Friday 23 December 2022

A summary of 'Who is watching the World Health Organisation? ‘Post-truth’ moments beyond infodemic research'

Written for infodemic/disinfodemic researchers and those interested in the scientific suppression of COVID-19 dissidents.

Dr David Bell, Emeritus Professor Tim Noakes and my opinion piece 'Who is watching the World Health Organisation? ‘Post-truth’ moments beyond infodemic research’ is available at It was written for a special issue, 'Fear and myth in a post-truth age’ from the Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa (see call at

A major criticism this paper raises is that infodemic research lacks earnest discussion on where health authorities’ own choices and guidelines might be contributing to ‘misinformation’, ‘disinformation’ and even ‘malinformation’. Rushed guidance based on weak evidence from international health organisations can perpetuate negative health and other societal outcomes, not ameliorate them! If health authorities’ choices are not up for review and debate, there is a danger that a hidden goal of the World Health Organisation (WHO) infodemic (or related disinfodemic funders’ research) could be to direct attention away from funders' multitude of failures in fighting pandemics with inappropriate guidelines and measures.

In The regime of ‘post-truth’: COVID-19 and the politics of knowledge (at, Kwok, Singh and Heimans (2019) describe how the global health crisis of COVID-19 presents a fertile ground for exploring the complex division of knowledge labour in a ‘post-truth’ era. Kwok et al. (2019) illustrates this by describing COVID-19 knowledge production at university. Our paper focuses on the relationships between health communication, public health policy and recommended medical interventions.

Divisions of knowledge labour are described for (1) the ‘infodemic/disinfodemic research agenda’, (2) ‘mRNA vaccine research’ and (3) ‘personal health responsibility’. We argue for exploring intra- and inter relationships between influential knowledge development fields. In particular, the vaccine manufacturing pharmaceutical companies that drive and promote mRNA knowledge production. Within divisions of knowledge labour (1-3), we identify key inter-group contradictions between the interests of agencies and their contrasting goals. Such conflicts are useful to consider in relation to potential gaps in the WHO’s infodemic research agenda:

For (1), a key contradiction is that infodemic scholars benefit from health authority funding may face difficulties questioning their “scientific” guidance. We flag how the WHO ’s advice for managing COVID-19 departed markedly from a 2019 review of evidence it commissioned (see

(2)’s division features very different contradictions. Notably, the pivotal role that pharmaceutical companies have in generating vaccine discourse is massively conflicted. Conflict of interest arises in pursuing costly research on novel mRNA vaccines because whether the company producing these therapies will ultimately benefit financially from the future sales of these therapies depends entirely on the published efficacy and safety results from their own research. The division of knowledge labour for (2) mRNA vaccine development should not be considered separately from COVID-19’s in Higher Education or the (1) infodemic research agenda. Multinational pharmaceutical companies direct the research agenda in academia and medical research discourse through the lucrative grants they distribute. Research organisations dependant on external funding for covering budget shortfalls will be more susceptible to the influence of those funders on their research programs.

We spotlight the overwhelming evidence for the importance of (3) personal responsibility. In the COVID-19 pandemic, its discourses seemed largely ignored by Higher Education leadership and government. We flag how contradictions in (3)’s division of knowledge labour in a pandemic can explain such neglect. Personal responsibility is not a commercial site for generating large profits, some of which may be donated in supporting academic research. Research into effective, low-cost interventions seems to be at odds with the economic interests of both grant recipients and Big Pharma donors. Replacing costly treatments with low-cost alternatives would not only greatly diminish the profitability of existing funders, but also reduce the pool of new ones, plus the size of future donations. It is also important to reflect on how else the scientific enterprise at university lends itself to being an arena for misinformation. New information in science that refutes existing dogma does not become accepted immediately. Therefore a period exists when new ideas will be considered as misinformation especially by those with an agenda to suppress its acceptance.

However, from the perspective of orthodoxy, views that support new paradigms are unverified knowledge (and potentially "misinformation"). Any international health organisation that wishes to be an evaluator must have the scientific expertise for managing this ongoing ‘paradox’, or irresolvable contradiction. Organisations such as the WHO may theoretically be able to convene such knowledge, but their dependency on funding from conflicted parties would normally render them ineligible to perform such a task. This is particularly salient where powerful agents can collaborate across divisions of knowledge labour for establishing an institutional oligarchy. Such hegemonic collaboration can suppress alternative viewpoints that contest and query powerful agents’ interests.

It is concerning how many Communication and Media Studies researchers are ignoring such potential abuse of power, whilst supporting censorship of dissenters based on unproven "harms". Embedded researchers seem to ignore that the Centers for Disease Control, National Institute for Health and the WHO’s endorsement of multinational pharmaceutical companies’ products is a particularly troubling development: it marks a ‘new normal’ of institutional capture by industry sponsoring regulators who become their ‘lobbyists’. This contrasts to the silo efforts of external influence in the past, for example by lobbyists working for Big Tobacco or Big Food. They spun embedded scientific research touting the ‘benefits’ of smoking and processed foods. At the same time, evidence of harm was attacked as "junk science".

At least with cigarettes and ultra-processed foods, many individuals have the choice to buy or avoid paying. In stark contrast, tax-paying publics have no such option in avoiding the steep costs of mRNA vaccines. Public taxes pay for these treatments, while less expensive and potentially more effective interventions are ignored. Paying for vaccines takes funding away from interventions that would address wider and more pressing global health needs, in particular, poverty, malaria, tuberculosis and T2DM.

This paper alerts researchers to a broad range of ‘post-truth’ moments and flags the danger of relying on global health authorities to be the sole custodians of who is allowed to define what comprises an information disorder. Challenges to scientific propaganda from authorities captured by industry should not automatically be (mis-) characterised as low quality or harmful information. Rather, the digital voices of responsible dissenters can be valuable in protecting scientific integrity and public health (for example, @ProfTimNoakes should not be blocked from his Twitter account for expressing dissent!)

Image ™ @TexasLindsay_

Our article results from collaboration between The Noakes Foundation and PANDA. The authors thank JTSA’s editors for the opportunity to contribute to its special issue, the paper’s critical reviewers for their helpful suggestions and AOSIS for editing and proof-reading the paper.

This is the third publication from The Noakes Foundation’s Academic Free Speech and Digital Voices (AFSDV) project. Do follow me on Twitter or for updates regarding it.

I welcome you sharing constructive comments, below.

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