Coronavirus Misinformation Has Polluted the Internet
According to a new report by the social network analysis firm Graphika, misinformation about coronavirus on social media, and on Twitter in particular, has reached an unprecedented level. This follows a World Health Organization’s report back in February dubbing the coronavirus “a massive infodemic,” which they defined as an overabundance of information, much of it false.
Graphika notes that in February and March, false treatments for COVID-19, such as “garlic, bleach, a strict water intake, and Silver Solution (potentially lethal doses of colloidal silver),” began popping up and going viral. At around the same time, more intricate and bizarre conspiracies started emerging. One such conspiracy portrayed Bill Gates creating the virus as a form of population control with the goal of profiting from a vaccine. A New York Times investigation found that the false conspiracy was mentioned 1.2 million times on TV and social media from February to April. According to Graphika, far-right, anti-vaccination, pro-Kremlin online communities, as well as other foreign actors, are disproportionately responsible for the propagation of this dangerous misinformation.
- What is the current state of affairs regarding COVID-19 misinformation?Graphika’s report found that the spread of fringe voices across social media has slowed as news organizations started reporting more widely on the pandemic. But this may be too little too late. The ideas have almost certainly already taken hold with a certain percentage of the population. And despite the relative decline, far right social media groups have recently promoted anti social-distancing protests that, among other conspiracies, reject any evidence of the effectiveness of quarantine measures. This has helped sow political division throughout America.Second, despite the relative (and likely temporary) decline of misinformation on social media, it continues to be widely disseminated on other platforms, such as TV. Laura Ingraham, on her Fox News show, has consistently pushed the narrative that Hydroxychloroquine is a highly effective treatment, despite no clinical evidence backing up this claim. Another Fox News staple, The Sean Hannity Show, which regularly engages in misinformation about the pandemic (such as comparing the virus to a mere flu), has likely increased COVID-19 cases and deaths according to one study. Even the US President continues to spread misinformation—just last week, he proposed testing Lysol internally to combat the virus (an idea which medical professionals subsequently rebuffed, warning the public that self-poisoning could lead to death). So, the infodemic is not confined to social media. It’s everywhere.
- How has foreign interference contributed to the infodemic? Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the United States finds itself combating a team effort by Russia, China, and Iran pushing the false narrative that the virus originated in an American bio-weapons lab. According to Graphika, a pro-Iranian influence campaign has been spreading this disinformation across Facebook and Twitter. And a recent EU report blamed Russia and China for targeting foreign citizens on social media as a way to aggravate the political ramifications of the public health crisis for their benefit. Furthermore, Chinese and Russian reporting on their own COVID-19 stats must be taken with a grain of salt. There is ample evidence to suggest that they are misleading the international community and their citizens about the extent and toll of the disease within their own borders. The propaganda campaigns against the United States come at a time when it is struggling to fortify itself against a new wave of Russian interference in the 2020 election cycle that aims to undermine free elections and US national sovereignty. It is worrying, but far from unexpected, that Russia, China, and Iran are pursuing a common aim of poisoning the flow of information in America. And it is just as equally troubling that our own citizens, media outlets, and public officials are parroting some of these foreign claims.
Brazilian Justice Minister Resigns, Citing Presidential Corruption
Sergio Moro, the Brazilian Justice Minister and former judge who rose to prominence by convicting powerful politicians and business people of corruption, including former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, resigned his position on Friday. He alleged that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro improperly fired the head of the federal police because he wanted a loyal political ally in the role, stating that “The president said more than once, expressly, that he wanted a person he could be in touch with personally, whom he could call directly, from whom he could receive information, intelligence reports.” Moro further implied that the ousting was part of a plan to shelter Bolsonaro’s family from potential prosecution. Ilona Szabo, an expert on public safety issues in Brazil, called the firing a “coup against democracy because the autonomy of the federal police is an essential foundation for democratic governance.” Furthermore, Brazil’s Attorney General said that if Moro’s allegations are true, the President would be guilty of obstruction of justice and corruption. This troubling affair brings more turbulence to Brazil, which has struggled to deal with Covid-19 as President Bolsonaro has clashed with health officials and governors While minimizing the impact of the pandemic.
- Is this recent firing part of a larger pattern of behavior?Yes. Bolsonaro’s presidency represents a clear authoritarian threat to Brazilian democracy. After years on the fringes of Brazilian politics, Bolsonaro won the Presidency in a shock victory in 2018, and since taking power, he has spoken approvingly of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, discriminated against black brazilians, the indigenous, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and has signaled to law enforcement that they can act with impunity, leading to an upsurge in police killings. Bolsonaro’s authoritarian tendencies, alongside what his detractors describe as combativeness and incompetence, have made it difficult to retain personnel. Mr. Moro was the 8th minister to leave the cabinet in Bolsonaro’s 15 months in office.
