In order to overcome an enemy, you need a clear definition of who it is. According to UNESCO, “COVID-19 has led to a parallel pandemic of disinformation that directly impacts lives and livelihoods around the world. Falsehoods and misinformation have proven deadly and sowed confusion about life-saving personal and policy choices.” (UNESCO n.d.)
Though “disinformation” is here labelled “deadly”, it seems more like a mirage that changes shape with every shift in the winds of policy. The assorted elements that make up the content of “COVID disinformation” apparently includes critical thinking about the accuracy of COVID-19 testing and an ever-expanding definition of what constitutes a COVID-19 death. Our role as citizens often seems to have been reduced to mindless acceptance of whatever the experts proclaim even as their predictions and recommendations vary widely from week to week.
At times like these, it is useful to keep in mind that the authority of a media resource should only be as strong as the evidence that underlies its communications. But what if access to evidence is blocked by an algorithm? What happens to your ability to seek the truth when documents or videos are removed before you have a chance to see them? Can you be influenced if something is ‘labeled false’ before you have the opportunity to examine it for yourself?
How Does Fact-Checking Work?
The expression ‘fact-checking’ has become widespread. Of course, everyone should check facts. But what does that mean in the current environment? Major news organizations and platforms such as Facebook now follow a fact-checking process that they say supports them in distinguishing between true and false information about COVID-19. One of the dominant associations on which they rely is the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), a group of about 60 organizations throughout the world. Using IFCN’s determinations, Facebook’s goal is to ensure that users are immunized against information deemed to be false.
Fact-checking follows a well-designed methodology: well-designed for the specific purpose of discrediting those who challenge the official narrative. The product of this method is then labeled ‘debunking.’ Before the person has even read the assertion, they are conditioned to believe it because of the deceptive label. One frequently used technique is to sift through the assertions in a suspect article and identify a sensational claim which may not even be of central importance to the story as a whole. The questionable allegation is fact-checked and found to be inaccurate or false. The fact-checker can then frame the entire article as dubious, even though the writer’s other points, which often make up its main case, may bear no relationship to the disproven claim. Nonetheless, victory is declared and another story is tossed into the “fake news” bin.
As an example of how such fact-checking works, consider Event 201. This was a simulation exercise for a coronavirus-based pandemic which was organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Economic Forum and Johns Hopkins University and presented on October 18, 2019, a few months before the COVID-19 outbreak. The purpose of this meeting was to walk through a fictional pandemic scenario and discuss the real-world policy and economic issues that might be raised in a similar real-world event as well as brainstorm optimal responses. Leading experts from around the world were invited to participate.
On January 24, 2020, Alex Jones published an article that made a sensational claim about the Event 201 simulation: “[The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] also just happen to fund the group who owns the patent to the deadly virus and are working on a vaccine to solve the crisis.” (McBreen 2020) The Jones article implied that Bill Gates had both developed the virus behind the pandemic and hoped to profit from the vaccine against the virus he helped develop. FactCheck.org accurately confirmed that Gates-funded virus was not the virus behind the COVID-19 outbreak that began in Wuhan in December, 2019 and that the virus that caused the real pandemic was not predicted during the simulation.
In addition to flagging the incorrect claims, the article insinuates that those who have suspicions about Event 201 are “conspiracy theorists.” The lead sentence of the fact-check article reads, “A conspiracy theory website distorted the facts about an emergency preparedness exercise …” (Fichera 2020). Though the article’s sensational claims are clearly false, are there no legitimate grounds for questioning the purpose of a gathering of leading experts that brainstormed responses to a coronavirus outbreak about two months before one actually occurred?
The Jones article mentioned the major recommendations made by the event’s participants, many of which were implemented once the pandemic broke out. One investigator put it this way: “… the Event 201 can hardly be viewed as a fortunate coincidence, being so similar to what has developed and with the same key players now acting on the world stage as if they were following a well-rehearsed playbook. The individuals, the web of organisations and preparatory events, laws, and regulations implemented around the world, with investments and research done prior to the WHO’s declaration of a pandemic (11 March), all raise flags.” (Editors 2020)
By discrediting the article’s sensational claim, the idea that Event 201 could have been a coordinated planning event for the pandemic that broke out shortly after can be conveniently labeled as “fake news.” Genuine truth seekers are able to suspend judgment while considering evidence. Jumping to the conclusion that there are no grounds for suspicion is the sign of an ulterior agenda at work.
Disinfecting the Internet
One of the key recommendations to emerge from Event 201 is that “… media companies should commit to ensuring that authoritative messages are prioritized and that false messages are suppressed including through the use of technology.” (Event 201 2019) The suppression of messages that conflict with the official COVID-19 narrative in social media and search engines is now being aggressively implemented. So we know that at least one of the recommendations issued by Event 201 has been implemented.
