03 June 2020

Preachers of the Apocalypse – Fake news during the crisis

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

As everything that’s strange to us – although, the humankind has witnessed epidemics before and will do so in the future – which shows up in our lives and destabilizes it, this crisis has also been full of controversies, manipulation attempts, and has been used for both human and perfidious objectives. Generally, crises are unifying societies, but there is a great number of political leaders and supporters, businessmen, theoreticians of conspiracy, naive people and proud people who think they can do anything as long as they will make profit, even materialized through public recognition, but, uppermost, as concrete and material gains. They act against the community, under the flag of the right to say anything about anyone, anytime and anywhere, turning the lie into an opinion and the truth into the right to doubt about it. And, indeed, there are also strategic continuities in the confrontations between states and ideologies, which are using the crisis only as a phase in the long-term conflict they face and the intels about it are only weapons to be used when and how the moment asks for it.

Image source: Mediafax

Protesters and troublemakers

So, crisis periods are the best for fake news and propaganda. The more unbelievable the news is the faster the media and social media takes them over. The alcohol does not turn into medicine, although many thought that before the crisis, nor the God’s punishment comes as a virus emerged in Dao’s empire, although, indeed, the Nostradamus’s predictions refers to such an hypothesis somewhere. Neither the nature is coming back after us for the damages we have provoked during time. But many people believe so. And not for different reasons but for people’s temptation to agree with any truth the majority says and that’s provided by and institutional chain. And, sometimes, even lacking such truth, people being forced to find out for themselves where that truth might be.

The fake news tended, during this crisis, to cover the right one, in terms of quantity, and in terms of quality, as for the results it led to, it was way more superior and destructive. That’s why the WHO general director, Tedros Dhanom  Ghebreyesus, used the term “infodemic”, which should be fought against with strict measures, just like the ones taken during the effective medical crisis.

And because a great part of the “infodemic” content refers to conspiracy theories, plots which want to change our way of thinking, it was also referred to as “plandemia”, giving substance to a more logical and complex structure with objectives and finalities. Although, in some of the cases, it is rather about speculative objectives of some anti-system groups and people or simply individuals willing to make some many out of the fear and ignorance of their co-citizens.

The most dangerous fake news is, normally, included in two big and different categories:

-those disputing the current economic, social and political order and which is using the pandemic’s opportunities to promote anarchy, distrust in institutions;

-those promoting fake news related to the pandemic, its origins, its transmissibility, cure possibilities and effects etc.

For each of these, the disinformation agents/factors are not exclusively outside the institutional system (for the first case) or among the protesters of the official measures and explanations (for the second one). The daily examples are proving that neither the political leaders acted always to make some order and strengthen the institutions in the fight against the virus, including in the informational sector, nor the bad intentions prevailed among the promoters of alternative solutions, many times being all about the lack of official, clear and simple information or their distrust in the imposed ideas.

All countries entered the fake news carousel and but many of them focused on where the crisis started (China), on where there were many cases and deaths (US), on where the biggest density and the biggest differences of anti-crisis measures were (Europe, East Asia) and, indeed, on where there is already a fact that there are “laboratories” producing the fake news and hybrid war (Russia).

We are witnessing an era wherein the information became part of the war between the left and right policy, between democracy and authoritarianism, but which is open also for those who are not exactly included in these definitions and ideological directions. The virus is a propagandistic agent for both camps and for everything that’s in between. The only issues are the unknowns around them, the uncertainties on the emergence, lifespan, consequences of its existence, which are increasing and intensifying the information’s spread. What’s a truth today tomorrow will be false or unconfirmed, sometimes even for those working with logic and experimentation, like science people.

There are some main domains summarized by journalistic sentences taken and, sometimes, even inspired by politicians and influences, where the fake news, scenarios, catastrophic predictions, leads leading nowhere were spread.

