As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the world, so does disinformation (intentional deceit, at times peddled by governments themselves) and misinformation (the spread of falsehoods that may or may not be intentional) about its origins, reach, and potential cures. Meanwhile, multiple different regimes are citing fears about misinformation and “fake news” to suppress unflattering information about the handling of the disease. To learn more about how three giants—China, Russia, and Brazil—are both handling and perpetuating misinformation about COVID-19, Jennifer Daskal invited country experts to discuss the current state of affairs: Mia Shuang Li, a former Beijing-based journalist, who is now a research associated at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center; Justin Sherman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, columnist at Wired, and close follower of developments in Russia; and Roberta Braga, an associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and an expert on Brazil. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jennifer Daskal: Welcome, Mia, Justin, and Roberta! An initial question for all of you: What kinds of disinformation is percolating in the countries you cover with respect to the pandemic? And what has been the government response?
Mia Shuang Li: In China, the state is pushing a narrative on social media—using both government accounts and sponsored nongovernment accounts—that authoritarianism is better at mobilizing all-society effort in a public health crisis, including citizens and private sector companies. This creates a “rally around the flag” effect, making the narrative seem a lot more supported and more like a widely accepted reality.
At this point, most of the population is too traumatized by all that has occurred to question the official narrative.
Justin Sherman: The Russian government itself has been very actively spreading disinformation about the virus, both in Russia and around the world. As early as January, Russian state media were propagating all kinds of lies about the coronavirus, like saying it was made in the United States. Moscow has used these kinds of false statements—pushed on television, on social media, and elsewhere—in an effort to sow divisiveness and confusion abroad and to undermine trust in credible news sources.
This is being coupled with Russian efforts to demand that social media companies and other media platforms remove information about the coronavirus that Moscow deems “false,” information that is being viewed by those physically residing within the country.
Roberta Braga: In Brazil’s case, a lot of misleading information is coming from the top. Brazil is the largest, most populous country in Latin America, and the biggest economy in the region. Around 85 percent of Brazil’s population live in urban areas, with over 16 percent of the national population living in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro alone. Brazil also has over 13.6 million people living in favelas. Informal workers comprise a large part of the Brazilian population. In this context, where for many people staying home can mean they face hunger, the most misleading narrative has been that of health vs. economy. In his live addresses to the country, President Bolsonaro says that the virus should not do more harm to the economy, and by extension people’s livelihoods, than it does to people’s health. So, in an effort to emphasize the importance of keeping Brazilians employed and working, he has built a campaign against social distancing.
A judicial order was required to stop a campaign he promoted using the hashtag “#Brazilcannotstop.” And as recently as April 10, Bolsonaro was taking to the streets in Brasília in his public effort to push back against social isolation. This has had an effect. Recent statistics say only around 50 percent of people in Brazil are social isolating. While local governments have taken measures to protect health, when the president himself is questioning those measures, that leads to more and more people failing to comply. Recent reporting from Reuters show 49 percent of São Paulo residents were considered to be in “social isolation” as of April 8, compared to a weekday peak of 56 percent on March 30.
Daskal: Mia, many reports suggest that the coronavirus situation in China was worse than is asserted—but that negative information about the persistence and spread of disease was suppressed by the Chinese government. Do you have a sense as to whether that is the case?
Shuang Li: China’s numbers are, the best I can tell, vastly, vastly undercounted inside Wuhan, and slightly undercounted outside. First, many died at home without ever getting a diagnosis. Those cases were not counted. No city in China tested the deceased. Second, asymptomatic cases never went to the hospital and therefore were never tested or counted. Iceland, which has done some of the most widespread testing in the world, found that approximately 50 percent of those infected never showed any symptoms. Third, only those who showed symptoms, went to the hospital, and were able to be admitted were counted. Inside Wuhan that is a very small portion of the patients. I’ve read on Weibo that even hospital directors could not get friends and families hospital beds.
Daskal: Roberta, you described Bolsonaro’s concerning narrative about the disease. How is he responding to those who critique his approach?
