Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
John McAfee, an anti-virus software entrepreneur and on-again-off-again candidate for president, recently released a “campaign ad” promoting cryptocurrencies as the path to freedom – from taxes, the government, banks, and the Military-Industrial Complex. While this tech pioneer may be vying for the Libertarian Party presidential slot, he submits that real power today lies with the digital gatekeepers. “You think presidents make decisions in vacuums?” he inquires. “No. We’re in the age of information. We act on information and those who control information are the ones in power, people. You think you can’t control someone? You can control them by giving them selective information or by giving them outright lies.”
Power is the art of managing perception, and if the birth of the internet was the demise of the traditional information guards, new ones quickly stepped in to replace them.
And what better case study could there be than the sudden outbreak of a deadly pandemic? Contradictory information on the Wuhan Coronavirus, Covid-19, appears every time one turns one’s head. Is it a health emergency that could wipe out millions, or merely a new variation on the flu? Certain pieces of information have received little attention from the traditional media, while others have been widely publicized. The real shaping of perception, however, is happening online.
Shutting Down Coronavirus “Infodemic”
Naturally, one of the biggest threats to a highly controlled population – I mean, to the truth – is “misinformation.” A well-known Washington newspaper reports that two million tweets promoted harmful “conspiracy theories” during the three weeks after the virus began to expand outside of China, according to an unreleased State Department report the writer claim to have seen. World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”
What’s as dangerous as a deadly virus? A plague of fake news, of course. According to a February WHO situation report:
“The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ – an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
Thanks to the internet, news has traveled faster than the virus itself, according to the organization’s officials, and this is most undesirable. So, what is social media doing to stamp out this free flow of ideas? According to Ghebreyesus, the WHO is working with social media companies, including Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Tencent, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, and Chinese operators Baidu, Weibo, Tencent, and more “to counter the spread of rumors and misinformation.” In addition to working with tech companies directly, the WHO is also “connecting with influencers, through Instagram and YouTube, among others, to help spread factual messages to their followers, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region.” It appears the online celebrities are not called “influencers” for no reason.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a blog post on March 4, revealing that the social network has been coordinating with health authorities including the WHO, UNICEF and the CDC to distribute information on the virus and work on “stopping hoaxes and harmful misinformation.” Presumably, harmless misinformation will be allowed to continue.
The effort involves “removing false claims and conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations.” And “blocking people from running ads that try to exploit the situation — for example, claiming that their product can cure the disease” or promoting the “limited supply” of preventative items.
Facebook has given free ad space to the WHO and will be doling out millions of dollars worth of ad credits to other organizations. It has also granted researchers access to aggregated user data to monitor how the disease could spread. The network additionally said it would use its third-party fact-checking partners to debunk misinformation related to the virus. Instagram – owned by Facebook – has blocked certain hashtags related to the coronavirus.
Andrew Pattison, WHO digital business solutions manager, held a February meeting at Facebook headquarters with various tech companies. He also traveled to Amazon headquarters to urge the retail platform to curb the sale of books related to the disease that are not “based on science.” Additionally, Pattison expressed concern regarding Amazon search results for “coronavirus” turning up face masks and items falsely advertised as cures, including vitamin C. The retail juggernaut has said it may take down listings for products that claim to kill the virus.
The microblogging site has pushed “credible, authoritative content” to the top of search results for the term “coronavirus.” It has added a prompt for related search results, directing users to the WHO and government channels. The site commented it had not noticed any coordinated efforts to spread false information but assured that it would “remain vigilant” in its “zero-tolerance” approach to such things.
Google searches have been engineered to display mainstream news and safety tips. The search engine giant already has a rule against apps that “profit from a tragic event with no discernible benefit to the victims” and appear to be using it. It removed ads for face masks, saying: “These Shopping results violated our ad policies and we removed them immediately. Since January, we’ve blocked tens of thousands of ads that attempted to capitalize on the coronavirus situation and we continue to take action to prevent these ads from serving.” Despite this, a CNBC report complained that reporters were still able to find sponsored links for hand sanitizers, face masks and protective clothing that claimed to protect against the virus.
The Google Play store has not allowed apps related to the coronavirus, though it has published a page with official app recommendations for information on the disease.
Apple has disallowed Coronavirus-related apps that don’t come from approved authorities such as hospitals and governments.
Supermarkets are falling victim to the panic-buying of certain essentials. For some reason, toilet paper has become a major commodity but actual survival necessities like food, not so much. With this trend, though, and the fact that the online marketplace is ripe for snake oil salesmen, is fake news a genuine threat to the population? Or is this just a useful practice session for the authorities to funnel information through select, centralized sources?
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next week to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.