The Misinformation Pandemic: COVID-19 and the Chaotic Cacophony of Lies and Distortions

The rising tide of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda has been well-documented in recent years, particularly as internet access and social media consumption have become seemingly ubiquitous. But in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the scourge of misinformation has intensified, with a cost that can—at least in some cases—be measured in human lives.


Source: José Cabezas, Reuters

“I happen to take the vaccine. If it doesn’t work, you’ll be the first to know. But it is working,” said former U.S. President Donald Trump to a crowd of supporters at a rally in Cullman, Alabama, on Saturday, August 21, before he was met with a shower of boos in a state that boasts one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country.

The United States—along with much of the rest of the world—currently finds itself grappling with yet another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, largely driven by the emergence of the Delta variant of the virus. As hospital ICUs reach capacity and the specter of reimposed lockdown and social distancing measures looms, policymakers across the world have increasingly set their sights on tackling the distinct, albeit parallel, virus of misinformation, which many argue has undermined international efforts to stem the tide of the pandemic. A dizzying virus in its own right, misinformation has similarly raged across the globe over the past 18 months, turbocharged in the context of the new, uncertain reality that we now commonly refer to as our “new normal.” Increasingly the subject of urgent policy and political debate throughout the world (and for good reason), the scourge of misinformation and disinformation has driven calls for—and the eventual formation of—commissions, task forces, and czars galore. From hearings before the U.S. Congress by “Big Tech” CEOs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, and Google’s Sundar Pichai to the Aspen Institute’s newly announced “Commission on Information Disorder,” co-chaired by Katie Couric and also featuring Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, misinformation has captured the fear and imagination of those operating in the policy space like few phenomena have. In the United States Congress, policymakers have called for a “whole of government approach to build citizen resilience to disinformation” and congressional Democrats have urged President Joe Biden to appoint a misinformation czar to his administration’s COVID-19 task force.

On any given night in the United States, upwards of three million Americans tune in to “Tucker Carlson Tonight”—the most-watched cable news program on the nation’s most-watched cable network, Fox News—to see the show’s eponymous host questioning the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccinations while assailing mask guidelines as instruments of near-totalitarian “social control.” (Admittedly, some of Carlson’s fellow Fox News denizens, such as Sean Hannity, have recently begun to offer mild endorsements of voluntary vaccination.) Meanwhile, in Tennessee—among the largely rural states across the American South and West where vaccinations rates among eligible adults hover stubbornly around 40 percent—Phil Valentine, a conservative talk radio host who had cast doubt on the severity of the pandemic and the necessity of vaccination, died this week after battling COVID-19 in the hospital for weeks. For months, Valentine’s voice was one of many in the right-wing dominated talk radio space—a medium that averages over 15 million U.S. listeners per week—casting doubt about vaccine efficacy and pointing listeners to dubious cures, before eventually recanting; indeed many of those voices continue to poison the well of public discourse.

The rising tide of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda has been well-documented in recent years, particularly as internet access and social media consumption have become seemingly ubiquitous. But in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the scourge of misinformation has intensified, with a cost that can—at least in some cases—be measured in human lives. Often spreading voraciously through popular social media channels such as Facebook and WhatsApp—aside from more traditional media such as television and radio—COVID-19-related misinformation has even helped facilitate the widespread use of scientifically unproven, and potentially lethal, remedies (from ivermectin in the Mississippi Delta, to bleach-based “Miracle Mineral Solution” in Colombia, to hydroxychloroquine in Brazil and the United States), and sown popular skepticism toward the COVID-19 vaccines that represent humanity’s greatest chance at staunching the pandemic.

To be clear, we do not argue that misinformation alone is responsible for vaccine hesitancy, conspiracy-mongering, and the popularity of “snake oil” cures. Skepticism toward vaccines, and pharmaceuticals generally, predates the internet and social media. The engines of misinformation and disinformation, rather than creating social dysfunction out of whole cloth, reflect and amplify pre-existing societal fault lines; herein lies misinformation’s grave significance to public policy, and in particular to international geopolitics.

The COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a geopolitical flashpoint as rapidly as it spread across the globe in early 2020. In the summer of 2020, Chinese officials contrasted scenes of unmasked festival-goers in Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 is thought to have first emerged—enjoying the benefits of a strict national lockdown and robust “test-and-trace” infrastructure—with those emerging from the virus-ravaged United States and Western Europe, arguing that the pandemic had vindicated the Chinese model of top-down, uniparty management and de-legitimized Western liberal democracy. With the development and production of the first COVID-19 vaccines, as the countries of the Global North prioritized acquiring sufficient vaccines to inoculate their domestic populations – effectively outbidding poorer nations in the vaccine marketplace – China and Russia eagerly filled the void, signing expansive contracts to ship their respective Sinopharm and Sinovac and Sputnik V vaccines to countries from Algeria to Argentina, and trumpeting their autocratic regimes as the saviors of nations starved of vaccines due to what they asserted was a Western disregard for international solidarity.

