Coronavirus Conspiracies: In an Israel on Edge, Panic-mongering Incitement Can Kill

Conservative TV stars slur Arab citizens as 'quarantine refusers,' politicians spread debunked paranoid theories. Disinformation on the coronavirus is spreading like wildfire in Israel - and it poses a real public danger

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Panic in a pandemic: As online rumors fly, conservative TV stars slur Arab citizens as coronavirus 'quarantine refusers'
Panic in a pandemic: As online rumors fly, conservative TV stars slur Arab citizens as coronavirus 'quarantine refusers'Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS
Edan Ring
Edan Ring

These are complicated and tense times. Almost every day, the Israeli authorities announce ever more stringent emergency restrictions aimed at containing the spread of the novel coronavirus. With rumor production on overdrive, shoppers are overrunning the supermarkets. Even after Netanyahu's almost daily press conferences, tensions stay high and public confusion reigns.

Unlike during previous historic crises, not least during times of armed conflict, we face not a dearth of information but far too much, and far too undifferentiated. For most of us, our mobile devices infuse nonstop news straight to the vein - and we pass everything along on social media. Every inaccurate rumor - however ridiculous, every grim estimate - however baseless or overblown, spreads unrestrainedly in cyberspace, like wildfire in Australia.

Here is just a taste of the coronavirus disinformation and conspiracy theories spreading online in Israel over the last two weeks: claims that Jews of Yemenite origin have “natural” immunity; ludicrous methods of self-diagnosis; fake reports about military helicopters sterilizing Israel’s streets from the air. And this is just the prelude.

Now more than ever is when we need responsible, fact-based public discourse. Now is when we really need calmness and equanimity: we need media professionals who will forego the race for scoops and avoid scorched-earth headlines based on premature leaks and estimates – in favor of careful and accurate updates.

The media audience at home is already on the edge. The slightest dark hint from an imprecise news flash could trigger a dangerous spiral of response. This is not a theoretical warning. Wildly irresponsible output from media and politicians alike has been flooding the airwaves, the broadcasts, Twitter feeds and all the rest. All these can cause real damage.

At the end of last week, on Channel 12’s Friday evening news, Israel’s most-watched news program, we saw a tsunami of citizens swamp a European supermarket the moment its doors opened. It was billed as “a Belgian supermarket opening after a quarantine period.”

Then, as the program was ending, a tiny correction by newscaster Danny Kushmaro: The clip had no relation whatever to the coronavirus pandemic. It was an old clip, and not even from Belgium but from Germany (this information was not mentioned even in the correction).

But the message about doomsday lockdowns got through immediately. The next morning, there were massively long lines at supermarkets throughout Israel. Almost certainly some of those on line were already infected by the coronavirus and were passing it on.

That same Friday on Channel 13’s morning show, we saw conservative  provocateur star anchor Avri Gilad target the Arab citizens of Tira as “quarantine refusers” liable to infect the people around them – including “neighboring [Jewish] Kfar Saba.” As a parting shot, he called them “garbage people.”

The basis for this trumped-up bile was an actual news item about people not entering quarantine - but there was no report of anyone being infected or spreading the virus. Non-cooperation with quarantine instructions has been reported from all over the country, but Gilad chose to focus on Arab citizens – an easy, familiar target. Given the current tensions, that kind of inaccurate, gratuitous and provocative generalization could easily spark a conflagration – precisely what we don’t need right now.

Nor are members of Knesset without sin, in terms of wantonly irresponsible reporting. One MK is spreading a debunked conspiracy theory (also beloved of senior U.S. Republicans): She tells us that the virus originated in a Chinese military lab. Another circulated a photo of people getting disinfected which, it turned out, wasn’t even taken in Israel. A third MK urged calm because, in his words, it’s just "a flu."

A municipal employee sprays disinfectant in a children playground in the Israeli coastal city of Bat Yam on March 18, 2020Credit: AFP

There are plenty more examples. People have faith in these legislators because of their position. In this digital age, politicians communicate directly, unmediated, with constituents and the public at large – circumnavigating the media. Our lawmakers have a responsibility be fact-based and cautious, just like the journalists who are no longer the exclusive gatekeepers of their political messaging.

Alongside the medical and social caution currently required of us, we should all be a lot more cautious about sharing information and drawing conclusions. Media professionals and politicians have clear obligations to double check every report or information they publish, but so do we all, as ordinary citizens. However tempted, we should be thinking not twice but ten times before we hit share, or retweet, or send.

As the flood of rumors and lies and fake news grows, so too does the tension and anxiety. This has real consequences and does real damage. Other countries have experienced this and it can happen here, too: People sufficiently misled will ignore quarantine and treatment instructions, join the chorus of ugly incitement against fellow citizens and minority groups, and embrace quack nostrums to “treat” the virus. All these things have been reported in other times and places.

Responsible journalists must now do the right thing and forget about the ratings and the commercial competition. Every news item, now more than ever, needs reliable and trustworthy sources – and  fact-checking, and cross-checking. Now is the time to be prioritizing the public welfare above all.

For the rest of us, now is the time to be deeply skeptical and think critically and carefully about the origins of the information we receive from social networks. We must help our children learn to distinguish between facts and rumors, news and figments of imagination.

The coming weeks and months are a good opportunity to reduce the amount of news we consume and limit ourselves to a media diet based on fact-based, serious journalism, committed to the public good -and not on screaming headlines, cut-throat competition and populist fear-mongering. If you look well enough you can still find it. 

And we all have to fight for the right to a solid foundation of what’s really going on, not least when the democratic deficit in Israel is mounting by the day, in order to protect unfairly scapegoated fellow citizens and to call our leaders to account.

Edan Ring is a lecturer in communications and social media and co-director of Sikkuy's Shared Society department

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