Doing the Numbers

The pandemic is global. Why isn’t the response?

When scarcity butts up against the public good, tears are guaranteed. This year—and for years to come, it seems—COVID-19 will provide ample opportunity to cry.

First, a word of congratulations to the cohorts of ideologues who spent decades grinding the United Nations down from a place to grapple with global crises to an underfunded, slothful, toothless show dog. Great job, gang. It’s not like we needed it.

What we have instead is a creative response to vaccination in a world where governments don’t want to cooperate, let alone play by the same rules. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance was cobbled together by dozens of different stakeholders about 20 years ago to deal with something that we’ve always known is a problem: eradicating communicable disease in a world with wildly disparate levels of wealth and health.

The good news is that it was a relatively simple (albeit herculean) job to refocus GAVI on COVID-19 and to form COVAX, the global initiative designed to centralise vaccine acquisition, coordinate its delivery and reduce costs for everyone involved.

And it would be working well, if developed countries hadn’t jumped the queue. Sidelining their own contributions to COVAX, 16% of the world’s population has removed 70% of global vaccine production from control of the global consortium.

The already confusing and complex global supply chain has effectively been corralled by the moneyed nations who are intent on vaccinating themselves first.

That’s crazy, when you think about it.

It’s not crazy at first, though. I mean, it’s their vaccine. They can do what they like with it. And a lot of the money is theirs too, so ditto. And they were elected (or self-selected) to protect the interests of their own people. So… yeah. Ok.

Crying about basic injustice is a legitimate response. The fact that people are willing to shove others out of the way in order to secure a place on the first lifeboat out is lamentable, and not very cool. I seem to recall a bit of confusion about that in Titanic.

But let’s be honest. Fairness is a powerful argument, but not a compelling one.

The calculus that should be driving a coordinated global vaccination effort is the desire to see this thing ended decisively and quickly. A globally coordinated response isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the best thing to do.

The longer the disease lingers in locales with poor health care services and large populations of people facing multiple concurrent health challenges, the more likely it is to mutate and re-emerge.

In short: If you shoot the first zombie, The Walking Dead never gets past the pilot. If you don’t, you… well, you get the show as premised.

A policy paper published a few days ago by The Lancet lays it all out. It recognises the near-miraculous speed with which the first vaccines have been produced, but warns that if production, pricing and allocation aren’t better coordinated, we could end up drowning in a rush to the lifeboats.

Scaling up production to meet global demand is a monumental challenge.14,  15 Before this pandemic, there were no existing networks of contract manufacturers for several of the leading vaccine candidates that feature novel technologies, including those relying on mRNA delivery platforms. Additionally, the volume of vaccines that is needed places pressure on global supply chains for inputs, such as glass vials, syringes, and stabilising agents.

The production of COVID-19 vaccines is limited by the highly concentrated state of global vaccine manufacturing capacity,16 and the relationships established between lead developers and contract manufacturers. A successful solution to the production bottleneck would probably require widespread technology transfer to enable the expansion of manufacturing capacity.

And yet, there’s no appreciable effort ongoing at the moment to move production into the public domain. Cooperative vaccine deals such as that negotiated by the Quad are good, but they’re just working around regional and strategic rivalries that the UN was specifically designed to circumvent.

Yes, millions will benefit from this, and that’s an unadulterated Good Thing. But it’s too small.

The Lancet makes it clear that self-interest is driving up prices for everyone, and contributing to supply shortages that virtually assure a more protracted fight against the vaccine for everyone. Looming over all of this is the spectre of COVID becoming a long-term affliction of the human species, slowing commerce and travel for decades to come, increasing distrust and instability, and punishing the poor.

Delays cost everyone. Eric Feigl-Ding is an epidemiologist with the Federation of American Scientists. He argues, “Delaying the vaccine is a terrible choice. If you were to choose, just take whatever is available because every day for 100,000 vaccinations that are delayed by just one day 15 people will die.”

That’s in the USA. The numbers for Papua New Guinea don’t bear contemplating.

We can’t say we weren’t warned. We knew that if—or more honestly, when—COVID-19 broke out into the community in PNG, it would create a dire threat. One that nobody is equipped to cope with.

Today’s announcement of an urgent effort to guarantee enough vaccines for 20% of Papua New Guineans sound good. Better than the next-to-nothing they’ve got right now, anyway. But 20% of the population in the first year has been the COVAX goal from the start.