- How does Brazil’s authoritarian turn impact the rest of the globe?Because of Brazil’s position as the most populous country and largest economy in Latin America (9th in the world), it plays a major role in setting regional and global norms. In President Bolsonaro’s short time in power, Brazil has deepened ties with authoritarian governments in countries like Hungary, and withdrew from the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. “I despise political correctness and I want to learn how you’ve done away with it” remarked Eduardo Bolsonaro, Jair Bolsonaro’s son and chair of the International Affairs and National Defense Committee in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, to Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán. Brazil is not a lone actor, but rather a major node in an international network of right-wing populists seeking to overturn the liberal-international order.
Germany Invests Significantly in Its Civics Education
This year, the German federal government invested $461 million into civics education. In contrast, the United States Department of Education invested just $5 million in 2019 in civics education. Notably, Germany also has a federal system, with responsibility distributed between the central government and 16 constituent states. Germany even has a Federal Agency for Civic Education, which promotes awareness and engagement in democracy, funds hundreds of civic organizations, and provides training for educators, among other responsibilities. Furthermore, each German state has its own independent and local agency for civics education. These federal and local agencies implement creative, out-of-the-box, mechanisms for democracy promotion and civics education. For example, the Ministry for the Interior, through it’s Cohesion through Participation program, focuses on combating extremism in rural and economically struggling areas. This is important, among other reasons, because former Eastern Germany, which was a separate communist nation from 1949 until 1991, is more rural and is a hotbed for a deeply xenophobic far-right. And, confronted by COVID-19, the Ministry for Families has been using innovative online programming like a digital scavenger hunt to continue to promote democracy for young audiences stuck inside.
- What led Germany to make such a significant investment in civics education? Ironically, given America’s current dearth of civics education, Germany’s post-war success in this area is at least partially a result of the United States. The Marshall Plan included a substantial investment in rebuilding the German economy to create the material preconditions for a flourishing liberal-democratic system. Policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic wanted to guard against both the potential return of Fascism and the expansion of Soviet Communism. But more directly, US and British democratic education programs in West Germany played a role in bolstering Germany’s culture of valuing civics education. Furthermore, Germany’s role in World War II and the Holocaust still haunt the country, “a stark reminder” of what happens when citizens forget the virtues of democracy. Beyond actual investments in education, this history surely provides many Germans with the necessary motivation to learn and internalize civics education.
- What can the US learn from Germany?As the oldest continuous democracy in the world, many Americans have forgotten how fragile our system of government is. We also have little experience in recognizing what authoritarianism looks like in practice. We can look to Germany’s history to learn what happens to a country that forgets the virtues of democracy and for motivation to re-invest in civics education. It’s important to remember that prior to becoming the Third Reich, Germany had a liberal democracy in the form of the Weimar Republic.
Idaho Tech Company Brings Innovation to “Left Behind” America
Deborah and James Fallows’ Our Towns series in The Atlantic, inspired by their book of the same name, recently profiled Innovation Collective (IC), a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho based tech company that helps found and connect startups in small towns throughout the United States. IC provides training, mentorship, and networking events that help local entrepreneurs cut off from the opportunities of coastal high-tech business hubs. IC has already restored a large downtown building that had been unused for 27 years and transformed it into the home of 60 offices, a robotics and computer-science program, a coffee shop, and a venture fund for local business. And IC hasn’t just confined itself to Idaho, it’s launched similar initiatives in Utica, NY; Spokane, WA; and Brooksville, FL; always with an eye on maximizing local comparative advantage.
- Why are we calling out this company in a newsletter about democracy?Vast swathes of the United States have not been able to capture the gains of technological and business innovations, which have primarily accrued to a small set of coastal metropoles. Coupled with the negative impact of de-industrialization, this economic arrangement has increased inequality and contributed to a sense of abandonment, making the affected people more susceptible to angry populist rhetoric. Innovation Collective is helping to address this structural problem in the economy through a bottom-up, lean entrepreneurial approach, in contrast to the bureaucratic hurdles that can come with direct government intervention.
- Does the Innovation Collective provide a model for communities around the countryYes, Innovation Collective embodies a proud and successful American tradition of harnessing the free-market to address its own flaws.The free-market, in contrast to inefficient command economies, emphasizes competition between private entities to drive growth with minimal state interference. This model encourages greater creativity and a culture of innovation that spills over into political and social life as well. There are many talented and driven people throughout the United States, and companies like IC enable them to pursue their passions while also bringing investment and jobs to their hometowns.