Coronavirus conspiracy crackdown: how are we dealing with misinformation?

With Trump advocating anything from injecting Dettol right through to most likely shooting viruses in a petri dish, other conspiracies might seem to pale in comparison. In the UK, more than 50% of us apparently believe that Covid-19 was man-made. However, many countries are fighting misinformation – some with a heavier hand than others. Why are humans so attracted to conspiracies and what action are various organisations and national governments taking against the tide of poppycock?

It’s all about the 5G

People have been banging on about 5G and its supposed harms for a long time now, so it’s nothing new. It was probably 18 months ago now that it first came into my consciousness, as my gaze alighted on a poster decrying the dangers of the new technology in a motorway service station toilet. The effects of radiation poisoning, its proponents argue, fit with Coronavirus symptoms “like a hand in a glove”. Eight percent of the UK population think there are credible links between Covid-19 and 5G technology. Even more interestingly, Brexit supporters are more likely to believe this.

It’s not just online that these arguments have sparked fury though – at the last count I read, 77 aerials had been set on fire across the UK as part of the backlash. Engineers for various telecoms companies are being warned to stay vigilant as there have been reports of threats and razor blades found at aerial installation sites. 

Those drawing links between Coronavirus and 5G Aerial installation point to Wuhan as one of the first places 5G was brought in but the idea of harm from 5G is really not new. 2018 saw the infamously swivel-eyed tin-foil hat wearer, David Icke become an early adopter of the 5g harm theory, and he discussed the supposed dangers with his fans online in various videos. 

Yet there has always opposition to new technology – the same concerns were bandied about with the introduction of wifi and 3G, with protests around 3G masts. Frank Field MP was one voice sounding the alarm back in 2002. Even the introduction of the steam train was not welcomed with universally open arms. An apocryphal tale says that many physicians believed they were a distinct safety concern for the ‘fairer sex’, as travelling at high speeds would result in women’s uteruses flying out of their bodies. 

Radiation, radio waves, microwaves and sound waves aren’t widely understood and radiation will always sound scary. It brings to mind thoughts of Chernobyl and radiation sickness. Never mind that there’s a low level of radiation naturally within the earth – and even within the banana bread literally everyone seems to be baking during lockdown. One banana contains 1% of your daily safe level of radiation exposure. So just don’t overdo it with the recipe. 

Breakfast with a side of fake news

Sadly, it’s not just American Presidents who have been spreading these falsehoods, but celebrities, too. The list of famous names who have mentioned a link between Coronavirus and 5G grows egregiously long by the day. Amir Khan, the boxer, believes Covid-19 has been “put there while they test 5G”; Eamon Holmes was censured by Ofcom and told he was “undermining trust” in science when he told This Morning co-host Alice Beer that he disagreed with her view of the conspiracy being fake news and said “what I don’t accept is mainstream media immediately slapping that down as not true when they don’t know it’s not true. […] because it suits the state narrative. That’s all I would say, as someone with an inquiring mind”.

Ofcom also said it would sanction broadcaster ESTV, too, who uncritically televised an interview with the aforementioned ‘personality’ David Icke. Ofcom said the show, broadcast as it was, “risked causing significant harm to viewers” and that ESTV “failed in its responsibility to ensure that viewers were adequately protected”.

In the New Statesman, Sarah Manavis, their Culture and Digital Tech correspondent also laid blame at the ‘mainstream’ media’s doorstep for the “neutral” headlines that fail to properly recognise the dangers of uncritical reporting of the theories. She also slammed those celebrities whose words on social media remain “unchecked”, saying that “a lack of consequences for their actions may cost lives.”

Conspiracy-minded – the anti-vaxxer crowd are a natural target for Corona falsehoods

In the UK, relatively little has been done by governments to tackle the misinformation coming out from varied sources, with regulators seemingly toothless. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have seemingly taken some responsibility and Facebook in particular are either removing links to false information or adding warnings or additional links to the footer of sources warning potential readers that the information they’re about to consume is a falsehood. YouTube is repeatedly removing videos, including the now infamous ‘Plandemic’, presented by Judy Mikovits.

