Dr. Alexander M Ross’s vocal and vigorous views on vaccines led to his styling himself the “only doctor who had dared to doubt the fetish” of vaccination during the epidemic (even though, as was subsequently discovered, he had taken good care to get himself vaccinated), critical of the “senseless panic” caused by health officials (whose “tyranny” he described as second to none), physicians and the media in fanning the flames of fear as part of a “mad” campaign he insisted was only for gaining money, infringing the rights of citizens and lengthening - and strengthening - the arms of government power.
That was in 1885, the epidemic was smallpox, its venue Montreal. As I write this, it’s been a year since the word “infodemic” was used in the context of misinformation, or disinformation, about a pandemic; over the last week, two pivotal pronouncements were made in its context; one a resolution of the General Assembly establishing a “Global Media and Information Literacy Week” at the end of October each year and the other a political declaration on equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines which committed itself to “addressing misinformation and countering vaccine hesitancy” in cooperation with the Secretary-General’s “Verified” initiative. Both timely in a very human sense, the humanity of health in its most vulnerable forms, of living and livelihoods, of solace in solidarity. A need mirrored in the haunting image Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared on Monday when she said “I know what it's like as a physician to stand in that patient room -- gowned, gloved, masked, shielded -- and to be the last person to touch someone else's loved one, because they are not able to be there.”
That same day, Foreign Policy Insider published a report which quoted a RAND study putting “the economic damage of unequal COVID-19 vaccine allocation at $1.2 trillion per year, with losses coming heavily from contact-intensive sectors, like tourism, travel, and transportation, compared to equitable global vaccine distribution. Conversely, according to the Eurasia Group, equitable distribution could generate an estimated $153 billion in economic benefits by the end of this year, which could triple to over $460 billion by 2025 when accounting for just 10 major economies. The transnational reality of the virus and stark costs of vaccine nationalism make greater multilateral collaboration on global vaccine deployment an imperative as gaps in distribution will allow for further spread and increase the risk of additional mutations.”
“Bluff erosion”, the warning sign on a waterside cliff, pictured above, suggests how misinformation,whether deliberate or unintended, is ultimately a lie which, slowly and insidiously, wears down the shores of trust to which we referred last week, shores which provide the only secure mooring, in the phrase of the declaration, where “no one can be safe, until everyone is safe…the forum to promote cooperation is the United Nations.” In an article published on Wednesday, Matthew Parish contends that “if anyone doubts whether 2.75 million deaths globally in the course of a year constitutes a threat to the peace, they should look back over the history of the twentieth century. It is not just the deaths, but the violent economic contractions and personal desperation of a substantial proportion of the world’s population, that creates the ruminants for conflict.” And, in a reflection of the line on safety in the Declaration, “every step we continue to take in the darkness is a step we take on our own. Despite all the failings of the United Nations over its history, now is the time to turn to multilateral cooperation. All of a sudden, the world really needs it.”
The United Nations has invented, innovated, improvised, even if its programmes have in the past been undermined by this erosion through bluff; in the wake of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, whose anniversary we commemorate next week, the United Nations launched an effort to bring back home to Rwanda those who had fled the genocide to neighbouring countries; voluntary repatriation from Burundi fell from 7,773 in September 1994 to 1,012 in October, a precipitous decline attributed to the “continuing campaign of intimidation and misinformation in the refugee camps”; twenty years later, the Security Council, in a resolution on the Ebola outbreak, called for “preventive measures to mitigate against misinformation and undue alarm about the transmission and extent of the outbreak among and between individuals and communities.”
In 1993, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali noted the need to counteract propaganda and misinformation in what he described as “the new generation of United Nations peace-keeping operations”; twelve years later, his successor as Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, spoke of “a number of crises and bitter and often unjust criticism” faced by the United Nations that prompted “several public information initiatives… to counter misinformation in the media.” And a further fifteen years later, in a digitally transformed world, Antonio Guterres made mention of “the withdrawal into social echo chambers [that] will continue to undermine social cohesion and reduce trust in science, in institutions and in each other.”
It was in this context that the political declaration last week urged “countries to launch public information campaigns capitalizing, inter alia, on the power of social media, to sensitize people on the importance and safety of COVID-19 vaccines.” Drafted and negotiated under the leadership of Ambassador Amal Mudallali of Lebanon (who is also the Vice Chair of the United Nations Committee on Information), the document echoed a principle she had expressed three years ago that “the noticeable improvement in the quantitative access to information should be coupled with a qualitative and participatory approach.” That brought to mind the very first statement to the General Assembly by Lebanon, a founding member of the United Nations, 75 years ago, when Ambassador Chamoun spoke of “one thing essential to reform: our international concepts and our international morality”, referring to his country’s “endeavour to establish on a common intellectual basis a new spirit of understanding and cooperation among the various peoples of the world.” This was also a spirit reflected in the resolution on media and information literacy (of which Lebanon was also a cosponsor) “the need for all Member States to stand together to address the challenge of disinformation and misinformation,” encouraging “relevant private sector organizations, including technological intermediaries and social media platforms, to promote media and information literacy, as a way to empower all people and facilitate digital inclusion and global connectivity, and to assist in the fight against disinformation and misinformation.”