Authorities are exaggerating the crisis. Something new in the peacetime, the governments of the crisis-stricken states have imposed severe restrictive measures that have led to abrupt and unpleasant changes in the social and economic life. That is why these decisions were received with restraint, some were ignored by broad categories of citizens and other explanations were sought, instead of simply believing in the existence of the virus, to explain the behaviour of executives. Most often, the simple answer was that there was "something else" behind these measures. From here, a real epidemic of false news emerged about the hidden objectives of temporarily restricting civil rights, the methods used to monitor the contamination spread. The fact that even a number of leaders challenged these measures or the severity of the crisis also contributed to this. The examples of Presidents Donald Trump - USA, or Jair Bolsonaro - Brazil, are the most eloquent. Their war with their own specialists caused even more public confusion. Boris Johnson's "change of heart" didn't do well either. Nor the forcing of the law by prime minister Orban, the one from Budapest. Democracy is coming out of this crisis with at least one twist.

And if the media channels, different anti-establishment groups, relevant public voices, but with personal and anti-system approaches also entered the scene, the picture created around the authorities’ actions became complicated, the truth becoming more and more difficult to identify and the reason to comply with these increasingly difficult measures. Executives’ lack of transparency, especially in the initial phase of the pandemic, was just the last straw.

In Europe, in order to put an end to this growing clutter of fake news and protests against the measures, it was felt the need for an intervention right from the level of the European Commission’s presidency. In addition to the anti-disinformation program, Ursula von der Leyen also made a personal call for vigilance against European citizens: “Those spreading disinformation harm you. Disinformation can cost lives. But together, we can set the record straight”.

The 5G network – a method to “depopulate” the planet. The connections between this potential communications network and coronavirus are scientifically missing, but are all over the Internet, specially created sites promoting covered dangers, but discovered by Internet detectives. In the UK, there was even a real psychosis in this scenario. In early April, a communications relay was set on fire, followed by a fire in Liverpool, in a short time, in just a few weeks, with about 30 acts of vandalism being registered against communications networks. The technicians who work on this network, the ones who "maintain the evil", have not escaped either, because, in the perception of many Facebook and WhatsApp users, 5G technology has effects on human bodies and leaves them defenceless against the virus.

The one who inspires this psychosis was also identified, in fact only a part of it, a certain David Icke, an anti-5G activist, owner of blogs and twitter accounts that promotes the scenario of the connection between 5G and coronavirus.

Why are such sites so successful? Perhaps also because, for completely different reasons, public figures, in turn, are encouraging scenarios that help to promote, or block, certain technologies or treatments. The crisis has been a breeding ground for business and political positions. And 5G, already linked to China's actions to expand its trade and technological influence, seems to be predestined for scenarios.

Bill Gates, the vaccine and microchips. It was almost natural for one of those responsible for the technological changes that led to the transformation of the post World War II world, trapped in land divisions and competing ideologies, into one that already works three-dimensionally, Bill Gates, to be on the "suspects" list for the current crisis.

According to the scenarios, he invented everything so far because the goal was, in fact, to get to vaccinate the entire planet, so inoculating a microchip to each inhabitant. And if he announced a few years ago that a pandemic was coming, he did it because he knew it would be, but he liked to play with the resistance and disbelief of his fellow men, who were too attentive to the prosperous present. The 2019’s Event 201 simulation exercise, organized by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates-sponsored Foundation, is the source of many converging scenarios toward the common goal: introducing, through vaccination, an ID digital to the entire population. And, of course, later, total control of it.

The fact that, through his and his wife's foundations, Melinda Gates, Bill Gates is promoting digital identity (for now for refugees and unregistered people), is just one of the arguments that the goal is to control us all.

Of course, it's not just that. Gates is no doing well with his previous humanitarian campaigns either. His vaccine promotion campaign is "dismantled" by examples with cases when the promoted treatments produced the exact opposite. An anti-polio campaign is directly linked to Bill Gates, and the fact that the sites that promote these messages are in connection with the anti-5G ones is also a kind of conspiracy, on a different direction.

Studying who promotes these sites, the media found that some of them are owned by extremist groups, generally right-wing, but extremists attract each other or by individuals with strong personalities, with concerns in the digital field, some even with achievements, but who have not received the recognition they think they deserve. As is the case with the so-called "doctor" Shiva Ayyadurai, an eccentric Indian scientist, self-proclaimed inventor of "email", who is also among the contestants of the official versions on the genesis and spread of the virus.

