[COLUMN] How to fight the infodemic 

IT’S bad enough that the U.S. and the rest of the world have had to suffer a pandemic. But, along with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and as a result of his failure to win a second term, America is now suffering what the media and pundits call an Infodemic—an epidemic of disinformation and misinformation.

Trump, who takes pride in popularizing the term, “fake news,” to denigrate mainstream media, has been the epitome of fake news,

spreading a deadly virus of lies about the legitimacy of the last presidential elections—a virtual epidemic of falsehoods. And he appears to have succeeded in shaking the very foundation of American democracy.

The Trump virus has also affected the faith of Americans in the most important defense against the coronavirus pandemic. Vaccinations.

Despite the obvious success of the COVID-19 vaccines, specifically Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, less than 50% of Americans have been fully vaccinated.

It’s not for lack of vaccines or difficulty in getting the requisite boosts. Since the assumption of the presidency by Joe Biden, the government has successfully harnessed federal, state and private health resources to make the vaccines available to everyone, age 12 and older. In fact, Biden’s vaccination program was moving along at such a brisk pace that he predicted that America could achieve a 75% vaccination rate – enough to achieve “herd immunity” by July 4.

But the government has encountered a wall of resistance to vaccination, primarily among supporters of Donald Trump—almost the same segment of the population that believes that the presidency was stolen from him. Several Southern states, which have traditionally voted for Republicans, have been the most resistant to vaccinations.

Varying reasons are given by the “anti-vax” but invariably they have been swayed by misinformation, due to ignorance and fear of the unknown, as well as lies and baseless rumors being inflicted by certain bad actors in the GOP and right-wing media.

In a media-saturated environment, especially with the dominance of social media, the disinformation and misinformation have spread like wildfire.

The once-reassuring downward trend of COVID-19 infections has now been displaced by an upward trajectory of infections and deaths. Most of the victims have been infected by the Delta variant. And nearly all have not been vaccinated.

The crisis has alarmed the White House enough to prompt Biden to attribute a large part of the blame to social media. Biden asserts that Facebook, as the dominant social media platform, is largely responsible for the spread of the disinformation that has stiffened the doubts about the efficacy of the vaccines—and, worse, spread rumors about the side effects of the vaccine.

Facebook has pushed back at the Biden administration, ostensibly for using it as a scapegoat due to the government’s failure to achieve its vaccination targets. Facebook has cited the many instances where it has virtually censored false or misleading information.

Some media commentators have also criticized Facebook and other social media platforms for “not doing enough” to contain the infodemic.

Other sectors have also chimed in, proposing draconian measures. The Center for American Progress, which describes itself as a non-partisan policy institute, has characterized the disinformation and misinformation about coronavirus as “serious threats to public health…” Insisting that social media platforms “have facilitated… an informational environment that, in combination with other factors, has complicated the public health response, enabled widespread confusion, and contributed to loss of life during the pandemic.”

CAP adds: “As public health conditions vary more widely across the United States, this geographic variation will be an ideal vector for malicious actors to exploit. Without robust local media ecosystems, it will be especially difficult for social media platforms to moderate place-based disinformation and misinformation.”

Thus, CAP suggests that ”Long-term regulatory action will be needed to address the structural factors that contribute to an online environment in which misinformation and disinformation thrive. In the near term, social media platforms must do more to reduce the harm they facilitate, starting with fast-moving coronavirus misinformation and disinformation.”

CAP recommends “structurally altering how their websites function” by means of “Virality circuit breakers”, “Scan-and-suggest features,” and “Subject matter context additions.”

These features will ostensibly “detect, label, suspend algorithmic amplification, and prioritize rapid review and fact-checking of trending coronavirus content that displays reliable misinformation markers, which can be drawn from the existing body of coronavirus mis/disinformation.”

In other words: CENSORSHIP.

With due respect to the proponents, this is a cure that is worse than the disease.

There is no doubt that disinformation is bad, but so is the curtailment of free speech. Has Facebook actually “eliminated,” or “disallowed” certain “questionable content”? Except for being a private enterprise, Facebook’s action could be construed as questionable.

Besides, even if Facebook imposes complete screening of content, its efforts will never be “enough.” There are vicious actors feeding the deadly falsehoods.

Just as it only takes a drop of tinting color to spoil the pure whiteness of paint, it only takes one vile rumor to poison people’s minds. Remember, too, that it only took one snake to cause mankind’s banishment from Eden.

But that doesn’t mean, we should allow ourselves to be at the mercy of liars, whether snakes or foxes. The snakes and the lying foxes should be—can be—held accountable for the harm that they cause.

The fact is that rumor-mongering poses a real threat to public safety. Just like driving a vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs. Or like falsely yelling “Fire!’ in a crowded theater.

The Supreme Court has determined that this is not protected speech under the First Amendment. The alarmist can be held accountable.

Similarly, the people spreading falsehoods and baseless rumors in media, such as Fox News, should be held accountable. Of course, they could offer some kind of defense such as “We are not lying willfully—because we believe we are telling the truth and are trying to protect the public.” But if they are sued and made to justify their falsehoods, and if they are confronted with scientific data and made to acknowledge that they “could be wrong,” that could serve to advance the cause of truth.

I believe that this would be better than censorship.

In this regard, I suggest that the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) should seriously consider taking up this cause.

Perhaps, the lawyers in the federation, like Loida Nicolas-Lewis and Rodel Rodis, could take up the cudgels and harness other legal champions in the community, like Ted Laguatan, Ernie Llorente and Mike Guingona, to take on the snakes and foxes of disinformation, expose them for their duplicity, and hold them to account for the deaths that their falsehoods have caused.

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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