Robert Mahoney

Diagnosing the Infodemic

Air Date: June 20, 2022

Committee to Protect Journalists executive director Robert Mahoney discusses the pandemic-era Fourth Estate.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Our guest today is Robert Mahoney. He’s executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists and formerly a Reuters correspondent with postings in Southeast Asia, Africa, India, Israel, France, and Germany. He’s co-author of the new book, “The Infodemic: How Censorship and Lies Made the World Sicker and Less Free.” Welcome, Rob.


MAHONEY: Happy to be here. Thank you.


HEFFNER: How do you see this “Infodemic” manifesting itself right now? You know, at this stage in what continues to be a pandemic, how is it manifesting itself differently? We’re here in 2022. You say, in the book, and we know that this infodemic started a long time ago, but how is it manifesting maybe differently than it did just in the last couple of years?


MAHONEY: Well, I think it’s accelerated the trends that we’ve seen towards growing censorship around the world. And when we define censorship in the book, my co-author Joel Simon and myself, we take the traditional censorship through silencing, such as restricting the flow of information, banning books, taking down content, but also what we call censorship through noise. And that is when governments or other actors flood the zone with so much misinformation, lies and propaganda that we, the ordinary citizens find ourselves not knowing what to believe. And we don’t trust what we are hearing. That is still manifesting itself today, whether it’s the continuing debate over vaccines, over social distancing, over wearing of masks, in many countries that’s still going on. And we see how extreme censorship from the top, which we document in the book particularly in detail in China is still playing out, because China is still imposing a zero COVID policy, even when it could be argued that that is a completely wrong way now to go about stopping the spread.


HEFFNER: Now you identify China as where the censorship element of this infodemic is manifesting itself and exploiting a population that doesn’t have the freedoms, in other countries that citizens have, but the flooding of the zone is characteristic in your mind, still in the U.S. and in the EU and elsewhere, the other side of things where there’s just a glut of content. And some of it is dis and misinforming folks. And at any given time, people can be inundated in that dis or misinformation. So the other side of the coin, as you see, it’s manifesting, has that also accelerated?


MAHONEY: You mean the way that that disinformation has left us all confused and, and not knowing what to believe?


HEFFNER: I mean that in the specific sense of the timeline that I asked about 2020 versus 2022. And you answered specifically about China and said, basically they didn’t learn anything. And I’m wondering in the case of, you know, semi-developed or developed democracies, or countries that have some establishment of free expression, do you think that the, not the authoritarian playbook, but the kind of flooding the zone with the kitchen sink that, that is ongoing and hasn’t been reduced and, you know, basically Western countries haven’t learned anything either?


MAHONEY: I think, I think that there is definitely a negative legacy from the way that the pandemic was handled from the early stages through 2020 and 2021. And that can be seen in what I would call the undermining of trust in our institutions. Our sense making institutions such as the media, such as our public health officials our politicians, we are, we’re witnessing an erosion of trust. And the confusion that comes from that. We have effectively in the Western liberal democracies, politicized public health measures, public safety measures. And what we need to do is to have a vigorous debate about how we will go about handling the next pandemic, because we are all being told that there will be another pandemic. I’m, talking as if this one’s already over, which of course it isn’t. But I think that we’ve seen politicians in the west cynically manipulate a public health crisis for their own their, their own political futures, whether it was Trump in the United States or Bolsonaro in Brazil. He’s still there. There’s an election coming up. And some of the damage that has been done to public trust is evident in the way that that campaign is rolling out. I think what we have learned is that we need our political leaders to help inform a vigorous public debate about the tension that exists with what we call in the book, negative Liberty and positive Liberty. That’s negative Liberty is freedom from government restraint, the freedom from restraint on, on speech, for example, or the freedom from restraint about movement. And then the positive Liberty, which is the ability to take part in the debate to be informed and to actively influence the, any discussion about limiting our freedoms. At the beginning in many Western European countries in particular, and in some east Asian democracies, people went along with the restrictions, with the lockdowns, with the closures. And they went along because they trusted that the government was doing the best thing it could to prevent community spread and to prevent the overwhelming of the hospitals. In the United States that didn’t happen to the same extent. And that was because our leaders, right from the beginning, politicized this for short term for short term advantage.


