DAVID ROBIE also blogs at Café Pacific
IN RESPONSE to the escalating COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in mid-February 2020 came a warning by the World Health Organisation (WHO) Secretary-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom, who declared that “we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”. He added that fake news “spreads faster and more easily than this virus” .
The following month, in March 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres identified the “new enemy” as a “growing surge of disinformation”. However, the term “disinfodemic” – which I much prefer – was adopted by the authors of a policy brief for UNESCO to describe the “falsehoods fuelling the pandemic”.
This disinfodemic has been rapidly leading to upheavals in many countries – including in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand in the weeks with protests, civil disobedience and attacks on health officials, medical staff and frontline workers.
Such assaults and violent confrontations have taken particular nasty turns in some of our neighbouring microstates of the South Pacific – notably Fiji and Papua New Guinea, the largest countries and biggest economies in the region.
Papua New Guinea has a population of nine million with a vast economic disparity between the 84 percent rural population and squatter communities in the urban areas and the elites who benefit from the wealth of extraction industries. Fiji has a population of just under one million.
Both countries have been epicentres for the virus in the Pacific.
Last month, medical authorities in PNG were forced to abandon mobile health clinics and teams of health workers carrying out COVID-19 vaccination and awareness programmes because of the increasingly risky attacks against them. An ambulance crew was attacked.
As early as last July, Papua New Guinean journalists had been warning about increasing tensions over misinformation over COVID vaccines and a lack of clear communication from health authorities. Rebecca Kuku, writing in The Guardian, quoted Caritas aid representative Diane Unagi, saying: “When messages are not communicated properly it increases the public health risk. People are avoiding being tested because they are worried that they will be locked up when they hear the word ‘isolation’.”
However, University of Waikato anthropologist Fraser Macdonald points to an even more basic underlying factor. Millions of Papua New Guineans, he says, are not getting vaccinated against COVID because they are “terrified of this particular vaccine”. He argues that this is “not ‘vaccine hesitancy’, but full-blown opposition, a genuine antipathy”. The key difference is cultural context.
In recent weeks, there has been a concerted attempt by the PNG Council of Churches, including mainstream faiths such as the Catholic Church, to reduce the so-called “sinister” beliefs about the vaccine held by many. Sir John Cardinal Ribat, for example, has been portrayed as a COVID-19 champion and he has been at the centre of a “Love thy Neighbour” publicity campaign with a message of compassion and trust.
Australian media consultant Bob Howarth, a former publisher of the PNG Post-Courier daily newspaper, expresses concern after watching mainstream media and social media coverage of – as he describes it – “the world’s most un-vaxxed country, Papua New Guinea”.
Much of his recent consultancy work in countries, such as Timor-Leste and PNG, has involved running Asia-Pacific fact-checking workshops, vital in this age of disinformation and conspiracy theories. He notes in a message to me: “The lack of fact-checking expertise both in official government authorities and media generally has become a huge issue.
“My observation comes from experience in February/March 2020 when I flew to Timor-Leste, supported by the UNDP and the very active Timor-Leste Press Council to help run the country’s first fact-check training for 38 journalists and NGOs. Now Timor-Leste has one of the highest press freedom rankings in the region.”
So why, asks Howarth, hasn’t the basics of fact-checking become part of journalism training in our universities and colleges?
‘No jab, no job’ lawsuits
In Papua New Guinea as the crisis worsens, after protests were disbanded in Port Moresby and Lae, the employee union of the National Capital District Commission took out a lawsuit against their employers, challenging the legality of the capital’s “no jab, no job” policy.
While these developments have been disturbing, especially in PNG where the John Hopkins University covid-19 tracker shows that barely 2 percent of the people are vaccinated against the virus and there are a grossly underreported 34,846 cases and 542 deaths, New Zealand has also been grappling with its own disinformation issues.
Over the past few weeks, thousands have gathered in breach of COVID-19 restrictions and public health measures to protest against lockdowns and vaccination mandates. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has described these protests as “obviously illegal” and “morally wrong”. However, as The Conversation commented in a recent analysis about the balancing act that Prime Minister Ardern needs to uphold freedoms protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948: “Protesting is part of Aotearoa’s identity. New Zealanders have protested against poverty, war, nuclear weapons, gender inequality and the loss of Māori land and customary rights. Several protests – including those against the 1981 Springbok [rugby] tour – have divided the nation.”
On November 9, in a Wellington anti-vaxxer protest march on the Beehive, New Zealand’s symbol of democracy, there were scenes reminiscent of Donald Trump’s supporters – albeit peaceful – in the lead up to the storming of the US Capitol in Washington on January 6. Writing in The Spinoff, editor-at-large Toby Manhire commented on what he described as a “new, ugly and dangerous” side to New Zealand. He wrote: “The government and the media were variously decried on signs as Nazis, Communists, tyrants, terrorists, rapists and murderers.” He added sarcastically: “There is, sadly, no vaccine for brain worms.”
Coordinated social media campaigns and emailed threats or harassing phone calls to journalists or scientists are hardly new. Such campaigns have been prevalent in many jurisdictions, such as in the United States over topics like climate change, vaccination and the effects of gun violence. However, a recent survey by Nature magazine has revealed that two-thirds of researchers polled reported negative experiences as a result of their media appearances or their social media comments. And, disturbingly, 22 percent had received threats of physical or sexual violence.
Research in New Zealand has shown that conspiracy theories about COVID-19 have “dramatically escalated since Delta arrived” in the country in late August. The Disinformation Project of the University of Auckland’s Te Pūnaha Matatini has been monitoring misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccine since February 2020.
The project’s latest report, from August 17 to November 5, showed an unprecedented and violent “trajectory of growth and spread that is increasing, widening, and deepening every week”. Much of the content which framed the COVID-19 response as a fight between the individual and the “treacherous” state had been repackaged from US and Australia sources.
The challenge confronting many communication programmes and journalism schools located in universities or tertiary institutions is what to do in response, how to tackle the strain of an ever-changing health and science agenda, the deluge of disinformation, and also the more rapid than predicted escalation of climate catastrophe.
One of the answers is greater specialisation and advanced programmes rather than just relying on generalist strategies and expecting graduates to fit neatly into already configured newsroom boxes. The more that universities can do to equip media graduates with advanced problem-solving skills, the more adept they will be at developing advanced ways of reporting on the pandemic – and other likely pandemics of the future – contesting the merchants of disinformation and reporting on the climate crisis.
This article is extracted from a keynote speech by Dr David Robie at the Asian Congress for Media and Communication (ACMC) conference in Auckland on 25-27 November 2021. The conference theme was Change, Adaptation and Culture: Media and Communication in Pandemic Times.