Beyond Misinformation: Managing the COVID-19 Infodemic
3 June, 2021
June 3, 2021 (US) | June 4, 2021 (Asia)
Session 4 of the “Adapting to COVID-19: Indonesia, the United States, and the Indo-Pacific”
Virtual Forum Series
Computational Epidemiologist, Harvard Medical School and
Boston Children Hospital’s Computational Health Informatics Program
Filmmaker & Screenwriter,
Active Measures (2018) and QAnon: The Search for Q (2021)
Co-founder & Fact-check Specialist,
On June 4, 2021, with support from the US Embassy in Jakarta and in cooperation with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia, the Pacific Forum hosted the session “Beyond Misinformation: Managing the COVID-19 Infodemic,” with 148 participants from government, the private sector, academia, and other non-governmental organizations. This was the fourth session of the virtual forum series “Adapting to COVID-19: Indonesia, the United States, and the Indo-Pacific,” which enjoyed the cross-posting support of My America Jakarta, American Corner Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta (UMY), the EMK Center for Public Service and the Arts in Bangladesh, Innovation Hub Kathmandu, and American Center Malé.
Dr. Maimuna Majumder, computational epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital’s Computational Health Informatics Program; Ms. Marley Clements, documentary filmmaker and co-CEO of Bunker Crew Productions; and Mr. Aribowo Sasmito, Co-founder and Fact-check Specialist, MAFINDO, Indonesia examined the proliferation of disinformation and what it means for the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the US and Indonesia. Key findings from this meeting are described below.
A current challenge in the battle against false information is identifying and mapping sources of misinformation and modeling how its spread occurs within online communities.
Following then-President Trump’s tweet, in April 2020, which suggested disinfectant as a possible cure for COVID-19, a study of online search patterns sought to answer the following questions: “How did President Trump’s remarks affect public use of off-label COVID-19 cures?”, “How long did the impacts of Trump’s tweet last?” and “Was this misinformation event associated with poisonings?”
The results of the study yielded patterns exhibiting how the misinformation event spread. Action-oriented online searches involving parameters such as drinking or injecting disinfectants peaked following Trump’s remarks. Searches for poison control then peaked the day after, suggesting some individuals may have attempted to use disinfectants as a cure for COVID-19. Rather than quickly dissipating, such search patterns continued to remain elevated throughout the following week, illustrating their longevity.
Such search patterns can be useful not only as an identifier of possible misinformation events but also as an early warning system which can enable institutions, such as poison control centers, to act quickly in protecting the public.
QAnon’s Disinformation Campaign
Within the broader context of mis- and disinformation, there are significant differences. Misinformation is the unintentional spread of false information. In contrast, disinformation is the intentional propagation of false information, such as that generated by the QAnon community regarding COVID-19 and vaccine science. By April 2020, Q, the mysterious leader of QAnon, had been spreading the false theory that COVID was a hoax created with the purpose of damaging President Trump and controlling the populace. Q’s methods proved effective in convincing people to reject standard knowledge of the virus. A primary tool of this machine was the film Plandemic which pushed false conspiracy theories while receiving a million views within 24 hours of its upload. QAnon was creating a sense of community for its members while acting as one of the lone trustworthy news sources.
QAnon’s grip on the commoditization of information is further compounded by the sociological phenomenon of people placing more faith in information when it is sourced from a trusted individual, including Q. As QAnon films continued to be released and watched, the algorithms used by online communities such as YouTube amplified their spread. By also bridging the gap between the right and the left through movements such as #SaveOurChildren, QAnon has been able to create an army of antivaxxers and disinformation adherents.
Hurdles for Indonesia’s Vaccination Efforts
Indonesia has not been an exception in its vulnerability to mis- and disinformation spread via social media. The infodemic has given rise to the spread of false information on areas such COVID cures or outbreaks, vaccines, and 5G’s role in the pandemic.
The politicization of the pandemic has become a major issue in Indonesia and is generally bifurcated into the ruling party versus the opposition. With politicians seemingly in a perpetual state of war, the constant weaponization of false information is amplified by social media.
While the people’s fear and anger have been underlying factors in the spread of mis- or disinformation and vaccine hesitancy, there is hope: 74% of Indonesia’s population has expressed their intent to be vaccinated, indicating a positive future for progress against COVID-19.