We have a crisis, how do we react to it? There is no need to resume everything that was prescribed as a miracle drug during the pandemic. Enough that President Trump himself has been involved in giving regular advice on what is good and what is not about treatment. And that sometimes these tips were taken seriously and produced victims.

However, the crisis has produced an explosion of "miraculous" solutions, of online healers, of unrecognized and unknown scientists, of medical corporations, some very serious, which have announced treatments and remedies, some of which are more useful and affordable, at the right price. The World Health Organization tried to put some order in this avalanche of false discoveries, but it was also under pressure for geopolitical reasons, so its approach was reduced in credibility.

But then, for a recap, did you know that the blood of the African population is resistant to coronavirus? That is until it is discovered that, in fact, it is rather the other way around. It was also said on CNN. Or that vodka is a good disinfectant? Sure, you knew that. A televangelist heals his followers with a unique vaccination method: they must touch the televisions during the sermon. An Indian parliamentarian says that using the "Namaste" greeting formula is blocking the transmission of the virus. Not when using other greetings, in other languages. No way. "Namaste" has exclusivity. Breathing six times in a row, then coughing, is also a healing method. Or maybe not. Even if the treatment could emerge from famous intellectuals. With a lot of imagination. And the list is so long ...

At war, we go prepared  

So, we have both an epidemic and an infodemic and both should be combated, energetically, if possible. For the epidemic, the effort is more like technical, rules must be imposed and followed and these should also be clear and simple in order to be accepted. But this is where the second war starts, which completes the first one: the one that says the first does not even exist is just the result of a treacherous imagination, of a plot, a conjuration. The term war is not a journalistic forcing, it was already used by a series of politicians to mobilize their citizens. And to stimulate them to accept more serious social and economic austerity measures.

In order to combat infodemia, it is necessary that sometimes even the demands of politicians to not be taken for granted, without verification, regarding good faith. There have been cases of its absence. However, Europol considered that a handful of institutional help was also needed, regarding a few rules, which, by respecting them, European citizens become aware of what should or should not be believed. The goal is, as in the case of the virus itself, to break the chain of infection that fake news producers count on when they launch, often online, new versions of the Apocalypse, for all frustrations and interests.

The few adapted "demands" are simple:

● if the information is not coming from an official source, be careful, it may not be what it seems, usually the fake news is covered as you like;

● check: if the site is trustworthy, if there is other information about it, what objectives it has set itself, what are the contact details;

● check the sources: if there are several that send the same information, if there are references to initial sources;

● research the appendices, if any, the photographs, if they do not seem to be from the same narrative as the text. Seek to convince yourself that what you read is true. An online search can give you more information. Otherwise, you will not be informed, but misinformed;

● check the date of publication (sometimes old news is re-promoted), see if the facts fit into the invoked calendar;

● go to experts, to officials, verified sites of institutions. See if the information is there as well;

● do not transfer unverified information to others. Don't make it popular and comment on it, because it only helps to spread it and make it more popular;

● be proactive when you discover fake news, report it to the online platform. If they are personal, warn the senders that what they posted is not true. Explain the risks to them;

● contribute to the dissemination of institutional, official, verified information. You may seem to become an online agent of officials, but in a democratic society, they are the ones responsible for its functioning. Voting day is coming and you can fine them then for the way they did it.

The post-crisis world will have to reinvent itself in many areas, especially in trade, tourism, passenger transport, even education. It will be much harder to do this from a grounded ground of distrust in institutions, with fractured communities, convinced that what has happened - and is not over yet - is just a conspiracy to impose new control technologies for the population, or a punishment for globalizations’ sins.

The stakes of combating false news during the coronavirus crisis are more than an anti-infodemic medicine. It is, in fact, an adaptation operation to a much noisier and more incoherent world, a world wherein we will have to live from now on. It is the war of each one of us.

Translated by Andreea Soare