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Trust data not lore - Disinformation in the time of COVID-19

23 July 2020

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Dr. Jennifer S. Hunt is a lecturer in the National Security College and a Research Associate at the US Studies Centre. Dr. Jennifer S. Hunt specialises in the national security of critical systems including energy and cyber. She has published on comparative national security policy in the US, Australia, and the Arab Gulf.

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By Dr. Jennifer S. Hunt

National Security College, Crawford School of Public Policy ANU

As a scholar of disinformation and cyber-enabled information operations, the COVID-19 pandemic vividly demonstrates the dangers of the post-truth age I have been researching and teaching about for the last 4 years. In 2017, “post-truth” was the word of the year, recognising a growing public sentiment that facts are no longer persuasive, truth is malleable and subject to personal belief rather than evidence. As I wrote in February 2019, the post truth age reflects the growing pollution of the information global commons. In this global commons, conspiracy theories and alternative facts compete with scientific consensus on the key issues of our day. To the extent that the former is winning and even inciting violence, the FBI designated conspiracy theories a new form of domestic terrorism in 2019. Unfortunately at a time when the population remains most exposed, our body politics’ immune system is being weakened.

From pandemics to climate change, efforts to confront our greatest challenges are hampered by the erosion of trust in science, experts and public institutions. In its place, precious time is consumed with whether the problem actually exists or its lethal extent, with conspiracy theorists casting doubt on facts and those who collect them. While much of the rest of the world was putting into place public health protection measures for its population, some leaders were denying the problem as a “new hoax”. Perhaps the demonstrator at the March for Science in 2017, expressed it best with her sign, “At the start of every disaster movie, there’s a scientist being ignored”. In their place, conspiracy theories blaming technology, religious minorities, immigrants, secret cabals and entire countries are spread from the dark corners of the internet to family facebook pages, and even public officials. When elected officials indulge these narratives and slogans, they become superspreaders of the virus of misinformation.

As political scientist, Professor Tom Nichols presciently warned in his book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, “Dismissing learning and expertise is now a habit of mind that is crippling the ability of millions of citizens in democratic nations to exercise even basic civil and social responsibilities in their communities… In the wake of a global pandemic or nuclear conflict, there may be no path back left at all” (2018, Xviii). (A shorter version of his article is available at Foreign Affairs here). The response to COVID-19 seems sadly predictable then.

As COVID-19 demonstrates, the post truth age comes with a hefty price, in health and economic terms. The US, currently on its way to surpassing 150K death in August 2020, will likely be the last OECD country to get COVID-19 under control. President Trump’s “Liberate Michigan, Liberate Virginia, Liberate Minnesota!” tweets in April 2020 bolstered armed militias who publicly defied state-issued stay at home orders by gathering in front of courthouses, state legislatures and even the homes of policymakers. Medical professionals, nurses and public health officials celebrated for their heroism became the objects of public abuse and threats. In Illinois, demonstrators used Nazi slogans to try to intimidate the Jewish governor, a tactic which drew the rebuke of the Auschwitz Museum. On a tree outside the Kentucky governor’s mansion, a group gathered for the “Patriot 2nd Day Amendment rally” strung up an effigy of the governor as young children looked on. The sign around the neck read “Sic semper tyrannis”. Several US public health officials have resigned in the face of harrassment or lost their positions when the data they published proved unflattering.

As Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “You cannot fight the pandemic with lies and disinformation any more than you can fight it with hate or incitement of hatred.” When leaders indulge in division and distraction, sound policymaking suffers. Such distraction included nonsensical arguments from White House officials like ‘This is COVID-19, not COVID-1, folks!” falsely suggesting scientists had multiple previous iterations to learn from. Fact check: COVID-19 was named for 2019, the year it was identified. The White House would go on to resume indoor political rallies in June despite local restrictions in host cities, and move the Republican National convention to Florida to circumvent local public health measures in previous host, North Carolina. The result is a paralysis of coordination between state and federal authorities, and longer-term radicalisation of the population against facts and those who proffer them.

Divisive messages in the international ether can cause violence and destruction at home. Across the US, UK and Australia, 5G Conspiracy theorists targeted telecommunications infrastructure, evoking a dangerous narrative that has yet to be strongly countered by the Prime Minister’s office. Other groups seek to cast doubt and thus thwart successful public health measures around masks and vaccines. Some of these peddlers of conspiracy theories and ad hominem attacks will use their newfound spotlight to run for office, where they function as superspreaders of blame rather than solutions. Already 6 QAnon members have beaten Republican incumbents in recent primaries, and it is likely that at least a couple will win Congressional seats in November 2020.

What does this teach us about how our social, political and economic systems need to be reformed? Australia is not immune to pandemics nor conspiracy theories. This challenge involves confronting two viruses: COVID-19 and the insidious spread of misinformation. We must boost our public immunity by prioritising strong, clear, evidence-driven updates and commentary. As we can see vividly from US coverage, misinformation spread from social media to corporate broadcasters to elected officials can mean the difference between life and death. Much like the bushfires, our toolkit must include a strong public broadcaster, a robust public health system, a securely funded research sector, a well-supported APS, and government leaders who publicly voice their support for all of these vital functions. Leaders should not only set a good example, but construct policy tools to disincentivise those who would spread misinformation. Thinking ahead, when people and parties invoke conspiracy theories to counter vaccination efforts, what sort of reception will they receive from our political leaders? Our defences against the pandemic are based in science, research and expertise. As states around the world have discovered, we dismiss them at our peril.

Jennifer Hunt Bio: Twitter: @Dr_JenHunt

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