🔒 Covid-19 information: Even the brightest minds are getting it wrong – The Wall Street Journal

Africa Check, an organisation devoted to separating fact from fiction, highlights a warning from the World Health Organization that the Covid-19 outbreak has been accompanied by an “infodemic“: “an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”. Fake news about coronavirus isn’t limited to personal Facebook feeds or extremely negative, scaremongering information. As The Wall Street Journal underscores in this report on a controversial essay that argued against hysteria, even so-called data experts can get things wrong. What’s more, underestimating the threat coronavirus poses to the population, and gagging commentators, could be just as hazardous as whipping up fear. – Jackie Cameron

Controlling the virus narrative

By The Editorial Board

___STEADY_PAYWALL___
(The Wall Street Journal) – The coronavirus threat creates new challenges for social-media companies already grappling with the limits of free speech online. China is waging an information war to whitewash its handling of the virus and impugn the U.S. Meanwhile, charlatans hawking bogus science or false cures could endanger the public.

Yet some of the web’s gatekeepers are tempted to go further and stamp out the free debate that helped alert Americans to the threat of the virus in the first place. They want to require conformity with the judgment of expert institutions, even as many of those institutions themselves woefully misjudged the situation months or weeks ago.

Over the weekend Medium, a web-publishing platform, took down a long article entitled “Evidence over hysteria—COVID-19” that had been viewed millions of times. The piece, by Silicon Valley technologist Aaron Ginn, was an exhaustive case for optimism about the coronavirus. It highlighted some of the most hopeful available estimates, mostly from good authorities, of the virus’s growth rate, severity, transmissibility, and responsiveness to warmer weather.

PHOTO: KATE LAVOIE/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Those estimates may be wrong, and the piece doesn’t address more troubling evidence. Yet Mr. Ginn did not deny the virus is a public-health threat or urge people in hot zones to go to nightclubs. The page now says “this post is under investigation or was found in violation of the Medium Rules.”

Meanwhile, Twitter has unveiled sweeping restrictions on posts about the coronavirus. The company says it will restrict “content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information.” If you click on the link to the Medium post from Twitter, you get a page warning it is “potentially harmful.”

The problem is that the situation is changing with blinding speed and so has “guidance from authoritative sources.” The World Health Organization—widely seen as subject to pressure from Beijing—tweeted in January that “Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus.” And while the U.S. public-health response has finally kicked into gear, organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have hardly been perfect oracles.

Twitter users and bloggers were sounding the alarm about the potential damage from coronavirus and inadequate testing before the authorities and major media. The idea that “democratizing information” leads to better outcomes is often exaggerated, but the freewheeling marketplace of ideas has sometimes performed better than the central authorities. The churn of arguments and data will improve the response to coronavirus as new information becomes available, and shutting it down may undermine public faith in the official response.