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.
There’s an epidemic sweeping the globe – oh, we all know about Coronavirus, but what about a contagion that’s almost as dangerous? This one is an “infodemic” of fake news. While the World Health Organization (WHO) was fashionably late to the COVID-19 party, it wasted no time dealing with the chaotic spread of information about the illness. The agency’s Information Network for Epidemics was quickly launched to manage the flow of communication – and now it is evolving its next surveillance and influence operation with “social listening.”
Fake News Outbreak
What are the facts? In light of the Coronavirus, that question doesn’t seem as simple as it used to. In recent memory, there have been few more divisive issues when it comes to science and the “truth.” Trust in the experts is low, and fact-checkers seem willing to discount even the opinions of medical professionals who disagree with the official story.
A recent post on the WHO’s website stated that the Coronavirus material most often labeled as false was that which questioned the official narrative, noting the widely-censored Plandemic video as an example and accusing such content of eroding trust in the apparently unimpeachable authorities:
“According to a recent study evaluating English-language misinformation, the largest category of posts labeled as false or misleading by fact-checkers was content that deliberately challenged or questioned policies and actions of public officials, governments, and international institutions such as the United Nations and WHO.”
The WHO has been working with social media companies to limit “fake news” since February, and it now boasts partnerships with 50 digital companies – including TikTok, Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp, YouTube, and even dating app Tinder – to ensure its version of events prevails. However, that is almost child’s play at this point. The United Nations Foundation caught up with Tim Nguyen, manager of the WHO’s Information Network for Epidemics, at the world’s first “infodemiology” conference – a June-July Zoom event on “how infodemics affect the world and how they can be managed.”
A press release defined this new so-called study of “infodemiology” as “the science of managing infodemics.” For those not in the “in crowd” when it comes to global censorship, an infodemic refers to “an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – occurring during an epidemic. In a similar manner to an epidemic it spreads between humans through digital and physical information systems … Like pathogens in epidemics, misinformation spreads further and faster and adds complexity to health emergency response.”
Too much information – it’s like a disease. Especially if it isn’t in line with the authorized narrative. Extending the analogy, Nguyen likened WHO-approved information to a vaccine against fake news. “You need to have a certain degree of good information out there to reach populations so that they are inoculated and not susceptible to fake news or disinformation,” he said. “We believe we need to vaccinate 30% of the population with ‘good information,’ in order to have a certain degree of ‘herd’ immunity against misinformation.”
“Infodemics have already happened in one way or another in past epidemics,” Nguyen added, “but what’s happening right now is something of a global scale, where people are connected through different means and share information more quickly. This has created a new situation where we are rethinking and reshaping our approach to managing infodemics in emergencies.”
A program for the conference revealed sessions on topics such as:
- “How can the digital-physical information environment be measured and monitored? Using data triangulation, real-time surveillance and monitoring and metrics development.”
- “How does information originate and spread? Information environment, how low-quality information develops into harmful narratives, and how misinformation propagates.”
Introducing Social Listening
Dealing with misinformation when it’s already in the public sphere is too late, suggests Nguyen in the interview, revealing that the WHO is working to remedy such leaks in the control structure by developing a “social listening” program. The project involves scanning 1.6 million social media posts per week to track popular questions and searches online, allowing the agency to pre-emptively deal with those questions before they gain momentum.
Even further, the technology will use language analytics to evaluate the emotions behind what people post on social media, enabling the WHO to “develop an effective offensive strategy and assuage the public’s concerns before misinformation can gain steam.” Are people feeling anxiety, sadness, denial, acceptance, or any other emotion when they discuss the Coronavirus online? The WHO wants – and plans – to find out.
We may think that by avoiding social media, we can block such attempts at digital psychology, but the United Nations – used to dealing with third-world countries – doesn’t plan to let a lack of internet become an obstacle to its narrative control. Artificial intelligence analysis is already being used to detect patterns of communication on radio call-in shows in Uganda.
With all this progress toward monitoring on- and offline communications plus the public’s emotional mood, it’s not a grand leap to wonder whether these surveillance techniques will be used in other areas of life.
As to the next steps, naturally, the WHO is monitoring public attitudes to vaccines, tracing millions of messages on Facebook. The organization will be targeting “swing vaxxers” who it can see are undecided on the matter. After all, the agency started 2019 by proclaiming vaccine hesitancy to be one of the world’s biggest health threats, and the “#VaccinesWork for All” theme of 2020’s World Immunization Week in April seemed to demonstrate its attitude on the topic.
The WHO may be the United Nations agency most connected to Coronavirus management, but the greater U.N. has also launched several initiatives to control the spread of information online. “Verified” is a project with the “goal of saving lives and countering misinformation.” It promotes U.N. literature explaining why wearing masks is important and acting on fake news is bad.
This includes a campaign titled “Pause. Take care before you share.” That may be a wise philosophy no matter what you are discussing online, but do we need the accompanying patois? “Fake news acts like a virus. It exploits our weaknesses. Our biases. Our emotions.” Fake news can kill – better vaccinate ourselves against it with a big dose of U.N.-approved propaganda.
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.