Since the start of 2020, especially after the worsening of Covid-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned against infodemia, a phenomenon characterized by the high flow of information. Many of them are accurate and come from reliable sources. But others are false or inaccurate, designed with the deliberate intention of deceiving, confusing and manipulating people’s opinions and behavior.
Pandemic, conspiracy theories and fake news
A pandemic is fertile ground for conspiracy theories, the spread of fear, and the deepening of hatred for one another. Among the main conspiracy theories regarding the new coronavirus are those that speculate on its origin.
Today, more than a year and a half after the first cases were identified in Wuhan, China, there are still publications, videos and audios in circulation which support the accusation made by the former president of the United States, Donald Trump, and adopted by the Brazilian government, that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory.
In a recent article for BBC News, journalist Andre Biernath showed the tactics of influencers to spread fake news. One is to use YouTube as a repository for videos that actually circulate in closed groups of apps like Telegram.
One important tactic is to get the content to reach famous people who share it. This is what happened in Brazil with the rumor that the Covid-19 was a scam and that the hospitals were out of patients. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, in June 2020, “denounced” the fact live and encouraged people to invade the intensive care units of public and country hospitals to prove the alleged farce.
Recently, on the eve of the country’s passage to the 500,000 dead mark, Bolsonaro insisted on the idea of data manipulation. According to him, “only half of the deaths would have died” than what the statistics tell us.
In addition to these tactics which are clearly intended to misinform and deceive, I find that the uncertainties generated by the pandemic encourage speculation on ideas that may never be proven, but which serve political and economic interests.
In this sense, it is interesting to observe how the reporting in large vehicles on the hypothesis that the virus “escaped from a Chinese laboratory” does not cease through the work coordinated by Dr. Shi Zhengli, popularized by the Brazilian media as a “batwoman”.
Everything is amalgamated by the mistrust of the American president, Joe Biden, added to the opinion of the British spies, who find the hypothesis feasible. In fact, the fact that sustains the articles is the displeasure of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, with the report on the origins of the coronavirus produced by the organization’s team of researchers sent to Wuhan. But, observe: for the moment all is only speculation which takes the air of topicality and information because it feeds and turns around uncertainties.
Geopolitics and confidence in vaccines
The main thing is geopolitics. We are in the midst of a trade and technology war between China and the United States. China’s responsibility for the outbreak of a pandemic collaborates with efforts to neutralize it in world politics and continues to fuel the image of a war between “us” and “them.” They, the Chinese, the enemies of the moment.
The second stream of conspiracy theories is one that directly attacks the credibility of vaccines. Either because they are just experiments that “will cause changes in our DNA” (at the risk of turning us into alligators) or because they “are not as effective as they promise”.
Last month, we saw a race to Brazilian vaccination points for doses of the vaccine produced by North American company Pfizer. Race motivated by the disclosure of phase III research which showed 95% of the immunizing agent, and because this immunizing agent would guarantee access to the vaccine passport, recently approved by the European Union.
The risk of turning into an alligator was not convincing. Sadly, the same may not be possible to say the same for speculations that have undermined confidence in the effectiveness of vaccines, notably the “Chinese vaccine,” Coronavac.
Posts devoted to questioning the effectiveness of Coronavac, a vaccine from Chinese pharmaceutical Sinovac, produced in Brazil by the Butantan Institute, are proliferating in Whatsapp, Telegram groups and on social networks.
In the past month, the vaccine has achieved “worst available” status. Audio recorded by a suspected virologist attempted to alert the public that Coronavac is “neither safe nor effective”. Quickly, doubt takes hold of the streets.
Manipulations and fake news like this are possible for two reasons: the existence of an uncritical belief in any information that claims to be scientific; and trust the interlocutor. It is common to attribute the value of “truth” to the content transmitted according to the personal relationship established with its sender, a dynamic exacerbated in social networks.
However, the results of surveys of the population vaccinated with Coronavac reveal another reality. Regarding the reduction of mortality, 97% effectiveness was verified in Uruguay and 80% in Chile. Another important study, Project S, coordinated by the Butantan Institute of the Municipality of Serrana (SP), has shown that the efficacy of Coronavac is much higher than that obtained in clinical trials. In this case, with 75% of the city’s population vaccinated, the verified efficacy was 95% in reducing deaths, in 86% of admissions, and in 80% of symptomatic cases of coronavirus infection.
However, the reputation of the worst vaccine is not only due to fake news. We are in the midst of an avalanche of data production and scientific work aimed at understanding the dynamics of the pandemic and its forms of control (which include vaccination, treatment options, preventive measures and behavioral guidance).
The challenges of science and post-truth
If, on the one hand, the almost immediate circulation of data through articles in the pre-publication phase serves science and the urgent fight against the pandemic. On the other hand, the immediacy of translating these articles into titles produces a dazzling clarity in the public space, causing a kind of blindness that hinders discernment and fuels fears, and paradoxically, the production of fake news.
This vagueness makes it difficult for people to discern that the effectiveness of the phase III trial is not the same as the effectiveness of vaccination in people leading normal lives. It is in the midst of excess that the data on the effectiveness of Coronavac is lost. Fear and uncertainty thrive.
What we see is that the spread of rumors manipulating beliefs and fears continues to predominate over the scientific dissemination effort. A hallmark of our time, the post-truth era, which we urgently need to find means to combat. For now, the credibility of scientific knowledge, confidence in vaccines and, above all, our health, is threatened.