Braga: Brazil is a democracy, and freedom of speech is a strong pillar of that democracy. Certainly we’ve seen dissent. For weeks, Brazilians in social isolation in key capital cities like Fortaleza, Brasília, São Paulo, Porto Alegre, Rio de Janeiro, and others have banged pots and pans together and called for a removal of Bolsonaro in a reaction to his public addresses. On April 16, Bolsonaro fired Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, and the protests exploded even more. That said, of course, President Bolsonaro doesn’t like to be criticized, much in the way that President Donald Trump doesn’t take well to criticism.
Bolsonaro also continues to criticize the Brazilian media, saying they are twisting the facts and exacerbating polarization. This has really contributed to a crisis of trust in media. And at a time when Brazilians’ access to information is so important, people in Brazil are really struggling to trust in the independent journalists who are providing them with factual information. Fringe media outlets are becoming increasingly popular.
Daskal: Justin, you have written about Russia’s internal efforts to crack down on what it claims to be fake news in response to the pandemic. Can you talk a bit about how this is being done?
Sherman: In mid-March, Roskomnadzor, which is Russia’s internet and media regulator, threatened “stringent” action against anyone disseminating false information about the virus. (Again, “false information” here is defined by the Russian government.) It then began issuing content removal orders to a variety of media outlets, including those incorporated within and outside of Russia.
These takedown orders mostly draw on existing laws that give Roskomnadzor the authority to order media companies to censor particular types or pieces of content. That said, the upper house of Russia’s Parliament voted at the end of March to expand criminal punishments for those spreading false information with significant public health effects.
As for what is actually being censored by the government, there is still relatively little information available, but from what we do know, it’s clear that the censorship has increasingly targeted anything critical of the Russian government’s response to the virus and anything that contradicts the official government narrative. In March, a couple of takedowns focused on claims that Moscow had a curfew in place when it didn’t. But other takedowns have focused on everything from social media posts that contradict Russia’s official figures on infection counts (which many say seem suspiciously low) to claims that Russian hospitals didn’t have enough supplies to deal with the pandemic (which is now something that even the Moscow Health Department has started warning about).
Daskal: Roberta, there has been a lot of attention to the fact that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube removed content from Bolsonaro, on the grounds that it violated their terms of service. Can you talk a bit about that?
Braga: Twitter recently took down two Twitter posts by Bolsonaro. The posts contained videos of the president walking around Brasília and talking with small-business owners and vendors on the streets. In the videos, the president also talked about the need to use hydroxychloroquine for treating the virus. This has been a consistent narrative—in the videos, the president was shown claiming the anti-malaria drug has “worked everywhere it has been used” when in reality, the drug is still in the testing phases.
Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram also took down posts that depicted the president’s claims that hydroxychloroquine was the best treatment for COVID-19.
The companies state that the posts were taken down because they violated their platforms’ terms of service, which prohibit the spread of false information that can cause real harm to users. The removals were apparently done so in close collaboration with the in-country teams for better understanding of the country context.
Daskal: What was the reaction to those take down decisions in Brazil?
Braga: Reactions from Brazilians followed polarized lines—those who support Bolsonaro blasted the companies for blocking and removing the content. Others praised the decisions for preserving safety and for disallowing disinformation about a health crisis that could cost countless lives in Brazil.
Though perhaps not a direct reaction to the companies’ actions, the Brazilian Congress has proposed legislation to reduce the spread of disinformation and to penalize those who spread false information about the coronavirus. Some of the laws call for criminalizing the spread of disinformation. One of the proposed laws would also criminalize the sharing of disinformation if you are a government official. Fact-checking organizations in Brazil also jointly authored a statement calling on authorities in Brazil to stop spreading disinformation.
Daskal: Justin, do you know how the media outlets have responded to the content removal orders? Are the media outlets criminally responsible for the content that is on their sites?
Sherman: Media entities from Russian social media service VK to American internet platforms like Instagram have complied with censorship orders from Roskomnadzor. They can be fined by the Russian government for failing to censor content, although they are more likely to be blocked than fined. Fines for spreading “false information” are generally directed at specific individuals. In fact, law enforcement in Russia has already opened a number of cases against people alleged to have disseminated “false information” about the coronavirus online.
Daskal: As companies respond to Russia’s takedown demands, do you know if they are doing so on a global or local scale?
