We need a new approach to fighting COVID-19 fake news ‘Infodemic’

Image: WHO

While public health began aiming its vast resources at informing, empowering and protecting the public from COVID-19 with emerging evidence and best practices in infection control, Mikki Willis, a former model/actor whose online content is popular in the new age and natural healing community for its positive and empowering messages, spent $2,000 to make the now notorious conspiracy film Plandemic from his home in Ojai California.

At the heart of the video’s message is one of government distrust and paranoia, regarding the medical community, both public sector and private sector alike, as representative of a vast medical-industrial-government-complex.

Plandemic has done a phenomenal job of spreading disinformation to tens of millions of North Americans by, as a recent article aptly puts it, “claiming the absence of evidence as proof of conspiracy”, and is illustrative of how fake news and disinformation spreads more quickly online than mainstream news and public health messaging from government.

Fast forward several months and pandemic fatigue has set in while health authorities and every level of government are working around the clock to prevent a second wave from overwhelming our health systems and taking more lives. It looks all but avoidable now in many states and provinces. Meanwhile, Canadian media personality Ezra Levant is offering to pay for your fines if you get charged violating recent public health orders in Canada, because he’s fighting for you, the “little guy” as a member of Canada’s right-wing media vanguard and recent guest host of Alex Jones’ Infowars.

Regardless of whether it comes from Ezra Levant or Mikki Willis, or the cacophony of bloggers, vloggers and Reddit posters in between, the bias affirming anti-government stories scratch an itch and release endorphins for tens of millions of people cooped up at home feeling, quite understandably, oppressed.

We all want to be free and we all want to feel safe.

That’s why no matter where your personal beliefs stand along the political spectrum you have likely been subjected to some form of misinformation or disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 as a global “Infodemic” has raged on alongside it.

This parallel pandemic of misinformation and disinformation has fostered the strangest of strange Venn diagrams, a “fusion paranoia” where right wing militias, media personalities like Alex Jones, and vegan yoga instructors are regurgitating the same messages that undermine public health efforts and sow distrust of government and one other.

Like a large pool of standing water next to a house invites mosquitos to lay their eggs, an environment perfect for the Infodemic has enabled the explosion of blogs, reddit threads, youtube videos to infect the public with disinformation and misinformation.

While the WHO has taken measures to work with Social Media companies to put in place warnings, and to try and stop the spread of false and misleading information, I want to argue for another approach, one that is more rooted in policy than trying to stick fingers in an information dam that has already burst. Instead of treating the symptoms of the Infodemic, we need to inoculate ourselves against it, and like a vaccine uses a bit of the virus, we do this by better communicating some fundamental truths that are embedded deep within the Infodemic.

While we do this in the near term, the longer project is to change the environment facilitating the Infodemic’s spread, the proverbial standing pool of stagnant water. That environment is one of economic insecurity, driven by growing inequality, mounting debt, and precariousness of work, in this first quarter of the 21st century.

A protest sign seen in Vancouver at a “Pro-Infection Freedom Rally” held outside St. Paul’s Hospital May 2020

The Truth in the Pudding

Misleading stories about the pandemic have become popular in part because they are often fantastic and sensational, full of geopolitical intrigue, strange science, shadowy government figures, and cabals of occult covens engaged in savage acts of unspeakable evil. This is the stuff we like to read, Dan Brown stuff! They have also become popular because there are certain kernels of truth in some of these narratives, introduced to readers before inviting them to believe those increasingly incredulous and absurd details.

Firstly, trust in government is at an all time low in countries like America, where the past 40 years of neoliberal influenced government policymaking, by and large, has favoured the wealthy and well-connected over working families and small businesses, leading to persistent and worsening inequality. People already felt like the system was rigged before this pandemic broke out.

Psychologists who study conspiracy theories and disinformation cite that uncertainty about our futures and about the world we live in make people more susceptible to the quick answers that conspiracy theories provide. But I think we need to respect that it’s hard to trust the government when you feel like the odds are always stacked against you.

Small businesses are shuttering in communities, whether by public health order or by cratering of sales. Yet the pandemic has been good for Wall Street and many of the largest corporations as trading breaks records on stock exchanges and billionaires like Jeff Bezos continue to consolidate a staggering amount of wealth in 2020. All this as working people and small business owners face an impossible squeeze. This is at the heart of the Infodemic. This is the truth within the miasma of toxic absurdities wafting in the public sphere. It is policies that enable this to happen. Government policies.

We have been on a trajectory of inequality and social division for decades and the pandemic has put that trajectory on warp speed.

Secondly, public health did not have all the answers about this virus, what it does, and how it spreads when the pandemic was declared (we still don’t but we’re also still learning as the impressive vaccine progress attests) this at a time when people have been told for decades they can find any answer they need or want on the internet — which is clearly true even if the information they find isn’t.

Thirdly, the virus emerged from a country (predictably I might add) that many in America, Canada, and elsewhere in the world view with some suspicion as it is a totalitarian one-party state not widely lauded as the bastion of transparency. This made the pandemic a prime target for fantastic tales of geopolitical intrigue often drawing in communism and democracy, rights and freedoms. The site GNews, started by a Chinese Billionaire exiled from China for corruption and Steve Bannon, has been a leading voice of this narrative since the start of the pandemic.

