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In the time of social distancing, does social media help or hinder us? – The Globe and Mail



A woman looks at her phone while riding a rapid-transit train in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on March 22, 2020.


Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance technology culture columnist

Here in the profound strangeness that is life in 2020, the news and the seemingly ceaseless talk of COVID-19 feel like an overwhelming tsunami. Not only is information about the virus itself hard to pin down as good data changes from one day to the next, everything else happening in the world threatens to get lost in the flood, too.

One example: Late last week, Facebook started mistakenly marking some articles and posts about the COVID-19 pandemic as spam. Users reported that an array of reasonable posts about the novel coronavirus – from news on Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson’s diagnoses to reports by reputable media organizations – were being flagged as “against community standards.”

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As it turned out, it was a glitch in Facebook’s anti-spam tools, and the company moved to fix it. But amid the cacophony of news about the virus, a bug in the system that so many rely on for information was particularly unnerving. It reinforced the notion that what we see is determined by an arcane black box of algorithms and rules that can feel unfair or, more plainly, just arbitrary. And in a moment in which trust is central to how we react to the pandemic, the Facebook glitch reinforced the idea that having faith in the information economy is harder than ever.

The trouble with COVID-19 is that it isn’t just novel as a disease, but also as a social phenomenon. The nuanced differences between social distancing, self-isolation and quarantining, for example, all need to be communicated to and learned by society at large. With that novelty comes a need for clear, authoritative information.

But our relationship to both authority and information has changed, mostly because the systems and media through which we get that information have also changed. Glitches in filtering, dubious policies such as Facebook allowing misleading political ads, and the broader reality that almost anyone can post almost anything mean the presence of doubt is hardly surprising. And when authoritarian leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, or public figures such as Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk deliberately downplay the seriousness of the pandemic, it only adds to the confusion. If the hierarchies of authority that once existed were a kind of filtering system to separate the wheat from the chaff, the platforms given to powerful but misguided figures help upend that dynamic of trust.

It is a phenomenon compounded by the way in which social media flattens information such that it all appears and feels the same. It’s what writer Nicholas Carr calls content collapse: “the tendency of social media to blur traditional distinctions among once-distinct types of information – distinctions of form, register, sense, and importance.” That shift is part of the lag that made so many of us late to understand the gravity of what we are now living through.

What it produces is a broader sense of mistrust. Think, for example, of the people you surely know who claim that they see ads for certain products after mentioning them out loud. Thus far, we have no evidence that our apps or phone makers are listening in to our conversations, but the objective truth of the matter is almost besides the point. Rather, the opacity of how and why we see what we do on screens produces its own pall of doubt.

But if the form of how we experience things is one half of the trust economy, the other is the content itself. For one, we are exposed to far more information, which has an overwhelming effect when it comes to discerning good from bad, or even current from outdated. Consider how quickly advice changed regarding whether you should be out and about, or if a trip to a local restaurant was well-advised.

Then there is the proliferation of bad actors or people who simply don’t know any better spreading false information. What it produces is a potent mix of mistrust, at a moment in which a naive sort of skepticism can quite literally be deadly.

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The upending of hierarchies is a profoundly ambivalent thing, and we have to remember the benefits – the way social media has given voice to the powerless, helped form movements of resistance and democratized information.

But the consequence of that change has also been an undermining of trust in the information we are bombarded with day in and day out. And when determining what we can and cannot rely on is a matter of life and death, we must figure out a way to try and restore some of the division between the trustworthy and not, the true and false – lest all of it, and all of us, end up washed away.

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Sask. premier trails counterparts in attending COVID-19 media conferences –



Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe attended two press conferences this week, the fewest among Canadian provincial leaders not self-isolating.

Saskatchewan holds a daily briefing at 2:30 p.m. CST. This week four briefings were held, Thursday there was no public availability.

Moe attended conferences on Monday and Wednesday. 

Across the country, each province is dealing with its own unique COVID-19-related challenges.

As of Friday, Saskatchewan was third in testing rate among the provinces and had the fifth most infections.

In B.C., Premier John Horgan has been available on three occasions this week.

In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney has appeared three times this week to field media questions and held a Facebook live with the province’s chief medical health officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw on Thursday.

In Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister attended four of five media briefings.

In Ontario and Quebec Premiers Doug Ford and François Legault have held daily briefings.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford answers questions related to COVID-19. Ford has held daily media briefings during the week. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

In Atlantic Canada, the premiers of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador have held daily briefings.

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King was in self-isolation after returning from a trip to Boston and has been available via video.

Trudeau, federal cabinet and Sask. opposition leader available daily

The daily routine, if you can call it that, in various provinces is a news conference with the region’s top doctor and the premier. Some provinces separate the health announcements with those addressing other measures.

This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a daily morning briefing outside his home while in self-isolation. His statement and question and answer are followed by another news conference attended by Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and a variety of federal cabinet ministers.

Saskatchewan Opposition Leader Ryan Meili holds a daily video conference at 11 a.m. local. 

In many cases, Meili has asked for government intervention or action on a particular issue related to COVID-19. 

“Right now, people expect to hear from their leaders regularly, and want to know they’re taking quick action. That’s why we’ll keep staying in touch with the people of the province as much as possible, and continue to push the government to step up with more supports and more information,” Meili said Friday.

Sask. Opposition Leader Ryan Meili has held “virtual press conferences” seven days in a row. (Ryan Meili/YouTube)

Moe ‘leading government response’ says spokesperson

With the legislative session indefinitely suspended, the daily Question Period exchange and subsequent interviews of MLAs have disappeared.

The public, many of whom are now stuck at home, have taken to the online daily stream of the government update.

The live-streamed news conferences have significant audiences online. The Government of Saskatchewan Facebook page averages around 60,000 views per news conference. CBC Saskatchewan’s Facebook page averages between 30,000 and 40,000. 

Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab has been the lone constant in the daily conferences.

Shahab, however, cannot answer questions about program spending, government decisions on support for low-income people and education plans for example.

The government has provided statements and teleconferences with various officials and ministers in the past few days.

A spokesperson for the premier said his attendance at news conferences is dependent on what the government is announcing on a particular day.

“Premier Moe remains actively involved in leading our government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic with the Chief Medical Health Officer and other senior health officials,” said a spokesperson for Premier Moe in a statement.

“Each day we evaluate what information is important to convey to the people of Saskatchewan. When we are communicating information regarding COVID-19 that is medical in nature, it is important for that information to be communicated by the Chief Medical Health Officer. When an announcement is made in regards to restrictions or resource supports, it is important for this information to be communicated by the Premier.”

“The Premier will continue to regularly communicate with Saskatchewan people through the COVID-19 media briefings, along with other methods of communication,” the statement said.

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Northern Cyprus reports first coronavirus death -Turkish state media – National Post



ANKARA — Northern Cyprus reported its first death from the coronavirus on Saturday after a 67-year old German tourist died in hospital in Nicosia, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.

The German man also suffered from the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and high blood pressure, Anadolu said. It said the man had been treated at the Dr. Burhan Nalbantoglu hospital in Nicosia.

Anadolu, citing a statement from the ministry on Saturday, said the total number of cases in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) had risen to 61.

Earlier this month, Ankara had said it sent 72 million lira ($11.16 million) in emergency financial assistance and medical supplies to the TRNC due to the virus outbreak.

The island of Cyprus was divided in 1974 following a Turkish invasion triggered by a Greek-inspired coup. The island’s Greek Cypriots live mostly in the south, and Turkish Cypriots in the north, and several peacemaking efforts have failed thus far.

($1 = 6.4530 liras) (Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu Editing by Frances Kerry)

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Winning the media battle against COVID-19 – The Japan Times



On March 12, the Sankei Shimbun ran an editorial urging the media to refrain from criticizing the government for its handling of the coronavirus emergency. The Sankei Shimbun was elaborating on a complaint made by former TV announcer Yoshiko Sakurai that the press was not properly instilling in the public a sense of solidarity in overcoming the crisis. Finding fault with authorities is “acceptable” when things are normal, said the newspaper, but during an emergency focusing on “Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe’s political beliefs and trivializ(ing) his response to the national crisis” is not.

