While Covid-19 misinformation is as rampant as the virus, some countries have their own distinct disinformation ecosystems.
A study analysing disinformation patterns across different countries reveals Brazil and India are among the most self-isolated from global Covid-19 misinformation narratives.
This is the conclusion reached by the “Scientific [Self] Isolation” report, authored by researchers from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) and the Brazilian research centres Laut, INCT-DD, and Vero.
The findings were based upon the International Fact-Checking Network’s CoronaVirusFacts Alliance database composed of over 8,600 entries from January to late August 2020, which were the result of a joint effort of over 70 fact-checking agencies around the world that verified claims relating to misleading narratives about the pandemic in their countries and regions.
By running two different analyses of the datasets related to the incidence of terms related to medical and non-medical treatments and words that refer to public officials, they found that although Covid-19 treatment-related falsehoods followed local trends, most country narratives were related to other countries – except in the cases of Brazil and India, which remained relatively isolated and steeped in their own domestic misinformation ecosystems.
“In terms of the detail of the themes that make Brazilian disinformation unique, one characteristic is an intense use of specific medical disinformation vocabulary that is not used in other countries,” the report goes on to highlight.
“This does not mean that other countries did not produce their own pseudo-medical disinformation, but rather that the themes that have gained force in Brazil are somehow different from those used in the rest of the world.”
In India, home-grown Ayurvedic and homeopathic cures were prevalent across numerous states in the country at the start of the crisis, as forms of traditional and non-scientific treatments were promoted by officials hailing from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP-led government.
Despite recommendations from the World Health Organisation, the Modi government had at one point revised its national guidelines to recommend hydroxychloroquine as a preventative medication for asymptomatic healthcare workers and frontline staff working in virus containment zones.
A domestic misinformation campaign early in the early days of the pandemic was also directed at Indian Muslims to link them with the spread of Covid-19, adding another dimension to hate speech and disinformation circulated about Muslim communities in India.
Brazil’s disinfo bubble
Brazil meanwhile was shown to be even more isolated than India, a conclusion the report reached using two different methods.
Brazil’s isolation reflects the primacy of a particular category of false Covid-19 narratives in the country centred around claims that some medical drugs – chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, and ivermectin, were effective cures for the virus.
While some of these drugs were discussed in different countries at various points during the pandemic (US President Donald Trump for example promoted hydroxychloroquine), in most cases these claims faded away as more scientific evidence emerged showing that these drugs were ineffective.
Yet in Brazil, debates over the effectiveness of such drugs persisted, significantly boosted by President Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters, who continued to promote them as cures for the virus.
Another curious aspect which differentiates Brazil from other countries most frequently mentioned in the database – India, US, Spain and Colombia – is that it is the only one in which the term “Governor” appears more often than the title of the head of state, such as a president or prime minister.
This suggests that alongside discussions about the effectiveness of various medical drugs, disputes between national and regional officials have shaped the disinformation debate in Brazil.
In the US, the main targets of disinformation campaigns have been the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President-elect Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama and CDC Head Anthony Fauci, all of whom are adversaries of or have had disputes with Trump.
“The prominence of political actors in Brazil and the US suggests that many false claims in these countries have been directly related to ongoing internal political disputes,” the report’s authors state.
“The high incidence of falsehoods indicates how scientific progress can be hampered simply by impairing communication in society.”
“As a result, the problem of disinformation is less related to scientific quality and rigour, and rather more related to the narrative disputes that occur in the public sphere through digital communication.”