The Infodemic: How Censorship and Lies Made the World Sicker and Less Free, a book newly published by Columbia Global Reports, sparked an invigorating conversation.
The Infodemic examines a pandemic within a pandemic: the spread of government censorship and disinformation across the globe as nations respond to COVID-19.
Columbia Global Reports brought together a panel of four speakers in honor of the new release. Rob Mahone and Joel Simon, both accomplished journalists and past executive directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists, collaborated to author the book. Sheila Coronel, a faculty member at the Journalism school and a “legendary” investigative journalist who founded the Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism, joined the conversation, as well as Wafaa El-Sadr, founder and director of ICAP (originally named the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs), an expert on infectious diseases, and one of the leaders of the University’s response to COVID-19. The panelists carried out a robust discussion, hitting on critical issues such as social media’s regulation of misinformation, how to build trust and scientific literacy from the ground-up, Western hegemony of information systems, and visions for the future.
Nicholas Lemann hosted the event and began the conversation by articulating the motivations of Columbia Global Reports publishing in light of the pandemic. He posed the question, “How do you not publish books about COVID? But how do you say something about COVID, the world’s most covered story, that other people aren’t saying?”
He asserted that Infodemic rose to the challenge. The book examines COVID-19 as an information challenge in addition to one of public health, and theorizes that government mishandling of this challenge could lead to permanent, dangerous alterations in our information systems.
Lemann asked Mahone to speak on how China’s government handled the challenge of alerting the public about COVID-19. Mahone responded, “Exactly. The Chinese government didn’t tell the public about the pandemic, that was the whole problem.” He explained that scientists tracking the early stages of the virus were afraid to report their findings, and the government intimidated journalists into silence. Mahone had harsh words for China, arguing that the dynamics in Wuhan had two main effects: they cost the global community “precious months” of public health preparation as the virus multiplied, and it set a narrative across the world that autocracies were better suited than democracies to deal with the pandemic. “The Chinese (government) set the tone,” Mahone said. “In this book, we start from the cradle of this virus and expand outwards to show how… the distortion of information through lies cost us time in being able to respond, and cost many many hundreds and thousands of lives.”
Moving closer to home, Simon discussed the United States’ response. He said that former President Trump relied on “censorship through noise” or “flooding”—a strategy of confusing the public through an abundance of inaccurate information which undermined public health experts, attacked journalists, and supported the narrative he hoped to tell. This strategy, he explained, was deployed in Brazil and India as well.
El-Sadr spoke next, emphasizing the centrality of communications in public health crises. While the conversation thus far had been focused on the accuracy of information, she explained, vital to building trust in scientific information is paying attention to who transmits information to communities. “Is it a trusted person from the communities themselves that you’re trying to reach, or is it somebody who’s distant from these communities, who doesn’t identify with them?” Public health, she said, necessarily thinks very locally, and we’re more likely to find our “champions” of scientific communication rooted in local contexts rather than in global figures of power.
Coronel jumped in with some pushback for Mahone and Simon. She first emphasized certain bright spots in free press globally, including increased trust in the news from all audiences, and a realization across multiple sectors that journalism must be “less market-driven.” She argued that this moment of information crisis could also be one of opportunity.
Returning to the discussion of Russia and China, Coronel argued that while it is right to criticize the nations for their response to COVID-19, “There is something real, and valid, and that resonates, about their critique about the information space largely being dominated by the west.” She explained that this critique has resonated among smaller countries as well. The central question for Coronel was, “How do you dissociate the critique of suppression of free speech by China and Russia from support of Western hegemony over information?” She emphasized that we’ve seen how both autocracies and democracies can fail when faced with a crisis such as COVID-19.
Lemann asked Coronel, “If one were to take your point about the Western hegemony idea, what guard do you have against countries like Russia and China saying, ‘See, we’ve rejected the Western hegemony model, we’re just not letting information out?’ ”
Coronel responded, “I’m not saying Russia and China are paragons of… supporting creative expression. What I’m saying is that the critique of Western domination of the information space resonates among many countries who have been suffering… We have to have a space that is independent from the West, Russia, and China, where countries are given the space and the audience, and the resources to be able to articulate their own versions of what a democracy or a free press should look like. Right now… we’re given these binary choices.”
El-Sadr spoke about the tensions in public health between an audience’s desire for absolute certainty and the reality of ever-changing scientific understanding. Both in the clinical world and that of public health, she explained, it is necessary to make decisions based on the information readily available, though it can easily change in the blink of an eye. “That’s a huge challenge in public health—how do we transmit to people that this is what we know today… that’s very difficult for most people to appreciate and be able to tolerate, because to them it’s being uncertain, it’s often considered that it’s wishy-washy or that people are going back on their decision rather than ‘this is the evolution of knowledge, this is the evolution of science, especially in a time of a pandemic.”
Simon agreed, referencing the WHO’s guidance that it is critical for governments to communicate what they don’t know as well as what they do—guidance no government seemed to be able to follow. “[Political leaders] communicated in certitudes,” he said, “and then when information changed, they discredited and undermined experts who were following science.”
Circling back to Coronel’s point, Simon asked, “Can we articulate and visualize a global information system that serves the public interest, however we define that, and that’s a way of bridging the gap of Russian or Chinese critique? I think pushing back against Russia and China by saying, ‘You need an information system that serves the public,’ is a good way of framing the issue.”
Lemann brought up Barack Obama’s recent address at Stanford that called for more effective social media regulation, arguing that Obama was stepping back from a convention of absolute free speech, and asked Mahone the rather stark question whether the world would be better with “more” or “less” press freedom. Mahone answered that a world with less freedom of speech would be a terrible one, and argued that “we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here; we have the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Testing Mahone’s commitment, Lemann asked, “So if my free speech is to say Bill Gates put little gremlins in the vaccine and wants to inject them into your bloodstream so they can spy on you, you’re okay with that, right?”
“I’m not okay with the message but…I’m okay with your right to put it on Facebook, as long as I have the ability to counter that.”
El-Sadr asked, in an apt metaphor, how it might be possible to “inoculate” people against disinformation. She posed the solution of investing in creating higher scientific and public health literacy in communities while building trust between local public health leaders and their audiences.
Lemann asked the panelists whether they approved of recent efforts by social media platforms to de-platform figures who spread COVID-19 disinformation. Coronel responded that it came down to how we conceptualize such platforms, pointing out that when newspaper publishers curate the information they publish by its accuracy, it’s not considered censorship; it’s considered responsible publishing. “Platforms…are de facto publishers,” she explained, yet they abide by an entirely different set of rules.
As the hour drew to a close, Lemann asked Simon and Mahone about their worries about a permanently worse-off information system post-pandemic. Mahone explained the danger that what were originally emergency measures to handle COVID-19—biomedical surveillance, restrictions on movement, enforcement of quarantines—could be integrated into normal governance, creating a norm of surveillance and intrusion. Simon asserted that we are, indeed, living in a much different world than before the pandemic. For him, it’s important to have “a sufficiently long enough horizon to wage that fight, build that consensus, and imagine a world in which rights are protected and the global information system serves communities in every corner of the world.”
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