That number was based more on market factors than epidemiology. It’s saddening that it takes a crisis of these proportions to raise even the prospect of meeting it.

We now know that vaccines don’t just protect a person from the virus, they also reduce transmission rates vastly, so its possible effective herd immunity may be reached a little shy of the 60% number that’s been bandied about since the beginning of the pandemic.

But here’s the catch: That number only works within discrete populations. We are content to divide ourselves along national boundaries for the moment, so that’s how eradication is going to manifest. The virus will be reduced significantly at first, perhaps even to vanishingly small rates in Europe, North America and large swathes of Asia.

But it only stays eradicated as long as the barriers remain.

And in pockets of the Pacific, in sub-Saharan Africa, remoter parts of Asia and South America, the virus will cling to humanity like a leech, mutating, waiting.

This is Brasil today:

PNG is even less equipped to cope with a runaway virus than Brasil is. We’ve known these were the stakes for a year. It is likely already too late. To his credit, James Marape has been pragmatic about this from the start. Some would say fatalistic.

Some would say that fatalism is an appropriate response.

A million vaccines for PNG isn’t nearly enough. If we’re being fair, the same can be said of every number, for every nation, until the virus is eradicated.

But the way things are going right now, it’s not clear that global eradication going to happen. Because there is no actual global eradication effort. And the odds of success are being driven down right now by wealthy nations getting their own self-interest exactly backwards, because they think there’s a difference between national interest and global interest.

Where they see rivalries, the virus sees opportunities.

COVAX is being undercut by queue jumpers. According to the Lancet, it is facing a multi-billion dollar shortfall, and it’s being outbid by developed nations. It has no long-term funding, and is ill-equipped to build any formal frameworks and supply chains in a marketplace that isn’t just short of vaccines, but also needles, vials, gloves, masks, protective gear—in short, every single thing it needs.

The Lancet policy paper argues convincingly for a global approach to vaccination. But there’s a difference between convincing and compelling. What we need now is the latter. We need world leaders to realise that they’re not protecting themselves if they don’t protect us all.

This is a critical moment in human history, and thus far, we’ve reacted with historic rapidity. But there’s a good chance that we won’t succeed unless we put our differences aside and tackle this global challenge on a truly global scale.

On be(com)ing happy

(Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog. Republishing it here on the anniversary of cyclone Pam, which shattered the lives of half the country in 2015.)

During an interview for a documentary film about climate change some years ago, I was asked how Vanuatu came to be known as the Happiest Country in the World. On the face of it, the title is quite apt. Wherever you go in Vanuatu, you will find smiling faces, warm welcomes and open hearts.

Even in the aftermath of cyclone Pam, which directly affected half the population and badly damaged dozens of their islands, Ni Vanuatu people still managed to smile and laugh. I confess that even after a decade living here, I found it astonishing that people would show such grace in the face of adversity.

In the Malapoa Waetwud neighbourhood of Port Vila, a man calmly described how he and his family would live off fallen fruit for a few days, then they’d dig up whatever hadn’t rotted in the ground; but after that, he wasn’t sure where the next meal was coming from. On the southern island of Tanna, which had been ravaged by 230 Kph winds, I sat with a group of mamas in the shade of the only remaining tree trunk in the village, and we laughed and gently teased each other as we passed the time.

And it’s not that they were oblivious. On the contrary. Only half an hour earlier a village elder came up to me, looked me in the eye and spoke with brutal simplicity: ‘I nogat wan samting.’

‘There’s nothing left.’

It took me days—weeks to be honest—to understand how people could remain light-hearted in the face of the loss of everything of value in their lives.

The penny began to drop when I visited Cildo (pronounced SEEL-doe) and his parents in Erangorango, in the foothills overlooking Port Vila. Cildo was a sturdy, plain-spoken, twelve-year-old boy originally from Malekula. His family home had been shattered by a massive tree which fell at the height of the storm, injuring his father and barely missing Cildo and his mother. I interviewed him for UNICEF, as part of a series of videos taking stock of the effect of the storm on children in Vanuatu.

Cildo was remarkably matter-of-fact:

When the cyclone came we went inside and ate, then we all went into one room. Then a tree fell onto our house, and we all sat in the remaining corner until morning.

That’s it. Plain facts, delivered without inflection or stress. And when I took his photo standing in the ruins, he flashed the brightest smile.