“Global connectivity” brought to mind a phrase used by Mr. Anatolijs Gorbunovs, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia when his country joined the United Nations (this year marks the centenary of Latvia’s membership of the League of Nations; it was to join the United Nations as a sovereign state seventy years later.) Mr. Gorbunovs described his country as one “that by God Himself has been granted the role of a gateway linking the East and West. In this geopolitical region of democracy, economy and humanitarian values connecting the East with the West, we are ready to take up new obligations and shoulder our responsibilities.”
That readiness, and the gateway, were in evidence in the adoption of the resolution; as the Ambassador of Latvia to the United Nations Andrejs Pildegovičs said “I am happy that so many UN member states from various regions across the globe have supported our initiative. In particular, I would like to thank our Jamaican and Australian colleagues at the United Nations in New York for their leadership and support.” The reference to Australia was timely for UNAI; one of our members, and a SDG Hub, the Western Sydney University six weeks ago a partnership with NAMLE the US based National Association for Media Literacy Education, to “assess the current state of media literacy education in Australia and the United States”; studies in Australia, cited by Dr. Tanya Notley of Western Sydney University, noted that “amid a wave of anxiety about misinformation – also referred to as ‘fake news’ – we found there was no significant research about young people aged under 18 and news engagement”; a survey created by and for young Australians has found that the content of 2020’s news stories has overwhelmingly made young people feel worse than they did last year. (The media literacy resolution makes specific reference to incorporating “youth perspectives in media and information literacy policies, strategies and initiatives, and actively involv(ing) youth in the promotion of media and information literacy.”)
NAMLE has, incidentally, already begun plans for Media Literacy Week this year, the seventh in a series summoning “the power of media literacy education and its essential role in education all across the country”; launched in 2015 by Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, its Executive Director, “whose passion for media literacy education stems from a very personal place”.
“In order to protect democracy,” writes Ambassador Courtenay Rattray of Jamaica, “the transition to a digital society and economy must be accompanied by a media and information literacy revolution. This cause would be greatly advanced were the United Nations General Assembly to provide its imprimatur by declaring 24 to 31 October as Global Media and Information Literacy (MIL) Week.” That declaration has been made, opening opportunities for “the special promotion of MIL programmes that focus on disaffected youth to help prevent radicalization and recruitment by criminal and terrorist organisations.” That last revived recollection of a discussion we in UNAI had organized four years ago with the UN Alliance of Civilizations titled “Media and Information Literacy: Educational Strategies for the Prevention of Violent Extremism,” with a specific focus on MIL programmes as effective channels for preventing violent extremism. A recollection renewed when reading today an interview with Bertrand Tavernier, the French filmmaker whom we lost this weekend (and who shot scenes of a feature film at the UN eight years ago.) Tavernier speaks of “how very difficult it is to deal with this phenomenon (of radicalization) and asks the question about how one can re-educate someone like that…how to fight against such prejudices that are sobering and don’t just exist in the Islamic world. You find the same prejudices everywhere – in America, France or Spain. I admire filmmakers who reveal the complexities of such issues. Alas the problems that face the world, like the coronavirus, don’t spare anyone.”
For, ultimately, extremism in its many forms, violent or simply stubborn, is a form of what Bob Marley called “mental slavery”, the tether to a single thought or belief that allows no admission of any that might challenge or compete, the right to fashion fact, to believe, and not belie, belligerence . As we observed the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade last week, the arc of redemptive return summoned Ian McCann’s thoughtful analysis. “Bob Marley was a descendant of slaves,” he wrote “Marley’s songs set him free, made him somebody – though he was well aware of the mental slavery that can still exist even when you are said to be free.”
Speaking to the United Nations media in a virtual press conference on Monday, Prime Minister Andrew Holness of Jamaica referred to “the impact of the pandemic in health and education, and almost all developing countries will recognize that the recovery will depend on increasing their social spending on health and education, and to a significant degree as well for the development of broadband and digitization in their societies.” And, as Ambassador Pildegovics observed “ensuring broad media and information literacy among the public is one of the most effective "vaccinations" against disinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech.” Those pivots, of good health, a sound education, accessible and subordinate technology, of literacy beyond the written word to the independent idea, are what will prove that Bob Marleyism true, that “none but ourselves can free our minds.”
Chief, United Nations Academic Impact