Text Book examples of information manipulation From the COVID-19 battlefield By Tinatin Khidasheli Published by RFE/RL on March 29, 2020 in Georgian

Checking the COVID-19 map, finding out the numbers of new cases and death toll have become the regular part of the daily routine for all Georgians and undoubtedly, all residents of the world. This is our new reality, the new normal. However, apart from the perfectly comprehensible and ordinary human emotion accompanying these statistics, what do these numbers tell us? What do they show?

The developments surrounding “COVID-19” are exemplary and we get the best experience, not just to better understand and analyze the public healthcare or the crisis response/management systems, and plan a better tomorrow, but also to combat disinformation, more precisely, information manipulation.

If we agree that the world is at war today, we should see that this war, like all other modern wars, is hybrid, where, along with the invisible biological threat, the theater of war is spread across the information space. Each message has its addressee and has a specific task. The goal is far-reaching and strategic:

  • Weaken Democracy!
  • Demonstrate the advantages of one-party, authoritarian rule!
  • Convince the world, that where democracy is powerless, one-man rule with a strong hand is victorious!

Nowadays, we can unequivocally highlight, that the Russian-Chinese misinformation machine is gradually gaining strength and preparing for a deadly attack on liberal democratic rule. The fragmented statements of the democratic world leaders (i.e. US president’s and Washington’s claims about China’s concealment of the information on the complexity and the scale of virus spread), are unable to stop the flood of misinformation operating, using diversified weapons in social networks and popular internet resources.

We must remember!

Every time, when we use the data from pandemic map without the context, without analyzing the dynamics of the spread, the proportion and comparison to the country population, or other characteristics, we become the useful resource for Russian-Chinese disinformation machinery, and involuntarily serve their goals.

Against the general believe, Numbers Do Lie every time we use them unaware of the context and foundation. Statistics becomes the most exemplary and ideal retainer of misinformation if we refuse to analyze and guide with bare numbers.

The simplest example:

What does 25 percent mean? Is it a lot or few? The only thing we can confidently say is that 25 percent is a quarter. And that is it. Everything else is unknown unless we know what is it percentage of, what we compare it to in search of magnitude or scarcity, or where it came from. Such 25, 31, 19 percent are respectively generated daily on the battlefield of COVID-19; they are only intended for our emotional state and exacerbate panic, though in reality the percentage or a plain number says nothing about prevention or development dynamics. However, daily, these statistics create hundreds of information manipulation examples for researchers and other people interested in the field.

Let us follow the events and recall some important facts that are critical to remember while analyzing these events.

Fact #1:

The World Health Organization (WHO) unequivocally states that all data going into their system and then spreading over is based on information provided by states and that there is no standard format to validate it instantly.

In short, the data we check daily, hoping that it will be reduced, downgraded, viruses retreated, and so on, are controlled and provided by states individually. Consequently, it precisely portrays their system and culture of governance.

Fact #2:

The International Classification of Diseases (ICD), applied by the World Health Organization today, was adopted in 1992, and its critics’ main argument for years has been that “in the absence of uniform criteria for diagnostics, coding, and classification” the compatibility and comparability of information provided by states is difficult or almost non-existent.

To put it simply, there is no uniform standard in the field of diagnostics, disease coding or data dissemination / distribution applicable and used by all nations; so accordingly, it is entirely up to the decision of a particular country to document and transmit the scale of the disease to the relevant international organizations, as it fits their national interests.

Once again, in the absence of a unified standard, and the inability to control and check the data provided, compatibility of states’ calculated information is minimal, and the comparison of this data is close to abstract.

Fact #3:

The inability of the WHO to control and monitor provided data is not the only drawback. The other problem is that the main grounds of information dissemination has become the calendar day, which also contributes to information manipulation. For instance, the data from European countries is compared to the data from China on March 29, while we have almost two months delay in spreading and fighting the virus. Precisely because of that difference in time, we face the huge difference and the corresponding reactions concerning the inability of democracies to effectively combat crises.

In short, the comparison of Italy’s march 29 statistics with the Georgian or Chinese data of the same day would be considered as an text book example of information manipulation, since such a comparison of numbers only indicates, how many people are infected or dead that particular day and it has absolutely nothing to do with the dynamics of the spread or the effectiveness / ineffectiveness of prevention or fighting the threat.

Many more imperative facts can be recalled, such as the proportion to the population (as shown in the US example), the tourism factor (best seen in the Italian case), the efficient and dynamic business environment (best seen in the NYC) and others, though based only on these three factors, it is feasible to do an analysis.

Meanwhile we should not forget that in January and early February’20, leading media outlets, citing multiple sources and leaning on the narrations of eyewitnesses, were reporting how the Chinese Communist Party was actively pursuing all whistleblowers and reporters about the virus.

What is an emotional picture we observe today, due to the number juggling and manipulation marathon, ignoring most important factors for analysis: the situation is extremely difficult in Western democracies – in the United States and in the most of the EU states, while authoritarian or so-called “semi-free” countries effectively deal with the threat. This is a daily message we should remember and talk about.

In today’s world, when information is the main weaponry at the battlefield, understanding the truth is never as easy as it might seem on a daily map at the outbreak of a pandemic. In spite of the great human tragedies and the most severe emotional backdrop that has plagued humanity today, we must still strive not to lose common sense and reasoning – the ability to generalize that tomorrow, when the virus becomes the part of the history, we do not surrender our freedom and turn it to a dictatorship or strong-man’s rule. Tinatin Khidasheli is the founder and chairman of the Civic IDEA, the non-governmental organization working on the security issues. One of the main focuses of IDEA’s work is research and monitoring of Russian and Chinese influence operations.

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