Street Talk – How to fight the Infodemic

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It’s bad enough that the US and the rest of the world have had to suffer a pandemic. But, along with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and as a result of his failure to win a second term, America is now suffering what the media and pundits call an Infodemic – an epidemic of disinformation and misinformation.

Trump, who takes pride in popularizing the term, “fake news,” to denigrate mainstream media, has been the epitome of fake news. Spreading a deadly virus of lies about the legitimacy of the last presidential elections, Trump has succeeded in shaking the very foundation of American democracy, at least among his fanatic followers. 

The Trump virus has also affected the faith of Americans in the most important defense against the coronavirus pandemic. Vaccinations.

In spite of the obvious success of the COVID-19 vaccines, specifically Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, less than 50% of Americans have been fully vaccinated.

It’s not for lack of vaccines or difficulty in getting the requisite boosts. Since the assumption of the presidency by Joe Biden, the government has successfully harnessed federal, state and private health resources to make the vaccines available to everyone, age 12 and older. In fact, Biden’s vaccination program was moving along at such a brisk pace that he predicted that America could achieve a 75% vaccination rate – enough to achieve “herd immunity” by July 4.

But the government has encountered a wall of resistance to vaccination, primarily among supporters of Donald Trump – almost the same segment of the population that believes that the presidency was stolen from him. Several Southern states, which have traditionally voted for Republicans, have been the most resistant to vaccinations.

Varying reasons are given by the “anti-vax,” due to ignorance and fear of the unknown. But, worst of all, they have been influenced by baseless rumors and outright lies spread by vicious quarters in the Republican Party and in right wing media. 

In a media-saturated environment, especially with the dominance of social media, disinformation spreads like wildfire. The Hitler-Goebbels-Trump doctrine works: a lie, repeated often enough is accepted as true.

The once-reassuring downward trend of COVID-19 infections has now been displaced by an upward trajectory of infections and deaths. Most of the victims, have been infected by the Delta variant. And 99% have not been vaccinated.

The crisis alarmed the White House enough to prompt Biden to blame Facebook, as the dominant social media platform. 

Facebook has pushed back at the Biden administration for using it as a scapegoat due, ostensibly, to the government’s failure to achieve its vaccination targets. Biden has since mellowed his attack on Facebook.

While Facebook defensively cited many instances where it censored false or misleading information, opinion makers continue to criticize social media for “not doing enough” to contain the “infodemic.” 

Other sectors have also chimed in, proposing draconian measures. The Center for American Progress, which describes itself as a non-partisan policy institute, has characterized the disinformation and misinformation about coronavirus as “serious threats to public health…” 

According to CAP, social media platforms “have facilitated… an informational environment that, in combination with other factors, has complicated the public health response, enabled widespread confusion, and contributed to loss of life during the pandemic.”

CAP adds: “As public health conditions vary more widely across the United States, this geographic variation will be an ideal vector for malicious actors to exploit. Without robust local media ecosystems, it will be especially difficult for social media platforms to moderate place-based disinformation and misinformation.”

Thus, the CAP suggests that ”Long-term regulatory action will be needed to address the structural factors that contribute to an online environment in which misinformation and disinformation thrive. In the near term, social media platforms must do more to reduce the harm they facilitate, starting with fast-moving coronavirus misinformation and disinformation.”

CAP recommends “structurally altering how their websites function” by means of “Virality circuit breakers”, “Scan-and-suggest features,” and “Subject matter context additions.”

These features will ostensibly “detect, label, suspend algorithmic amplification, and prioritize rapid review and fact-checking of trending coronavirus content that displays reliable misinformation markers, which can be drawn from the existing body of coronavirus mis/disinformation.”

In other words: CENSORSHIP.

Frankly, this is a cure that is worse than the disease.

There is no doubt that disinformation is bad, but so is curtailment of free speech. Has Facebook actually “eliminated,” or “disallowed” certain “questionable content”? Except for being a private enterprise, Facebook’s action could be construed as questionable. 

Besides, even if Facebook imposes complete screening of content, its efforts will never be “enough.” There are vicious actors feeding the deadly falsehoods.

Just as it only takes a drop of tinting color to spoil the pure whiteness of paint, it only takes one vile rumor to poison people’s minds. Remember, too, that it only took one snake to cause mankind’s banishment from Eden. 

But that doesn’t mean, we should allow ourselves to be at the mercy of liars, whether snakes or foxes. The snakes and the lying foxes should be – can be – held accountable for the harm  that they cause.

Just as driving a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs poses a threat to public safety, so does rumor-mongering and influencing the attitude of potential victims of the pandemic. 

Spreading disinformation about the virus is like falsely yelling “Fire!’ in a crowded theater. The Supreme Court has determined that the latter act is not protected speech under the First Amendment. The alarmist can, therefore, be held accountable.  

Similarly, the people spreading falsehoods and baseless rumors in media, such as Fox News, should be held accountable. Of course, they could offer some kind of defense such as “We are not lying willfully – because we believe we are telling the truth and are trying to protect the public.” But if  they are sued and made to justify their falsehood, and if they are confronted with scientific data and made to acknowledge that they “could be wrong,” that could serve to advance the cause of truth. 

I believe that this would be better than censorship.

In this regard, I suggest that the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) should seriously consider taking up this cause. 

Perhaps,  the lawyers in the federation, like Loida Nicolas-Lewis and Rodel Rodis, could take up the cudgels and harness other legal resources in the community, like Ted Laguatan,  Ernie Llorente and Mike Guingona. They would render a great service to the country – in fact, a great service to mankind – if they challenge the snakes and foxes of disinformation, expose them for their duplicity, and hold them to account for the deaths that their falsehoods have caused.

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