There is more to these sort of “vaccine diplomacy” efforts than meets the eye. In some cases, contracts for vaccine purchases have been designed to extract enormous economic and geopolitical concessions: last April, as Paraguay struggled with a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations and a stagnating vaccination rollout, China reportedly dangled the promise of hundreds of thousands of coveted Sinovac shots to President Mario Abdo Benítez if he were to sever Paraguay’s official diplomatic relations with Taiwan (Republic of China) and recognize the communist, mainland People’s Republic of China instead. Honduras, which similarly maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan, found itself in a similar bind earlier this year. As the country’s chief cabinet coordinator noted in language representing a political boon for Beijing, despite the government’s desire to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, “The Honduran people [have] start[ed] to see that China is helping its allies, and we start to ask ourselves why ours are not helping us.”

With the ramping up of U.S. vaccine exports to Latin America and other parts of the world, a host of foreign actors—including Russia, China, and Cuba—have increasingly transitioned from mere political spin to a devotedly and increasingly aggressive marriage between disinformation and vaccine diplomacy, in part to advance each country’s own geopolitical agenda. While the vagaries of the disinformation landscape vary throughout the world—that is, foreign disinformation naturally takes on a different shape and tenor in New York City than it does in Buenos Aires, São Paulo, or Caracas—its objectives are nearly always the same: sowing public distrust toward, and dissatisfaction with, institutions; deepening already-existing societal fault lines; and undermining popular faith in democratic processes.

Over the past 14 months, Global Americans, alongside an interdisciplinary team of political scientists, journalists, and engineers from the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (Monterrey, Mexico), Universidad del Rosario (Bogotá, Colombia), Medianálisis (Caracas, Venezuela), and Centro para la Apertura y el Desarrollo de América Latina (Buenos Aires, Argentina), has engaged in an in-depth analysis of foreign disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda in Latin America and the Caribbean, examining how such phenomena manifest themselves in the distinct national contexts of Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Peru. Driven by fundamental research questions that remain largely unaddressed in the current literature—how is misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda disseminated in Latin America by foreign state media sources (especially China’s Xinhua en Español and CGTN Español; and Russia’s RT Actualidad and Sputnik Mundo) and consumed by Latin American audiences? And what are the regional policy implications of such consumption?—we have sought to gain a comparative, region-wide perspective on disinformation and its impact on Latin America and the Caribbean. Focusing primarily, although not exclusively, on disinformation and misinformation in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have gleaned significant insights as to the geopolitical motivations and strategies deployed by authoritarian regimes—whether headed by Vladimir Putin, Nicolás Maduro, or Xi Jinping—in a region that in recent decades has emerged as an ideological battleground between Western-style, free-market liberal democracy and statist autocracy.

With the end of the COVID-19 pandemic appearing nowhere in sight, vaccine diplomacy, too, will remain a key variable influencing the global geopolitical landscape for the foreseeable future. Nations in Southeast Asia—including Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, and the Philippines—may be increasingly turning toward the U.S. and Western Europe as Chinese vaccines have failed to quell outbreaks that rank among the fastest-growing in the world. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that in countries where any available vaccine remains a precious commodity—especially in the Caribbean, Central America, and much of Africa, where only tiny fractions of eligible populations have been fully inoculated—Chinese and Russian vaccines will continue to be in high demand. The fact that many wealthy countries with already-high vaccination rates, including the U.S., Israel, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, have announced plans (or have already begun) to administer tens of millions of booster shots to their own vulnerable citizens—unmoved by a World Health Organization (WHO) call for a booster shot moratorium aimed at reducing global vaccine inequality and preventing the evolution of new viral variants—means that poorer nations will continue to struggle to compete on the open vaccine market, making condition-laden deals, spiced with narratives of solidarity and humanitarianism, with Russia, China, and even Cuba an increasingly enticing alternative.

Wherever vaccine diplomacy treads, misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda is sure to follow, and sure to continue to exact its influence over the global geopolitical order—which, as illustrated strikingly by the West’s recent chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan amid the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul—is arguably currently as unstable as at any point since the end of the Second World War. Indeed, as the geopolitical landscape shifts beneath our feet and before our eyes, understanding misinformation and disinformation will be critical to developing our comprehension of how certain foreign powers seek to take advantage of vulnerability—political, economic, diplomatic, or epidemiological—in the furtherance of their own geopolitical objectives. On behalf of Global Americans and our project partners, we hope that our project will serve as an early lodestar for such understanding throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and the entirety of the Western Hemisphere.

Guy Mentel is Executive Director of the Western Hemisphere-focused think tank, Global Americans. Mr. Mentel writes and speaks extensively about U.S.-Latin America relations and hemispheric affairs, and frequently briefs congressional staff and other international observers about U.S. policy toward the region.

Henry Bacha is an Editor at Global Americans. Mr. Bacha previously served, among other posts, as a Fulbright Fellow at the Universidade Federal do Acre in Rio Branco, Brazil.

Spanish versions of this op-ed have also been published in RED/ACCIÓN, and in a two-part series in Excélsior (part one; part two). 

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