HEFFNER: You look at cases like Australia, New Zealand to a less extent, but Australia really is another case where people played by the rules, so to speak, for a long time. And then, you know, ultimately the COVID spells were unavoidable. And so, you know, that you take the example of China, Australia, or the U.S. and a lot of European countries, and it really didn’t matter which way they went. COVID is still, you know, is still in many hot spots in all these countries, which is sort of an interesting perspective for you as the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, because you, you operate in a lot of different spaces to protect the rights of journalists, but, you know, in, in some, when we think about the collective infodemic, and the fact that in all these countries, you know, no one solved the COVID problem, ultimately. Where has that led you to think kind of about the future of free expression and protecting the journalists that you do around the world?


MAHONEY: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, there is no correlation between a successful containing of this pandemic and the political system in operation. In other words, autocracies, dictatorships, didn’t do any better or any worse than democracies. It, it’s a mixed bag. And there are, we go into the reasons for that. So I’m not saying that being in a democracy is the magic bullet for dealing with a pandemic. But what we did see in terms of restrictions on journalists in particular was that in countries that are classed by outfits, such as Freedom House here in the United States as not free or only partially free, the restrictions on journalists and on information were much more draconian than they were in democracies. You were still able to have a debate in most democracies about what should happen. You might not agree with the way the government was going, but you could talk about it. In countries like Russia or China, and many others around the world, journalists were jailed. They were censored. They were doctors and nurses couldn’t have a debate. They couldn’t provide information without risk of being arrested. That was the way that those countries cracked down on the virus. They politicized their response to the virus. They militarized their response to the virus. And what that will be one of the legacies of this pandemic is they introduced… I mean, Putin introduced even more emergency measures, for example, in Russia, to deal with it. What do I mean by deal with it? I mean, suppress information about it, to say that the, you know, to say that anything, writing about anything about the pandemic and the government’s miserable failure was “fake news.” Just as he’s done in Ukraine, by saying that he’s not waging a war, he’s raging a special military operation. Say “war” and you could go to jail for 15 years.


HEFFNER: That’s all really tragic. And the irony of it, though, from the Chinese perspective, when you mentioned from the outset is that most of us who were aware that there could be a pandemic and that we were overdue for one, whether it was through a lab leak or natural spread, whatever, when we saw the images coming out of China, of people dying in the streets and the hospitals overrun, I mean, we ended up seeing as much visible disharmony and you know, just disgustingness in the way that people were being treated out of China, even without the free press. And it’s just an interesting phenomenon that, you know, it was a lot of people, I guess, on Weibo and some of these other social media platforms that it was circulated enough that it made it into the U.S. social media. And a lot of us who followed the pandemic from the very beginning saw those horrible images from what I imagine in definition really are citizen journalists in China, even if they don’t claim to be. And, you know, and I just think about that relative to Russia, where you, you can’t publicly oppose the war. But I don’t even remember, you know, over the course of the pandemic, getting any feeds of social media from hospitals overrun in Russia. It’s just an interesting dynamic, because of the fact that you think of China as more repressive, maybe the most repressive towards free speech or journalism or journalists. But the irony is we knew that the pan, those of us who were paying attention knew that the pandemic was serious because of material: photographic and text or video that were disseminated on social platforms in China by not journalists, but by citizens.


MAHONEY: Yes, indeed by citizens, by medical staff themselves and by others. And, and in the book, we opened the book with a portrait of a Chinese lawyer and blogger who took it upon himself to travel to Wuhan at the very outset to document what was going on, on his phone and post the results, a kind of a daily report on Chinese social media platforms. But they, his Chinese, he had already gone to Hong Kong and done a very similar thing as a lawyer. He was trying to look at what the national security law being imposed on freedoms in Hong Kong, the effect that that was having. And he’d already run into trouble. He was on the list of someone to watch for the Chinese authorities. And he wasn’t alone. Other people went to Wuhan, too, their Chinese social media accounts, you mentioned Weibo, WeChat and others. They were blocked. So he and his name was Chen Qiushi. He only had the ability to post on Western platforms, like YouTube. And he posted dozens and dozens of these travel logs there until eventually he was arrested. And those videos were blocked. There were, he was taken into forced quarantine and others were not as lucky. Even the Chinese artist, Ai Wei Wei documented the beginnings of what happened in Wuhan. So the, but the Chinese eventually were able to control the narrative, to control the images. You’re right. We did see some, but they did control it. And then they were able to show what they wanted to show, which was how quickly they could build hospitals.




