Perhaps the best advice I’ve discovered regarding coronavirus – now that my hands are scrubbed raw – came from author and scholar of disinformation Anne Applebaum, writing in The Atlantic: “Judge politicians by how much and how clearly they defer to the people who give the sum of two and two as four. What you want is accurate information, not politicized information. And the more the better.”
More information we’ve been getting; better, not so much. In fact, in many jurisdictions where the virus has taken hold, politicians’ attempt to restrict, twist and obfuscate information for political gain has been one of the hallmarks of this outbreak. It’s almost certainly put people’s lives in danger. And it will without doubt deepen the already yawning gap in trust that exists between the governed and those who govern.
The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto has just released a report about the ways in which Chinese social-media platforms WeChat and YY have been blocking certain words or phrases since the outbreak began in December. The platforms may be acting out of skin-saving self-censorship or bowing directly to government authorities, but either way, the result is the same: “systematic blocking of general communication on social media related to disease information and prevention risks substantially harming the ability of the public to share information that may be essential to their health and safety.”
In the absence of useful information created by censorship, all manner of rumour and conspiracy theory rush to fill the vacuum. As CNN’s Hong Kong-based digital producer Nectar Gan writes, “concealing the truth has caused another problem. Amid dwindling public trust, authorities are finding it increasingly difficult to combat potentially harmful disinformation.” This means that falsehoods, potentially dangerous to human life as well as to the social bonds that keep a healthy society together, proliferate – not just in Chinese social media, but everywhere.
It’s not just authoritarian governments that have proved untrustworthy during this epidemic. U.S. President Donald Trump, already about as credible as a carnival barker selling miracle hair tonic, is apparently unable to comprehend a realm beyond the political win-loss column, tossing alarming bits of nonsense to the country he leads. In the past few days alone, he has falsely laid the blame for the United States’ late and problematic testing progress at the door of Barack Obama (even experts don’t know what he’s talking about). His administration has been accused of playing down the threat, of botching the testing rollout and of being unwilling to answer questions about who, exactly, will pay for the tests in a country with limited public insurance.
Worse, though, Mr. Trump has publicly cast doubt on the World Health Organization’s mortality figure of 3.4 per cent – and he did it to a large and gullible audience. “I think the 3.4 per cent is really a false number,” Mr. Trump told Fox News’s Sean Hannity. “This is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this. Because a lot of people will have this and it’s very mild … personally I would say the number is way under 1 per cent.”
You’d think Mr. Hannity would have gently suggested to his friend the President that hunches are for racetracks, not for diseases that harm populations, but that would have upended their beloved conspiracy theory that the virus is being “weaponized” by Democrats to threaten the Trump administration. It’s a convenient cudgel, this virus. It can beat any old bogeyman. In Italy, one of the centres of outbreak, the far-right politician Matteo Salvini used the threat of the virus to rail against migrants, in such an acrobatically counterfactual way that he might have been trying out for the circus. "Allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.” At the time the entire continent of Africa had identified one case, but who cares about facts when there are political wars to win?
As all of this disinformation was flying around from the most dismaying sources, I noticed something that seemed unrelated, but is in fact quite consequential. The firm Ipsos MORI released a Global Trend Survey, which included this bombshell of a question: “In my country, elites conspire to hide the truth from the public.” Peru had the highest number of skeptics, at 83 per cent, but it was alarming that 59 per cent of Canadian respondents had agreed with that statement.
It’s kind of astonishing that a majority of people in many countries believe they are the victims of an actual covert effort to keep them in the dark. If I were a politician, that fact might keep me up at night. I’d also be alarmed by the general hollowing-out of trust in public institutions. The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, released last month, showed that Canadians did not have faith in four major institutions – government, media, business and NGOs – to be both ethical and competent. The respondents to the survey were worried about the future. However, they did trust scientists almost twice as much as government leaders.
Which is why politicians should get out of the way, as much as possible, and let the science speak for itself, unmediated. Free the doctors, and nurses, to report what they’re experiencing. Bear in mind the words of an Iranian doctor treating coronavirus patients, who complained to the Financial Times about his government’s lack of transparency: “The more the officials are scared of scaring people, the more the virus will spread and the country will be paralyzed.”
The danger of the virus will lessen eventually, but we may be left with something equally worrying: Trust that’s broken beyond a quick cure.
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