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Covid-19: The need to tackle disinformation

Governments, journalists and medical officials are scrambling to provide the public with accurate and timely information about the novel coronavirus but those efforts are being undermined by the spread of medical misinformation and fake news. Amidst this, on 18th March, China decided to effectively expel journalists from three American newspapers in retaliation for restrictions on its news outlets in the US.

At least 13 journalists will be expelled in what is an unprecedented move against foreign media working in the country. China’s foreign ministry ordered reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal to return media passes within 10 days. The papers criticised the move and The New York Times said it was a mistake for China to cut itself off, while the WSJ called it an attack on press freedom.

“We unequivocally condemn any action by China to expel US reporters,” said Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron.

“The Chinese government’s decision is particularly regrettable because it comes in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis, when clear and reliable information about the international response to Covid-19 is essential,” he said.

China’s action is part of a swiftly escalating row between Beijing and Washington, and correspondents say the departure of the reporters will have a major impact on what the world knows about China as they do some of the most in-depth reporting about the country.

The measures were in response to “unwarranted restrictions on Chinese media agencies” in the US, the foreign ministry said. Earlier this month, the Trump administration said five media outlets, including China’s official news agency Xinhua, would be required to reduce their total number of staff to 100 from 160. The move was seen as retaliation for China’s expulsion of two US journalists for the Wall Street Journal over a coronavirus editorial in February. Trump further angered China by referring to the coronavirus as “Chinese” on 17 March.

Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, said China had made a “grave mistake” and urged the two governments to resolve the dispute quickly.

“We strongly condemn the decision of the Chinese authorities to expel American journalists, an action that is especially irresponsible at a time when the world needs the free and open flow of credible information about the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.

The need for clear and reliable information is greater than ever as the world struggles to tackle this unprecedented crisis. Yet China has been engaging in a propaganda war with Beijing growing bolder in recent days in trying to rewrite history, claiming without any evidence that the virus originated not in China, but in the US. The trouble is, with the US facing its own credibility issues in recent years, China’s false narrative threatens to spread as quickly as the coronavirus and some say the country is already winning “the coronavirus propaganda war”.

The European Union’s diplomatic service this week alerted officials that Russian trolls are spreading falsehoods about the coronavirus in Europe, using the health crisis “to sow distrust and division.”

In an “information environment assessment” dated 16th March, the EU External Action Service’s East StratCom office said it had collected 80 coronavirus-related disinformation cases on popular media channels in Europe since 22nd January.

The office said the Russian government was not authoring the fake news articles but rather had amplified false theories and disinformation that come from elsewhere, including from American far-right groups.

Facebook has also been accused of taking part in disinformation, removing posts on topics including the coronavirus or marking them as spam. The company said, however, that it was due to a technical error and said it had suffered from a massive bug in its News Feed spam filter, causing URLs to legitimate websites including Medium, Buzzfeed, and USA Today to be blocked from being shared as posts or comments.

Facebook has been trying to fight back against misinformation related to the outbreak and, for instance, banned ads for protective face masks earlier this month in an effort to prevent price gouging during the outbreak. The company has also been sharing contagion prevention tips atop Instagram’s home screen, sending misinformation to fact-checkers for review, and providing data to researchers.

Yet WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is coming under renewed scrutiny over how it handles misinformation as the coronavirus pandemic rampages across the globe. The platform is being used to spread messages that often contain a mixture of accurate and misleading claims that have been debunked by medical experts. The problem is now so acute that world leaders are urging people to stop sharing unverified information using the app.

“I am urging everyone to please stop sharing unverified info on WhatsApp groups,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Monday on Twitter. “These messages are scaring and confusing people and causing real damage. Please get your info from official, trusted sources.”

During the current pandemic, it’s more critical than ever that accurate information is allowed to flow properly, online as well as offline. In China, this task is even made even more challenging in the face of government censorship. It is increasingly difficult to get sources to go on the record, as Chinese citizens fear government warnings or reprimands.

“It is insane and worrying that an average citizen thinks they cannot speak their mind without approval of local government officials,” Shenzhen-based freelance journalist Michael Standaert said to ICFJ.

The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) has published ten tips for journalists covering Covid-19 around the world and you can find them here.

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