Joyce Fegan: Where is Covid-19 disinformation coming from?

Dangerous disinformation about mask-wearing, herd immunity and a weakened strain of Covid-19 is spreading faster than the virus.
Joyce Fegan: Where is Covid-19 disinformation coming from?

Anti-mask and anti-lockdown protesters outside RTE studios which they have branded fake news. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Dangerous disinformation about mask-wearing, herd immunity and a weakened strain of Covid-19 is spreading faster than the virus.

This "infodemic" as the World Health Organisation (WHO) calls it, is happening in Ireland, and it is a highly-orchestrated campaign that preys on our vulnerabilities.

Firstly, what exactly is disinformation as opposed to misinformation?

The UN says disinformation is "information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organisation or country". 

Misinformation, on the other hand is, "information that is false but not created with the intention of causing harm".

When it comes to Covid-19 there is a lot of false information being deliberately created and spread. 

You'll receive it in your WhatsApp chats, you'll see it on your Facebook feed, you'll hear it at the school gates and now, unfortunately, it's even become part of the national conversation.

It's deliberate and dangerous.

"We must be aware that there is a large disinformation campaign at work that has become more organised and people need to be very cautious when they hear certain things that point in the direction of either a) that the virus is becoming less dangerous or b) that herd immunity is a sensible strategy, because neither is true," said Tomás Ryan, a neuroscientist and associate professor at Trinity College Dublin, speaking on Eamon Dunphy's podcast The Stand this week.

Asked specifically about the virus having "weakened", the associate professor was as emphatic in his rebuttal as he was clear in his evidence as to why this is not the case.

"The virus has not weakened. We know that the fatality rate has gone down because it's mainly affecting young people, young people have a lower fatality rate, and we're still learning the exact fatality rate," he said.

Said another way, while there are fewer Covid-19-related deaths (for now) that is because younger people are the ones being infected and there is a lower fatality rate for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. 

It is somewhere between 1.5% and 3%, depending on various research.

However, for people in their 60s, the fatality rate is 10% and for people in their 70s, Dr Ryan said you're "playing Russian roulette at that point".

So, the virus has not weakened, it's just that less people are dying from it (for now) because younger people are the ones with more infections and they have a lower fatality rate.

More disinformation alludes to the notion that Covid-19 isn't that serious.

"We really don't know enough about what the effects of long-Covid are," said Dr Ryan.

Reports have shown that Covid-19 is affecting the brain.

In Japan, a case report was published showing someone who was infected with the virus had swelling and inflammation in brain tissues. 

Meanwhile Italian academics found that the virus could induce brain and spine "demyelinating" lesions. 

This mean damage was done to the protective coating that surrounds nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord.

The virus has not weakened, it's just that less people are dying from it (for now) because younger people are the ones with more infections and they have a lower fatality rate.
The virus has not weakened, it's just that less people are dying from it (for now) because younger people are the ones with more infections and they have a lower fatality rate.

A neuroscientist at the University of California, Alysson Muotri has said: “The neurological symptoms are only becoming more and more scary".

So to say that Covid-19 is just like getting the flu is not just wholly inaccurate, it's crystal-ball-gazing, because this virus is so new and its long-term effects are not yet known.

Along with the disinformation that Covid-19 is just like the flu and is weakening, there is the disinformation about mask-wearing.

So who is behind this spread of disinformation and why?

The Far Right Observatory, a group of academics and activists, who track disinformation in Ireland, has linked conspiracies around Covid-19 to far-right actors in Ireland.

"Over the course of the last month (April) the Far Right Observatory (FRO) have witnessed a resurgence of activity of far-right actors using Covid-19 pandemic to rally support behind their agenda of racism and hate," the FRO said.

The FRO went further, and even predicted that there could be "mass demonstrations" which would pose a "real danger to public health."

"Following the abysmal showing in recent local and national elections, far-right actors and groups on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have grappled to find relevance. 

This has included pushing wild conspiracy theories, spreading misinformation, targeting of minority and migrant communities, attacks on telecommunication infrastructure and calls for mass demonstrations that pose real danger to public health should they take place.

"It also involves international far-right networking to use the coming economic turmoil to marshal public anger, disillusionment and high unemployment into far-right street movements and political organisation," the FRO said.

The group also described the "interlacing of conspiracy, paranoia and mistrust with extreme nationalism and anti-migrant white supremacy" as "very much a deliberate strategy" of the far-right in Ireland.

"It's part of a conscious means of radicalising the viewer to hold more militant, distrustful and closed-minded world views," the group added.

 It is important to note that the "viewer" here may have been unknowingly affected by the orchestrated disinformation campaign — their sense of powerlessness, despair and vulnerability at the pandemic being preyed upon.

WHO says infodemics "can spread misinformation, disinformation and rumours during a health emergency".

Furthermore, WHO says that "infodemics can hamper an effective public health response and create confusion and distrust among people".

The dots between Covid-19 disinformation and who is behind it must be joined to understand the effect its confusion is having on public health and public cohesion.

Put simply, if we do not follow the research-backed advice of scientists, and are instead unknowingly influenced by deliberate disinformation, Covid-19 infections will rise and more people will die.

The people who create this disinformation know exactly what they are doing and they use platforms like Facebook and Twitter and messaging apps like WhatsApp to their advantage. 

We, in turn, use these platforms and apps in the normal course of our lives and are unknowingly infected with their virus of false and dangerous "information".

Only we are never asymptomatic. Word spreads, that's the nature of language and those who use it. "I saw this thing on Facebook that said.....," or "my husband's friend was talking to his doctor who said....".

Science advises we wear masks. Science advises we need to wash our hands. Science advises we need to socially-distance. And history advises us to verify where and who we get our information from. 

We need to be as cautious about our information hygiene as we are about our hand hygiene, for the sake of public health and democracy.

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