Combating the Infodemic
Generational gaps can create a sharp contrast in susceptibility to false information. While root causes differ between the US and Indonesia, it is recognized that a community-oriented approach needs to be a part of the solution. Keeping interactions fun, personal, and patient should be core goals of such an initiative. At the scientific level, communication at multiple scales should be another means through which sources of misinformation are combated. Additionally, damage can be mitigated through the establishment of systems which survey public health misinformation and monitor population-level behaviors following misinformation events.
Stopping the spread of misinformation early in the pipeline is also of vital importance. At a technical level, monitoring sources of mis- and disinformation such as Reddit or Facebook can reveal hot spots of vulnerability. The increased incorporation of data scientists into government positions is an indication that leadership has begun to comprehend the importance of data science. For some, QAnon acts as a major fundraising tool and moving to decouple money from politics would be a vital step in defeating disinformation. Yet the misunderstanding of information is also aided by the public’s unfamiliarity with the dynamic nature of science. Preparing the general population to be comfortable with the shifting nature of scientific knowledge is important.
Education on digital literacy is in dire need of improvement and schools should begin teaching how to separate fact from fiction. Additionally, positive news, such as vaccine success stories, is rarely amplified and thus should be spread at a community level to combat disinformation. Following the laws of supply and demand, if education creates fewer consumers of disinformation, an abatement in its creation would logically follow. Ultimately, the most realistic path forward is engagement at the community level guided by the axiom “think globally, act locally.”
About this Series
The U.S.-Indonesia bilateral relationship is one of substantial depth and has evolved over time to reflect the changing priorities of each country. The U.S. and Indonesia entered into a Comprehensive Partnership in 2010 that initiated consistent high-level engagement on various issues spanning democracy and civil society, education, security, resilience, and mitigation. The relationship was further upgraded in 2015 with the signing of the US-Indonesia Strategic Partnership, which expanded the cooperation into various issues that have regional and global significance.
At the turn of a new decade, our countries are both at a crossroads: confronting a highly volatile political, economic, and security environment in the midst of an international health crisis.
To this end, Pacific Forum is proud to launch the virtual series “Adapting to COVID-19: Indonesia, the United States and the Indo-Pacific,” with support from the US Embassy in Jakarta. Pacific Forum will collaborate with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia (CSIS Indonesia) throughout this series.
The nine-part virtual series will address broad, cross-cutting issues that impact both countries: emerging security issues, COVID-19, regional and bilateral trade and investment, and democracy and civil society. It will feature American and Indonesian experts with diverse yet complementary backgrounds to examine the trajectory of US-Indonesia relations in the new normal.
Hubungan bilateral AS-Indonesia adalah hubungan yang mendalam dan telah berevolusi seiring waktu untuk merefleksikan perubahan prioritas masing-masing negara. AS dan Indonesia memasuki Kemitraan Komprehensif (Comprehensive Partnership) pada tahun 2010 yang memulai kerja sama tingkat tinggi secara konsisten di berbagai isu yang mencakup demokrasi dan masyarakat sipil, pendidikan, keamanan, ketahanan, dan mitigasi. Hubungan ini ditingkatkan lebih lanjut pada tahun 2015 melalui penandatanganan Kerja Sama Strategis (Strategic Partnership) AS-Indonesia, yang memperluas kerja sama ini ke berbagai isu yang memiliki signifikansi regional dan global.
Memasuki dekade baru ini, kedua negara kita ada di persimpangan jalan, menghadapi lingkungan politik, ekonomi, dan keamanan yang tidak stabil di tengah-tengah sebuah krisis kesehatan internasional.
Maka dari itu, Pacific Forum dengan bangga meluncurkan seri virtual “Beradaptasi dengan COVID-19: Indonesia, Amerika Serikat, dan Wilayah Indo-Pasifik”, dengan dukungan dari Kedutaan Besar AS di Jakarta. Pacific Forum akan bekerja sama dengan Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) sepanjang seri virtual ini.
Seri virtual sembilan-bagian ini akan menjawab isu-isu yang luas yang berdampak ke kedua negara: isu-isu keamanan yang muncul, COVID-19, perdagangan dan investasi regional dan bilateral, serta demokrasi dan masyarakat sipil. Seri ini akan melibatkan pakar-pakar Amerika dan Indonesia dengan latar belakang yang beragam namun saling melengkapi untuk mengupas alur hubungan AS-Indonesia di dalam new normal.
This series is held with support from the US Embassy Jakarta and
in collaboration with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia.