Rarely has accurate information been more vital than at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet a global disinformation war is being waged at full force.
China and Russia push conspiracy theories worldwide about the origin of the virus. Autocrats from Cambodia to Saudi Arabia to Turkey censor reporting on the virus.
Meantime, President Donald Trump blasts journalists who question his misinformation, while Fox News pundits and social media promote reckless claims about the outbreak.
Here’s the good news, however: For those of you who seek solid information while sheltering at home there is a surprising amount to be found.
But first, it’s important to grasp some of the dangerous distortions being promoted about the virus globally – and at home. China tried to distract attention from its early mishandling of the virus by advancing absurd claims – tweeted by a Foreign Ministry spokesperson -- that the U.S. Army brought the epidemic to Wuhan.
Meantime, the Chinese government expelled U.S. reporters who did yeoman coverage of the Wuhan outbreak, and muzzles its own media from reporting on its coronavirus failures.
And Beijing is harnessing a vast social media campaign of bots, trolls, and state-controlled sites to push a new worldwide narrative stressing its “model” campaign to squelch COVID-19 (making a sharp comparison with the USA). It has done this even as many health experts worldwide question the Chinese statistics.
The investigative news site ProPublica has tracked more than 10,000 fake or hijacked Twitter accounts connected to the Chinese government efforts at coronavirus propaganda (with an additional 200,000 frozen by Twitter). The German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy also tracks Chinese propaganda efforts, along with Russia’s.
And, indeed, Russia has also been super active in promoting fake coronavirus news while hiding its own statistics. State-controlled TV promotes the thesis at home that COVID-19 was a biological weapon created by the Pentagon to kill as many Chinese as possible
Meantime, after closing Russia’s long border with China, Vladimir Putin did little to address the pandemic until very recently. Doctors are silenced, nearly all national media are controlled, even as Moscow currently claims only 76 have died out of a mere 10,000 cases.
“Nobody trusts the government figures announced in Russia,” says the respected independent Russian journalist Natalia Gevorkyan. “Everybody questions how it could be that we have such a long border with China, and so many Chinese workers inside Russia, yet we started so late and have so few cases.”
That has not stopped the Kremlin from mounting a coordinated effort on social media to spread alarm and misinformation about COVID-19 in other countries. An internal European Union report described this effort as aimed at stoking “confusion, panic and fear” to “subvert European societies from within.” Ditto for America, as we learned after the 2016 election.
So it’s easy to understand the goal of Russian and Chinese disinformation. What’s more frustrating is the level of conspiracy theories and misinformation being spewed out in the United States.
No need here to reprise President Trump’s weeks of insisting the virus was under control or was a Democratic Party “hoax.” Or the daily news conferences where he promotes unproven drug therapies and falsely claims there are sufficient tests.
Equally disturbing are false narratives pushed by far-right pundits, including that the virus was manufactured in a Chinese laboratory. Or that it is spread by 5G wireless networks. (Russian news sites also attack 5G signals as harmful.) Or the claim by Fox News hosts that the number of U.S. deaths has been inflated.
The ease with which conspiracy theories spread in troubled times makes it all the more vital that Americans access fact-based sources. Luckily there are even more such sources available than usual. So let me cite a few I regularly consult.
During the COVID-19 crisis some of America’s best newspapers are putting select coverage outside their paywalls. So, besides The Inquirer, you can read coronavirus coverage in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. (Given the severe financial hit to newspapers at this time, one hopes that those who take advantage of the freebies will ultimately subscribe.)
Beyond print media, think tanks in Philadelphia and Washington have switched their many presentations to webcasts, sometimes on Zoom, a video-conferencing app you can access for free. So you can tune in to fascinating events at Philly’s Foreign Policy Research Institute, the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Atlantic Council, and more.
For stats on the virus there is the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center.
Both ProPublica and the Alliance for Securing Democracy websites report closely on Chinese and Russian disinformation campaigns.
I could add many more (and will if asked) but hope this is sufficient while you are confined to quarters. Just remember, when you finally emerge, the importance of news outlets and journalists that give you the facts.