The coronavirus briefing

The best reads from around the web on the coronavirus and its role in reporting, disinformation and information disorder.

TV vs facts: realities clash as Russia goes into coronavirus lockdown (Coda Story)


Doctors and hospital staff in Russia are on the frontlines — not just in the war against the coronavirus, but also in a state-sponsored disinformation campaign. Moscow is co-opting hospitals and their staff in a bid to demonstrate the strengths of Russia’s healthcare system on television, but the situation appears very different on the ground. According to one hospital employee interviewed, “it’s only on the airwaves that everything is so beautiful.

Coronavirus deniers take aim at hospitals as pandemic grows (NBC News)


Over the past decade, citizen journalism has been revolutionised by new technology — particularly smartphones — and the explosion of social media. Footage and images captured by ordinary people has played a major role in breaking news stories, sometimes documenting events that would have been missed by professional outlets. But what happens when the tools of citizen journalism fall into the hands of conspiracists during a pandemic? Joan Donovan, director of Harvard’s Technology and Social Change Research Project, says that we are “going to see all kinds of different theories and ideas about what the impact of this virus is, shrouded in circumstantial evidence. And because we can’t source many of these materials, especially on social media, it’s going to become a serious problem in the long run.” This NBC News investigation shows how online footage of the impact of the outbreak on U.S. hospitals is being used for political and ideological ends.

Social media posts and online searches hold vital clues about pandemic spread (Scientific American)


Even before the World Health Organization warned about the first cases of coronavirus in Wuhan, digital disease detection groups were capturing “digital clues” about the outbreak. Analyzing trends and popular keywords on social media, search engines, and blogs, they were able to spot conversations about an unknown pneumonia through trending words like “SARS,” “shortness of breath” and “diarrhea.” “Such alerts reveal the promise of a vast yet risky resource,” writes Katherine Ellison, as “the tweet-sized hints from people all over the world who report their health status and vent their fears online.” At the same time, we risk underestimating the big challenges around accuracy and privacy posed by the analysis of such a huge volume of digital data.

Self-Isolation Might Stop Coronavirus, but It Will Speed the Spread of Extremism (Foreign Policy)


Millions of people are now self-isolating at home because of coronavirus, and spending more time online. This piece by Nakita Malik argues that there are two areas where social platforms must remain vigilant: “the rise of conspiracy theories and the role this plays in calls to increase targeted violence against at-risk communities. The first often leads to the second.”

Chinese diplomats and Western fringe media outlets push the same coronavirus conspiracies (The Strategist)


The Australian Strategic Policy Institute reports that Chinese diplomats are using social media to push a narrative that the coronavirus started in the US. The article details how fringe media and conspiracy theorists around the world have also promoted this idea. These two communities have one thing in common as they often cite one website and one article in particular to point to the “truth” of the conspiracy theory: Global Research. Global Research promotes itself as a think tank, but as The Strategist argues they “are valuable to state-linked actors because they put a Western, pseudo-academic face on conspiracy theories and disinformation narratives. They are useful tinder to spark entire narrative cycles.” We also recommend reading this recent ProPublica article that used data from thousands of fake and hijacked Twitter accounts dating back to August 2019, to understand how Chinese propaganda is being pushed across the globe

COVID-19 is spawning a global press-freedom crackdown (CJR)


Venezuela, Iran, Egypt and Turkey have all restricted media coverage of the coronavirus, particularly the number of confirmed cases. This piece by Joel Simon, the Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, details the different ways journalists have been threatened while reporting on the story, from arrests to having press credentials revoked. And in South Africa, a new law has been enacted (and in Hungary a similar law has been suggested) that cracks down on citizens sharing false information about the virus. A depressing but necessary read.

How to Cover Climate Change like We’re Covering the Coronavirus (Nieman Lab)


Journalists can take some credit for keeping the coronavirus outbreak in the public decision space when many world leaders insisted the world could carry on as normal. The piece argues that journalists have had considerably less success drawing attention to climate change challenges.

Singapore says it will make its contact tracing tech freely available to developers (CNBC)


Singapore is making its TraceTogether technology available to others around the world. The app launched 5 days ago and was downloaded by 500,000 citizens in twenty-four hours. The app uses bluetooth data from the past 21 days to track when a phone has been close enough to another to mirror how the virus might have been passed along. Personal and location data is apparently not collected, but this app joins a number of other recently created examples of technology that are raising alarm bells about the unintended consequences of some of these new apps designed to track the virus.

Silicon Valley, It’s Your Chance to Turn the Tide on Covid-19 (Wired)


Tristan Harris makes a passionate argument for Silicon Valley to come together to fight coronavirus. He suggests this is the moment for technology companies to move towards a model of  ‘duty of care’ that prioritizes the public interest over profits. The piece lists a number of different ways the companies could play a role in the response to the virus. Some may seem particularly provocative, particularly around privacy and tracking, but it might spark some necessary conversations about where the boundaries should lie.

YouTube Is Letting Millions Of People Watch Videos Promoting Misinformation About The Coronavirus (BuzzFeed)


While the platforms have promised to do more to promote accurate information about the coronavirus to their users, that’s not stopping anyone with an internet connection from gaming the system for clicks. What’s more, they can make all the announcements they want but that the actual act of moderating misinformation is easier said than done. BuzzFeed looked into some of the nonsense, including an American chiropractor practicing out of Tijuana, Mexico, collecting thousands of views for videos dismissing official advice to use hand sanitiser and advocating essential oils and “conscious breathing” to boost viewers immune systems. A YouTube spokesperson said the platform removes videos promoting “medically unsubstantiated methods”. The videos remain.