Mikovits, a disgraced virologist, has become a celebrity in the anti-vaccination circles, much like the now discredited former doctor, Andrew Wakefield before her. With retracted studies coming out of their ears, these two doyens of the anti-vaccination movement have now become anti-establishment pin-ups for those who truly believe that vaccinations confer much more harm than benefit. Her regular appearance at Autism conferences show her real intentions only too clearly – she’s been known to claim that Zika, Ebola and West Nile viruses were all man-made, hence her link with the bogus man-made theories behind the Coronavirus epidemic.

The 26 minute documentary is being regularly pulled from various platforms but this only serves to stoke the fire of controversy, as the documentary’s fans argue it’s being censored and this is evidence of a ‘cover-up’. The clip (the full documentary is yet to be released) is narrated by filmmaker Mikki Willis who says “the minions of Big Pharma waged war on Dr. Mikovits” as he conveniently skips lots of the real facts of the case and suggests that Mikovits has been falsely discredited. In common with Wakefield, her paper was not only retracted, but has now been completely debunked. Her assertion that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was caused by a mouse retrovirus  – XMRV (xenotropic murine leukemia virus (MLV)-related virus) – was examined again in 2012 – the results of which concluded that there was no evidence.

Indeed, Mikovits herself is quoted in the linked study, accepting the results. So why she’s now decided to go back on her statement, where she expresses disappointment but acceptance of that study’s results, it’s not entirely clear. Except when you consider that she has a serious axe to grind with Dr Anthony Fauci, the leading US infectious diseases expert, who she has accused of stifling her work.

Fauci, who leads the Scientific US Coronavirus team, warned his fellow Americans yesterday “there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control, which, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death, that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery.” He is the loudest of the staunch opposition to plans to reopen the US economy too quickly.

Read more on this atrociously poor excuse for a documentary in Vice’s forensic takedown of Mikovits here.

No-nonsense policies in some parts of the world

Those continuing to promote misinformation beware though; they should thank their lucky rabbit’s foot that they don’t live in India, Morocco, Thailand, Cambodia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Singapore, Botswana, Russia, South Africa or Kenya, where journalists are reportedly being jailed for spreading mistruths. Cyber crime units in those countries are coming down hard on anyone who transgresses the truth – indeed the BBC profiled Robert Alai, who describes himself as “Kenya’s most reliable and respected blogger” who posted that there was an outbreak of Covid-19 in Mombasa. He now faces 10 years in jail.

Reporters without Borders are hot on the case of India, where press freedom is being curtailed in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state-sanctioned information. This has resulted in some false articles being prevented and indeed many journalists have faced jail time for their conspiracy-focused writings. The Straits Times reported on April 20th that over 100 people in India had been arrested for false reporting there. Although there is no law against false news, there are laws which forbid “rumour-mongering” according to the director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, based in Delhi. “It is fair to state that these laws are broadly phrased and can result in arbitrary action, given India’s slow judicial system that also generally displays a prosecutorial bias,” he said when speaking with The Straits Times. 

As citizen journalism grows, we’re all responsible for halting the spread of misinformation and lies

Timothy Caulfield, a journalist for Nature Magazine, argued strongly that it was the role of scientists to debunk misinformation.

“I have studied the spread and impact of health misinformation for decades, and have never seen the topic being taken as seriously as it is right now. Perhaps that is because of the scale of the crisis and the ubiquity of the nonsensical misinformation, including advice from some very prominent politicians. If this pro-science response is to endure, all scientists — not just a few of us — must stand up for quality information.”

One scientist friend of mine suggested that it was, instead, the role of a journalist to do so, but I’d argue strongly that we all have a role to play when it comes to stopping the spread. Arguably more dangerous than deadly viruses are the falsehoods that surround them as well as poppycock about medical fact and scientific methods behind treatments and preventative therapies. Whether it’s lies about the vaccine and how trials for it (definitely didn’t) kill the first trial candidates; fake treatments that range from lemon juice to Trump’s injections of UV light laced with disinfectant chaser – or that the virus itself doesn’t exist, these unscientific and downright lethal arguments threaten our very existence.

Fighting Coronavirus will take international co-operation, scientific acumen and public trust in the process. The more that trust in those solutions is eroded, the more dangerous the virus itself becomes.

So check before you share that article or forward on that WhatsApp message. Misinformation literally kills.

 

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