The Sankei Shimbun may be oversimplifying the reaction of outlets such as the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun to the Abe administration’s handling of the matter. Certainly, there is a political element in those newspapers’ analysis of the government response, but they also ponder whether those decisions are effective in their coverage. This contrast has led to confusion over how the media should approach the situation, especially in the wake of the passage of a revised law to provide the prime minister with powers to declare a state of emergency and, as a result, potentially limit press freedoms.

On March 11, columnist Osamu Aoki wrote in the Osaka edition of the Mainichi Shimbun about his recent appearance on TV Asahi’s “Shinichi Hatori’s Morning Show.” He and others discussed the shortage of face masks for medical institutions. One “expert” said hospitals that specialized in respiratory problems should be prioritized for receiving masks.

The next morning, the health ministry tweeted a criticism of the program by name. The government had indeed made sure that institutions designated for fighting infectious diseases received priority for masks. But rather than accepting the criticism at face value, which is what usually happens with news-related information programming, “Shinichi Hatori’s Morning Show” pushed back, claiming that institutions specializing in infectious diseases had told them that they had not received masks from the government. Nor had they received notification that they would eventually be sent any.

Later, the Cabinet Office’s task force for infectious diseases tweeted that the claims made on “Shinichi Hatori’s Morning Show” about the government stance on revising the influenza law were wrong. Then, the publicity arm of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party joined in and tweeted a similar sentiment, again citing the program by name.

On March 7, Aoki says, the Mainichi Shimbun looked into the tweets and reported that the Prime Minister’s Office had instructed relevant bureaucrats to verbally object to specific news coverage that was “different from the truth.” However, it was TV Asahi’s view, based on its own research, that it was the government’s version of events that was different from the truth. Aoki blasted the exchange as a waste of time, and said the health ministry should devote more effort to boosting tests for the virus and improving crisis management.

According to online magazine Litera, the health ministry and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s publicity department also complained about a segment on TBS’s “N Suta” program on March 4, which featured an expert who commented that the coronavirus is a new type of virus that is easier to contract than seasonal flu. The health ministry tweeted that this is not the case, citing the World Health Organization, which said that the infectiousness of the coronavirus was “not that high” compared to seasonal flu. Litera points out that the expert, professor Harue Okada, who has been appearing on almost every news show for the past several weeks, was talking about infectiousness with regard to people’s immune systems. The LDP may be scapegoating Okada because she has been saying the government’s response has been too little, too late, and Litera says something similar is happening in the Diet. LDP lawmaker Kimi Onoda complained of the media’s coverage of toilet paper shortages and the misleading number of those infected. Litera thinks the LDP is spending an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to block criticism.

If that’s the case, it seems to be working. Litera mentions a BuzzFeed Japan reporter who tweeted that it was right for the health ministry to put pressure on the media by naming those who convey content that will cause anxiety. The Huffington Post reported that the health ministry objected to a story on CNN featuring Hokkaido University professor Hiroshi Nishiura, since CNN interpreted Nishiura’s findings as meaning that the real number of infected people in Japan was probably 10 times higher than the official number. Nishiura, who has worked with the ministry on making statistical models, subsequently released a statement through the ministry saying, essentially, that CNN was wrong. On at least one occasion, the ministry admitted it had spoken too soon, giving some credence to the notion that this media policy is preemptive rather than corrective.

These developments were discussed by journalist Koichi Yasuda and activist Yasumichi Noma on their web talk show “No Hate TV” on March 13. Noma compared the monitoring campaign to the activities of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.” The Ministry of Truth is the government’s propaganda generator, rewriting history and deciding what is fact in order to promote its interests. Noma thinks the current administration will mainly be remembered for the way it has manipulated narratives by changing or destroying documents or even not keeping records at all. The tweets from the health ministry, the LDP and the Cabinet Office targeting “Shinichi Hatori’s Morning Show” demonstrated a new front in this effort because they were well-coordinated. Noma even suspects they may have been written by the same person.

Yasuda’s concern is that outlets such as BuzzFeed are giving in to the pressure and not asking questions or digging for information. If they support the government line because they think they’re supposed to, then they are forfeiting their responsibility as journalists. To paraphrase a famous quote that may or may not have been uttered by English journalist George Orwell himself, the role of a reporter is to speak truth to power. Everything else is public relations.

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