Facebook announced in April, 2020 that it will carry out the following steps to fight COVID-19 misinformation on its platform:
- “Once a piece of content is rated false by fact-checkers, we reduce its distribution and show warning labels with more context. Based on one fact-check, we’re able to kick off similarity detection methods that identify duplicates of debunked stories. For example, during the month of March, we displayed warnings on about 40 million posts related to COVID-19 on Facebook, based on around 4,000 articles by our independent fact-checking partners. When people saw those warning labels, 95% of the time they did not go on to view the original content.” (Rosen 2020) This the explanation behind the drastic traffic reduction many have experienced whose content was suddenly deprioritized because it conflicted with the official narrative. Note also that identifying “duplicates of debunked stories” is not an exact science. The artificial intelligence that is used for similarity detection is notoriously weak in understanding natural human language.
- “We’re going to start showing messages in News Feed to people who have liked, reacted or commented on harmful misinformation about COVID-19 that we have since removed. These messages will connect people to COVID-19 myths debunked by the WHO …” (Rosen 2020) The platform thus states that it is directly censoring content such as the video “America’s Frontline Doctors” which recommends hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) as a treatment for COVID-19.
Google has launched a similar initiative by making a “Fact Check” label available in Google News so that users can immediately spot information identified as false by one of the authorized fact-checkers. The label displays who made the claim and the verified result. In this way, users are carefully protected from having to think through the information for themselves.
In addition, Google made a recent announcement that it “… will ban publishers from using its ad platform to show advertisements next to content that promotes conspiracy theories about Covid-19. It will also ban ads that promote those theories. In cases where a particular site publishes a certain threshold of material that violates these policies, it will ban the entire site from using its ad platforms.” (Graham 2020) “The company is now … banning ads against content that make claims going against authoritative scientific consensus. Banned claims would include conspiracy theories like vaccines being attempts to genetically modify the population, that Bill Gates created Covid-19 or that the disease was a bioweapon made in a Chinese lab.” (Graham 2020). Slowly, but surely, independent thought is becoming stigmatized as a threat against which we must be electronically defended.
Note the implication of these actions. Fact-checkers are actively scanning content for statements that contradict the official COVID-19 narrative and Facebook has begun deleting this content from its platform. Such practices imply that information that contradicts the official narrative has to be contained using digital face masks that enforce the new biosecurity paradigm. In the midst of this campaign, the voice of sanity might sound something like this, “A closed mind and know-it-allness are fundamentally forms of resistance to the truth of real things; both reveal the incapacity of the subject to practice that silence which is the absolute prerequisite to all perception of reality.” (Pieper 1965, 16). Only in the silence of clear and calm logical thought can the truth be discerned. Excess efficiency in the enforcement of “validated claims” is often a way of hiding the face of the one who profits from a lie.
Gertrude Stein said, “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” (Stein 1947) As we study information on the web, we seek a resonance between the words we read and our own highly developed sense of reality. Our truth detector is tested every day through confirming and disconfirming experiences that reveal in what we can firmly trust. If what we read is validated through concrete experience, then our feeling for the truth grows more penetrating and reliable. While it is tempting to seek refuge in the official narrative, those able to follow their own hearts and deep intuitions have a more reliable truth radar. The truth it reveals is neither subjective nor objective, but both. It exists both in the outside world and resonates harmonically within our bodies and minds. Every answer that can be trusted has to be forged within our own conscience.
Editors. 2020. “Dots … to COVID – 19.” The Present Age, May/June.
Event 201. 2019. “Public-private cooperation for pandemic preparedness and response.” Event 201. https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/event201/recommendations.html.
Fichera, Angelo. 2020. “New Coronavirus Wasn’t ‘Predicted’ In Simulation.” FactCheck.org, January 29. https://www.factcheck.org/2020/01/new-coronavirus-wasnt-predicted-in-simulation/.
Graham, Megan. 2020. “Google will ban ads from running on stories spreading debunked coronavirus conspiracy theories.” CNBC, July 17. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/17/google-to-ban-ads-on-coronavirus-conspiracy-stories.html.
McBreen, Kelen. 2020. “BILL AND MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION & OTHERS PREDICTED UP TO 65 MILLION DEATHS VIA CORONAVIRUS – IN SIMULATION RAN 3 MONTHS AGO!” InfoWars. January 24. https://web.archive.org/web/20200127221327/https://www.infowars.com/bill-and-melinda-gates-foundation-others-predicted-up-to-65-million-deaths-via-coronavirus-in-simulation-ran-3-months-ago/.
Pieper, Josef. 1965. The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.
Rosen, Guy. 2020. “An Update on Our Work to Keep People Informed and Limit Misinformation About COVID-19.” Facebook Company Website. April 16. https://about.fb.com/news/2020/04/covid-19-misinfo-update/.
Stein, Gertrude. 1947. Reflection on the Atomic Bomb. Yale Poetry Review.
UNESCO. n.d. “Combating the disinfodemic: Working for truth in the time of COVID-19.” UNESCO. Accessed July 24, 2020. https://en.unesco.org/covid19/disinfodemic.