narratives on COVID-19 was China at 22%, followed by the United States at 14% and Germany at 10%. Taiwan was at the bottom with just 5% of media stories found to be misinformation. China’s significant lead can most likely be explained by the fact that their fact-checking websites are, unsurprisingly, run by the Chinese Communist Party.

More importantly, how has Taiwan led the way in combating false narratives? A method that is both creative and quite simple is humour. Taiwan’s Digital Minister, Audrey Tang, called for “humor over rumor” by trawling the internet in order to address fake news with humorous posts that contain the correct information. The Taiwanese have even employed professional comedians as “engagement officers”. Taiwan combines the carrot with the stick, threatening to imprison those that spread misinformation that threatens public health with three years in prison. A man from Taipei City was arrested in February for spreading rumours that the military had taken over the city due to the spread of the virus.

Audrey Tang has called this strategy of combating online rumours, “nerd immunity”, building public awareness and inoculating the general population against dangerous misinformation. Over the next few months governments and public health organisations may feel as if fighting against false COVID-19 rumours is an uphill battle, especially when the other side denies the existence of said hill, but Taiwan has proved that there are still creative and effective ways of combatting misinformation.

Image courtesy of gerrypoppleston. [CC BY NC-ND 2.0]


About Alejandro Castillo

Alejandro Castillo earned his BA History degree from UCL, specialising in modern history. He intends to undertake a Master's degree in International Relations and is particularly interested in China and Latin American politics

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