MAHONEY: How quickly they could contain. And by the middle of 2020 in international surveys that propaganda, and it was propaganda, from the Chinese was having an effect and people in the west 60 percent, to, according to one of the polls that we saw believe that China was doing a better job than Western Europe in containing the pandemic.


HEFFNER: I suppose my question, maybe it’s a bit naïve, is, was there a kind of invisible fourth estate in China as a result of these citizen activists and journalists who were able to circulate their content to fellow countrymen and women, but also of course, and maybe even more expansively to the west and to, you know, countries that have an open internet. But is it fair to say that that maybe that there, there is kind of something of like an invisible citizen journalist, if you don’t want to call it for the state, it’s just an interesting thought to me?


MAHONEY: Yeah. Look, I mean, the iPhone or the Android phone has empowered all of us to do acts of journalism, if you like, to do reporting. What happens in China, it isn’t an information control society in the sense that we think of Orwell’s Soviet Union, it isn’t, there, isn’t a lack of information in China. There’s an abundance of information in China on the Chinese internet, which is sealed off from the global internet that you and I use every day, right by the great firewall. And within that that kind of walled garden, which is the Chinese information space, there’s plenty of information, news entertainment, online payment platforms, everything that you could want. It’s only when the Chinese Communist Party sees people using that information in a way to organize themselves politically, to stage a protest, to form an association, at that point, they crack down on it. There are people in China who are using sort of circuit navigation tools, VPNs to get around the firewall and access outside, but they’re in a minority. So if you live within that walled garden, you can convince yourself that you have access to everything that you need. But don’t try and organize. And I’ll just give you one example, Shanghai. So now this year, the Chinese authorities, the Chinese communist Party in particular has essentially locked down its biggest economic and financial center for more than a month. 25 million people under lockdown. How do people communicate? How do they protest? They do protest on those channels. And again, until it becomes a threat and then they are either put into forced isolation, quarantine, or their accounts are closed. I saw I, there was a lack of fresh food because people were locked down.




MAHONEY: How can you protest? One man took a fridge, his refrigerator, onto the balcony of his apartment and opened the door to show that it was empty. That was a, that was a kind of way of saying we don’t have any food. If you, you know, it was just one way of getting around that censorship. And there were lots of other examples of people just saying what an awful situation that they were in. But again, if you go that extra step and try to do something about that situation, which is what you do in a democratic society, you don’t just have speech, but speech is a necessary precursor to action. In China that is, that is severed. That link between speech and action is severed.


HEFFNER: Right. And so you cannot assemble. And there’s no way to really combine your footprint in these digital apps to translate into the assembly, right, because that would be swatted down instantly. And, I just want to relate this to your larger objectives, to protect speech, especially with the Russia and Ukraine situation, because I think conventionally, we’ve thought China is more repressive to journalists than Russia. But the interesting thing in the current situation with Ukraine and the war is that there is not really that kind of invisible fourth estate in in sort of the Russians who were grumbling on social media in the same way that in China, you kind of have these social networks walled off, but still disseminated. And then amplify to Western countries that say, you know, there are grumblings. And in Russia, it seems as though there are no grumblings. There are no social networks where we’re hearing people criticizing, you know, Putin. That said, folks are not criticizing the premiere of China. They’re criticizing the lockdowns. But in this case, it doesn’t, at least if you look at the way the west has covered the war, the, you know, there, there are horror stories from Ukrainians themselves. But there’s no appearance of any kind of grassroots organization. And of course the formalized independent media has been shut down in Russia. So I’m just wondering how you see it in terms of Russia, dissidents, and the fact that as counterintuitive as it may seem, there is more opportunity to grumble in China than there is in Russia right now.