Sherman: Generally, companies complying with Russian government content censorship demands do so via geoblocking. In other words, the information they remove is only removed for those who appear to be viewing it from within Russia. This underscores the fact that Moscow is focusing its censorship efforts within the country.
Daskal: Mia, you and I have previously written about the ways in which Tencent—the giant China tech company that owns WeChat, the country’s most popular messaging app—has used its market power to effectively disconnect those who spoke out against ways in which the Chinese government was managing the epidemic. Is that something that is continuing? What other tools is (and has) the Chinese government used to stifle dissent and critiques of its handling of the pandemic?
Shuang Li: Yes, Tencent is still censoring voices that counter the official narrative, not just in public posts but also in closed chat groups. Luckily their method is not as smart as we thought. I used to think Tencent can censor based on the “sentiment” of content, not just keywords, but now it looks like it’s just keyword combos, per this very good Citizen Lab report.
Daskal: Roberta, is there any way to assess how much of a chilling effect Bolsonaro’s efforts have had on the mainstream media’s discussion of the pandemic and its seriousness? Are people rushing to use hydroxychlororoquine as a cure?
Braga: From what I’ve seen, the mainstream media in Brazil continues working to report on the pandemic in a fact-based way, sticking to the guidelines of responsible journalism. Fact-checkers haven’t faltered, either.
But Bolsonaro’s reactions have had a real effect on how the population perceives the pandemic. When the discussions on hydroxychloroquine first started happening, we saw a race on pharmacies for the medication. And some patients who needed the medication for lupus, for example, reported not being able to find the medication.
It is worth noting that there is a much higher sense of skepticism and awareness about the dangers of disinformation two years after the 2018 presidential elections. Nevertheless, we are still seeing a lot of disinformation and misinformation circulating online and through messaging platforms in Brazil.
Daskal: Justin, can you talk a bit more about the ways in which Russia is spreading disinformation about the virus outside its borders? What are the means by which it is doing so? And you mentioned falsehoods with response to the origins of the virus—are you seeing other kinds of disinformation emanating from Russia as well?
Sherman: Moscow is employing numerous vectors to project and amplify disinformation about the coronavirus. State-controlled media outlets like RT and Sputnik have been pushing lies about COVID-19. Russia also is likely using groups like the Internet Research Agency to spread these falsehoods on social media as well. Some of these narratives have targeted the virus’s origins. True to form, some of these falsehoods are even contradictory—like accusing the U.S. of developing the virus and then a few days later saying it was developed in Latvia. But the disinformation has covered many different angles. Recently, for example, Russian state media organizations have exaggerated British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hospitalization with oxygen support into claims that the prime minister is on a ventilator.
Daskal: Mia, a similar question for you as the one I asked Justin—are China’s information and censorship efforts focused mainly internally?
Shuang Li: China adopts different strategies inside and outside the Great Fire Wall. Beijing relies on a host of state media accounts and diplomats on Twitter and Facebook to push its narrative. However, due to a general lack of credibility of state media outlets, it doesn’t work. Recently Beijing may have begun to use commercial entities and digital marketing firms to amplify its voice on Twitter and Facebook, but still is mostly pushing its narrative in Chinese targeting Chinese speaking populations. ProPublica’s Jeff Kao and I did some digging on that issue in this story.
Outside the firewall, Beijing’s propaganda campaign is defensive and reactionary. It sees a narrative it doesn’t like, or sees its enemy having a “win” and tries very hard to counter it.
Often it backfires. So far Beijing is having a hard time selling its narrative outside of China.
Braga: A peak of the pandemic is expected to hit Brazil in May/June. This pandemic will have a devastating effect on Brazil’s society, particularly given the overburdened and underfunded public health system. Brazil needs to prioritize addressing this crisis head on—everyone has a responsibility to stick to the facts and to the science. The cost could be millions of lives.
That said, I’d like to end on a positive note. Local media outlets in many of Brazil’s favelas are working hard to create content on how to address the spread of coronavirus in those communities. We are seeing everything from independent articles to videos produced by journalists who understand the realities Brazilians living in the favelas face every day.
Daskal: Huge, huge thanks to all three of you for your time and incredible thoughtfulness.