Canaries in the Coal Mine: COVID-19 Misinformation and Black Communities

Canaries in the Coal Mine: COVID-19 Misinformation and Black Communities

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June 24, 2020, 4:05 pm
Brandi Collins-Dexter, Shorenstein Center Fellow

The views expressed in Shorenstein Center Discussion Papers are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Harvard Kennedy School or of Harvard University.

Discussion Papers have not undergone formal review and approval. Such papers are included in this series to elicit feedback and to encourage debate on important issues and challenges in media, politics and public policy. These papers are published under the Center’s Open Access Policy. Papers may be downloaded and shared for personal use.

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This work was enhanced by the guidance of the team from The Technology and Social Change Project (TaSC), including Brian Friedberg, Dr. Joan Donovan, and Gabby Lim. Additional support and source material provided by Jade Ogunnaike, and Amanda Jackson from Color Of Change.

Executive Summary

The Black community online is awash in medical misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

Even as Black people are disproportionately dying from the virus due to systemic racism, harmful inaccuracies about how to keep from contracting COVID-19, how to treat it, and where it comes from are metastasizing in Black online spaces, putting people at even greater risk.

Since the beginning of the crisis, we have tracked how COVID-19 was being discussed in Black online communities. Using multi-site digital ethnography to track how conspiracies and disinformation cross message boards and tech platforms, we have identified four predominant narratives spreading in Black communities in the United States:

  1. Black people could not die from COVID-19
  2. The virus was man-made for the purposes of population control
  3. The virus could be contained through use of herbal remedies
  4. 5G radiation was the root cause of COVID-19

Some of this misinformation appears to be targeted directly at the community by outsiders, while some has grown up organically within specific Black communities. In this report, we expose how historical oppression, medical mistrust, and healthcare redlining combined with failures by internet platforms and media underreporting have left the Black community with an information vacuum now being filled by dangerous false narratives online. This leaves individuals at great personal risk, and imperils democracy by harming Black voters’ ability to be informed on matters of the highest national importance.

We conclude this report by recommending specific steps that the press can
take to better represent the health realities of Black Americans and keep them informed, and that tech companies must take to safeguard accuracy, clamp down on misinformation, and support the dissemination of authoritative medical information in formats that speak directly to the Black community.

Now, as the country grapples with the twin pandemics of racism and COVID-19, and the death toll from the virus surpasses 100,000 deaths, the two illnesses converge on Black bodies. It is yet again Black lives that are being excessively lost. Against that backdrop, memes about melanin, recipes for herbal concoctions, gifs about 5G and conspiracies about Bill Gates may not seem like high stakes concerns. This report shows that right now those online ephemera are actually matters of life and death.

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About the Author:

As a visiting fellow at the Shorenstein Center, Brandi Collins-Dexter researches and writes about disinformation and coordinated attacks on Black technoculture. As a senior campaign director at Color Of Change (COC), her work involves interrogating the role of media, technology and information integrity in improving or deteriorating community health and economic opportunities. COC is a digital first racial justice organization, started in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. COC campaigns to end predatory, corrupt and inequitable practices that hold Black people back and champions solutions that move us all forward. They use technology to connect their members, to give voice to unheard stories, and to win change from corporations, elected officials and others. They know both the potential and dangers of unaccountable platforms.

Color Of Change has released a set of demands for the government and private sector related to limiting the harmful impact of COVID-19 on Black communities, which can be found at theblackresponse.org. In partnership with Dr. Ruth Arumala, COC also released a comprehensive guide on the best practices and resources for combatting COVID-19 in the Black community, which can be found at https://theblackresponse.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Black-Patients-Guide-to-Covid-19.pdf.