MAHONEY: Well, I mean, Russians do grumble. But there are some differences and, you know, it’s a very interesting progression from the way that Putin handled the outbreak in early 2020 to the way that he is now handling the war and the catastrophic mistake that he appears to have made in launching that war and how he’s trying to cover it up. Putin isolated himself at the beginning of the pandemic, he went to his dacha outside of Moscow. He basically had no public appearances. His first public appearance, he appeared in a yellow hazmat suit, went and was, went to see some doctors and shook the hand of one doctor who subsequently tested positive for COVID. And Putin retreated again. He did not seem to know how to deal with a virus. And he introduced a lot of emergency measures to clamp down on speech and to make it illegal, sorry, to talk about anything that was fake news, which is basically anything that you don’t like. Now, at that time in the Russian landscape, there were outlets that were independent, who were doing reporting, going out and counting bodies, talking to doctors, and they were able to provide some kind of counterweight to the enormous propaganda of Russia’s state media. And just so as people understand in Russia, the majority of people get their news off television and television is totally controlled by the state. That’s what’s happened now with Ukraine is that those same journalists who are reporting a counternarrative to the pandemic, wanted to report account narrative to the war in Ukraine. And not only were they silenced. They were closed down. Essentially Putin has killed off what little independent media there was in Russia. So the only way that Russians can have access to accurate information about what’s going on in Ukraine is either to use the internet with circumnavigation tools and watch and listen to Western media, or they still have access to a messaging and news app called Telegram, which they use widely. But it tends to be educated and younger people that do that. The majority, you know, the bulk of the Russian population are still fed this diet of state propaganda on TV.


HEFFNER: Now, let me ask you about your work more expansively in defending journalists right now. Do your priorities correspond where and your investments obviously in individual cases where a journalist may be, you know, kidnapped or harassed and prevented from doing his or her job, but does your work now overlap where there is the most imperiled democracy you mentioned, you know, Brazil on the cusp of maybe authoritarianism, do you focus your work at the Committee that way, or more on individual, you know, journalists or organizations that are struggling to exist?


MAHONEY: Well, first and foremost at the Committee to Protect Journalists, we focus on the individual journalists. That is an imperative. It could be somebody’s life that’s in danger. It could be their liberty. They could be about to go to jail. And so that always takes primacy over everything else because we’re talking about a human being who needs help. But beyond that we are looking at bigger issues that impact the ability of journalists to do their job. It could be repressive legislation. It could be, you know, governments’ diverting funds away from independent media. It could be a whole host of things. But the primacy of the individual and that individual’s safety is our first our first concern. And we unfortunately are witnessing increasing assaults on independent journalists. We’ve had record numbers of journalists in jail over the last four or five years. Never seen anything like it. Over 300, and that’s a very conservative figure. Journalists behind bars at the moment just for doing their job. And we see, you know, other ways of silencing journalists. And it’s very interesting what we’ve been talking about in the undermining of trust and the use of censorship in covering the pandemic is used more broadly to silence journalists. And one of the things that we do see is that wonderful invention of the internet and the ability for journalists to publish to a big audience is a dual-use technology. That’s to say that governments and their supporters can use that same technology to intimidate journalists online, through trolls and doxing and harassment, particularly female journalists. And that’s something that we noticed, for example, in Brazil used by Bolsonaro supporters to silence, intimidate, and undermine the credibility of anyone who dares write anything critical of him.


HEFFNER: At the Committee, I know it’s important for you to make objective statements about the plight of journalists and the, you know, where that right to free speech and press is in jeopardy. Do you see it as merged with a with a political philosophy that’s being espoused and implemented now?


MAHONEY: My concern and the cons and the, the protections that the first amendment affords us all, is government interference in the flow of information and government censorship. And although the U.S. context has worked pretty well during the pandemic. And we have not seen government actively trying to censor news, we have seen that abroad. And that that’s my biggest; that that’s my biggest concern.


HEFFNER: And your takeaway ultimately is that there aren’t countries that have made improvements over these last… There are not really countries that have made improvements over the last two years, but only countries that have further failed or that have attempted to withdraw or remove the right of free press?


MAHONEY: Exactly. The legacy of this is a wake-up call to all of us, that we need our politicians to actively promote the kinds of dialogue which will enable us to participate in any discussion about restrictions on our freedom. And we didn’t get the voice that we needed in many cases during this pandemic. Things were done to us, not necessarily without our consent. And the pandemic has just accelerated a trend that was already underway. If you look at any measure of democratic freedoms over the last 30 years, the trend has been going backwards. In other words, fewer democracies, fewer people living in a system which enables them to have some kind of autonomy over their own lives. According to the Swedish V-Dem Institute, which does a poll of experts every year about this, we have lost all the freedoms that we’ve gained since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. We’re back where we were 30 years ago, and now seven out of 10 people in the world live in a country which is not fully democratic.


HEFFNER: It is a wake-up call. Rob Mahoney, author of “Infodemic” and executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thank you so much for your time today.


MAHONEY: Thank you for the opportunity.


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