Steve Bannon has tried to promote all out war between the U.S. and China for a number of years.

With alternative media like GNews being well resourced and unshackled by journalistic standards which regulate mainstream news, in 2020 we’ve seen competing realities jostling in the public sphere like oil and water.

In one reality the pandemic is an anticipated public health eventuality that we are now trying hard to control the development of and prevent from worsening. In the other reality, it is yet another nefarious and deliberate event placed within an existing mental framework of paranoia and conspiratorial thinking which has been constructed over centuries, supersized and mainstreamed now thanks to the internet. One in which socialism or communism has played a central role for over a century and has often been shorthand for anti-Semitic conspiracy thinking.

No matter what reality people choose to live in cognitively we have no choice but to physically live in the world where COVID-19 can infect us both.

I work in population health, where my concerns are generally focused on both physical environments and policy environments that shape what we call the determinants of health. Housing, food, income, education, and other such things.

There are policies that led to the creation of this environment.Policies created by bureaucrats like me over the last 40 years in which neoliberalism has dominated government decision-making.

By neoliberalism I mean a tendency for governments to privatize public assets and delivery of services, reduce taxes while cutting social supports, and promote policies that valourize the private sector over public sector on the whole. All of this has, quite logically, led to more exploitation and precariousness of workers, consolidation of wealth among the already wealthy, and the embedding of a free-market hero myth that has vilified the very concept of government itself for four decades.

I suggest the response to the Infodemic should be less about putting out social media fires and more about understanding the fuel source itself which is this distrust in government, driven by feelings of middle class abandonment amidst the growing income and wealth inequality, debt and precariousness, that working people experience today.

Add to this the sentiment that we “government experts” and ivory tower academics (of which I am admittedly, both) are the out of touch assholes who got everyone into this mess with our theories and programs and policies.

It isn’t just America’s problem, as the rise of populist authoritarian leaders around the world attests.

I feel that this clip of an angry restaurant owner in Michigan refusing to abide by public health orders captures what I’m saying, as he points out how much of the stimulus money in the United States went into the pockets of corporations instead of small businesses and working families. I agree with pretty much everything he says up until the last 15 seconds when he switches from a narrative of progressive public policy and economic justice to one of conspiracy theory. I believe the border between these two worlds is more porous than many suspect, which is why Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were noted as tapping into a similar zeitgeist in 2016. This suggests we can move a sizeable number of people from one side to the other of this line, depending on the policies we introduce during, and after the pandemic.

Governments need to realize how central economic anxiety, precariousness, debt, and inequality are to creating the ideal environment for the Infodemic to spread

Building our Infodemic Antibodies and Creating Health Promoting (Information) Environments

As a recent article in the British Medical Journal emphasizes Harms of public health interventions against covid-19 must not be ignored (Bavli, Sutton & Galea, 2020) we need to neutralize the off-base narrative of public health vs the economy if our public health efforts are to achieve their full impact. This is a false tradeoff. History shows that countries with the strongest public health responses to pandemics are well positioned to have the strongest economic recoveries from the pandemic.

But it’s hard to do if other government actions aren’t in step. We also need to put our money where our mouth is.

Governments around the world have done well in many cases to subsidize wages and introduce emergency economic relief measures, I argue we must add debt relief to these. We are helping people tread water with wage subsidies and emergency benefits, let’s drain the pool a little too while we’re at it.

Governments need to go all in on the economic security of families and individuals, all in on small businesses, and not leave them wondering agonizingly if they’ll make rent or be able to service their debt, but the temporary nature of them has left many still feeling anxiety about putting food on their tables and paying their bills.

Anxiety is at the heart of the Infodemic. It manifests itself in paranoia and is soothed through confirmation bias. That’s why forgiving debt and eliminating interest on debt will build antibodies in the fight against the Infodemic as it relieves economic anxiety. It’s why big ideas like introducing a Guaranteed Basic (Livable) Income is something the Pandemic has served to underscore.

If the response and the recovery to this pandemic puts the economic security, equity and addressing inequality at the heart of the discussion we may just neutralize the Infodemic and prevent further calamity. We may get “the little guy” back on our side, instead of him reposting Ezra Levant, Alex Jones and Mikki Willis.

But it’s not just about communicating that a healthy population and a healthy economy are not a trade-off, it’s about bringing into the world an economic recovery that engenders a healthier society, physically, mentally, and socially. A society in which we protect ourselves from future Infodemics by changing the (policy) environment in which its emergence is made possible, if not likely. An environment where growing inequality, precariousness, debt and economic anxiety has created vectors for the disease of disinformation among a deeply divided population, and where government is seen as an opaque handmaid to the world’s largest corporations and wealthiest investors.

What do we have to lose. Neoliberalism, that’s all. It is the way of thinking that created this ideal environment for the Infodemic to spread.

Wes Regan is a population health policymaker in British Columbia, Canada.

Canadian population health policymaker // Director Emeritus of Simon Fraser University’s Community Economic Development Program // Instructor, Langara College.