New e-book of Peruvian site Ojo Público documents and explains origin of disinformation globally during a pandemic

"Masks: emergency garments to survive or suffocate according to the user’s political stance," is one of the satirical definitions in “Infodemia,” a recent book from the Peruvian investigative journalism site Ojo Público.

The e-book explains in a form of a dictionary, and with a lot of rigorous black comedy, the false and misleading news spread across Latin America and the rest of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Libro Infodemia de Ojo Público

Ojo Público new e-book "Infodemia". (Courtesy.)

In an interview with LatAm Journalism Review, the editor in chief of  Ojo Público, David Hidalgo, explained that they give the book a dictionary format to “combate the chaos of the times.” But it is not only a classification, he said, but rather an explanation and an attempt to make sense of “something that will be useful and surprising to the reader.”  

Talking about the satirical tone, Hidalgo commented that the inspiration came from “The Devil's Dictionary” by Ambrose Bierce, a satirical journalist from the United States of the 19th century who used irony to explain human nature.  

The idea for the book sparked in early June, as a journalistic response to the disinformation crisis that was circulating around the world. The project was also born as a part of two international initiatives that the Peruvian site participates in: the Red Latam Chequea, integrated by more than 20 data verification teams in Latin America, and the International Factchecking Network, which has fact checkers from more than 70 countries, Hidalgo said. 

Carla Díaz, a journalist of the Unidad de Verificación OjoBiónico of the Peruvian site, told LJR that “identifying and breaking down” fake or manipulated news has had a special relevance in the world during a pandemic.  

“We wanted the book to be accessible to readers, which is why in the stories compiled there are didactic examples of how an hoax emerges and how facts are decontextualized, altered or manipulated politically to create more viral lies,” she said. According to Díaz, the disinformation quickly reproduces prejudices, fears and uncertainty in the people, “which is why, sometimes, these versions are difficult to question.”

According to Hidalgo, in order to get the final selection for the book of the most fake and misleading news spread across social media worldwide during the pandemic, they did 6,000 fact-checkings in different languages. They picked 31 recurring topics with themes ranging from science to religion, politics, sex, sports and horror stories. 

“Do you remember the histarea that came from the bat soup? Or the use of chlorine dioxide as a cure against Covid-19? All these lies and how they were verified are told with detail in the book,” Gianella Tapullima, fact-checker for Oja Público, told LJR.

The books also includes other topics of fake news regarding the vaccines, such as the supposed death of the Italian woman Elisa Granato, who supposedly  died after being a volunteer during an experimental face of the Oxford University’s COVID-19 vaccine, and which she later denied on Twitter. Likewise, the false news related to discrimination, such as the one that circulated in Colombia in this April, such as the one about Venezuelan immigrants who alleged threw food donations on the ground demanding money in return, and which promoted xenophobia against displaced Venezuelans in the region.

Libro electrónico "Infodemia" de Ojo Público

"Infodemia",  Ojo Público. (Courtesy.)

At least 11 of the 31 topics of the book had a major impact in Latin America, according to the authors. From the alleged contagion effect caused by 5G phone, to the vaccine conspiracy allegedly led by Bill Gates, Hidalgo said. Religious or ideological groups and their political agendas would be behind fake news and misinformation, he added. 

“The book explains that the infodemic is the abundance of false or misleading versions in a viral way, in different countries and in a short time. Many versions went from one country to another and also in one language to another. It is important to know that the disinformation does not respect geographic borders, sooner or later it will spread,” Hidalgo expressed. 

"Both the pandemic and the infodemic have shown us the interconnectedness in which we live," Díaz said.

The book is part of a special Penguin Random House collection of authors explaining the “new normal.”

“We are in a key moment in the short but intense existence of Ojo Público. The pandemic has been a challenge which has made us grow, demanded more from us, to produce more. These are the first results, Hidalgo said. 

This story was originally written in Spanish and was translated by Perla Arellano Fraire.