Propaganda, disinformation and censorship during covid times
Last August, several news sources reported that China was accusing the United States’ army of being the source of the Covid SARS virus. According to CNN, Beijing was doubling down "on that conspiracy theory, mobilizing its diplomats and its vast propaganda apparatus to call for a World Health Organization (WHO) investigation of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland". This occurred at the same time as the Biden administration in the US admitted that the pandemic could have started after a leak from a lab in Wuhan.
The hypothesis that the virus was man-made was actively censored for most of last year by social media platforms like Facebook. Facebook reversed its ban on these posts in May only after US president Joe Biden ordered a report about the virus’s origins.
The general public is in no position to know which, if any, of the claims made by either the Chinese or the North-American governments are true. But disinformation and propaganda campaigns are nothing new in world politics. Anecdotally, I know members of the Portuguese Communist Party who deny to this day that the Holodomor ever occurred, and allege that such claims are propaganda from Ukrainian Nazis. This was, of course, the Soviet Union’s official position, as well as that of the Russian Federation.
Propaganda and disinformation are not new. What is at stake in these cases is the preservation of power and influence.
What matters to us, as citizens of liberal democratic societies, is whether we can have access to as many sources of information as possible. Can we, as researchers, journalists, or voters, read and reflect on different opinions? Can we write our views without fear of censorship? I worry that the real threats to democracy and to public health come from the ease with which powerful corporations control what can be published or broadcast. I mentioned above Facebook’s censorship of posts about the origin of the virus. But this is not the only case related with the pandemic.
Governments are right to be concerned with the level of disinformation and conspiracies surrounding the covid vaccine. In some countries, trust in local government and in the pharmaceutical industry is heavily politicized. For instance, Republican voters in the US are more “vaccine hesitant”. In particular, Trump voters have lower levels of trust in governmental institutions, in the healthcare industry, and in the pharmaceutical industry. Very notably, Trump voters don’t trust what Trump called “the liberal media” on his best days, or “the crooked media”on the other days. Is Trump the source of Republican distrust? Or is he an opportunist that says what people already think?
Either way, trust in the media and institutions cannot increase if they put forward demonstrable falsehoods, or if plausible hypotheses are censored.
On September 29th, the Associated Press published an article reporting that YouTube is banning false vaccine claims to “fight a wave of disinformation”. However, the article includes a stunning falsehood. I invite the reader to spot it in the following paragraph:
"YouTube’s latest attempt to stem a tide of vaccine misinformation comes as countries around the globe struggle to convince a somewhat vaccine hesitant public to accept the free immunizations that scientists say will end the COVID-19 pandemic that began 20 months ago. The tech platform, which is owned by Google, already tried to ban COVID-19 vaccine misinformation last year, at the height of the pandemic".
The lie is hidden with other truths. Countries around the globe are struggling to convince vaccine hesitant people.
The falsehood is this: scientists do not say that Covid vaccines will end the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s now common knowledge that the efficacy of some vaccines diminishes with time. It’s common knowledge that although vaccine increases protection against the worst effects of the virus, it may not prevent people from catching it, and that vaccinated people can still spread the virus. Indeed, studies in Israel (one of the first countries to give immunisation shots of Pfizer to most of its population) show that people with two shots of the Pfizer vaccine are still at risk of catching the virus. The fact that vaccine immunity is waning is explained in a recent news post in the journal Nature. And the World Health Organization has warned that it is likely that the virus is here to stay.
We can only hope that scientific autonomy, academic freedom, and liberty of expression and information can survive this new wave of censorship.