It was only a couple of weeks later, as I was reviewing all the shots I’d taken in the days following the disaster, that I realised his secret: You don’t need a reason to be happy.

Children returning from the community cyclone shelter found their way blocked by a damaged bridge. Hundreds were forced to walk home.

Transactionality and causality are so deeply ingrained in the western European psyche that it comes as a revelation that actually, happiness does not need to be pursued. It can be found wherever you happen to be standing.

The rootless and sometimes purposeless nature of consumer societies often stand in the way of such realisations. For my part, I spent the better part of my childhood coping with damage that never should have happened, and spent my young adulthood as a half-formed Angry Young Man. I was ruled by surges of anger, righteousness and cynicism, until circumstances finally forced me to conduct an existential stock-take.

By the time I arrived in Vanuatu in 2003, I was ready to learn. And before eighteen months had passed, I knew that this is a place where I could be happy. I could be happy, not because things are better here; in many ways they’re not. I could be happy because I no longer needed a reason.

Back in 2010, I wrote:

I’ve been stuck in cyclones, got malaria, dengue, been hospitalised from the after-effects of prolonged dehydration, had more parasites in more places than anyone really wants to know. I’ve been stung by things straight out of a Tim Burton movie. I’ve had death threats and constant, insanely unreasonable demands on my time and my pocketbook.

And yet, and yet in spite of it all, I was happy. Further back, in 2008, on the event of the perfectly preventable death of a little boy, I wrote about his funeral:

To an outsider, it’s wildly incongruous to watch the mourners as they approach the deceased’s house, chatting quietly, even laughing amongst themselves as if on some innocuous errand. The only clue about their destination is a cloth draped across one shoulder, to wipe the coming tears.

At the very instant they reach the gate, the wails begin. They are contrived, it’s true, but utterly heartfelt. The display of pain and sorrow at a funeral is more than most people of European descent have ever seen. To hear women moaning and weeping during the vigil and the burial is an uncanny and deeply moving experience. Though ritualised, the depth and sincerity of the emotion is starkly undeniable.

And then, as quickly as it begins, it is done. Life goes on, there’s food to be cooked, children to be tended to, and laundry to be done. The laughter, the scolding and the [conversation] start up again, as they always do.

Everyone in Vanuatu understands the place of things, and the need for everything to be in its place. Respect for public display and private observance of all of life’s events is universal. If someone smiles and jokes with his friends and colleagues just days after his first-born son has died… well, that’s as it should be. The funeral is over, and though there will be other opportunities to look back and mourn over the next hundred days, life goes on, whether one wants it to or not.

But it took a decade—and a cyclone of historical dimensions—for the lesson finally to land: People in Vanuatu are not happy because of anything. They are happy because the alternative doesn’t bear considering. Living as they do in a Least Developed Country with little or no modern technology in village life, with death and disaster around every corner, and people with whom you might or might not get along tucked up nice and cosy next to you (and you’re on an island, remember; they’re not going anywhere)… well, the least you can do is have a laugh now and then.

Children play marbles under a pair of massive trees defoliated by cyclone Pam

Vanuatu’s designation as the happiest place on earth was the result of research conducted by the New Economics Foundation, a UK-based think-tank. Their Happy Planet Index actually placed more emphasis on the happiness of the planet than its people. It is a measure of people’s well-being in proportion to environmental footprint. Vanuatu was included in the inaugural 2006 survey, but not in any subsequent studies.

Still, the title endures because it fits. And now, as we face the impact of the developing world’s environmental footprint in the form of rising ocean levels and storms of unprecedented severity, this ability to be happy in the face of adversity will no doubt serve us well.

But don’t for a minute let that lead developing countries to complacence. Just because we smile our way through the hardship doesn’t mean that life is easier here. It’s not easier at all; it’s just better.

And honestly, developed nations would do well to take a lesson from this. Disasters wrought by climate change are inevitable now. The damage is done. The storms will reach you too. You’d better learn to smile through adversity as well, because you might not have much else to smile about.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Rip it open

Men worry a lot about being falsely accused of sexual assault. The stigma attached to a sexual predator is so immense that the slightest insinuation is enough to ruin a life. Best say nothing until you’re sure.

If you’ve actually done the crime, that’s the only defence you’ve got, really. You out-victim the victim and don’t ever let up.

If you’re not guilty—or far more likely, if you recall the events differently—then you find yourself regretting the damage done to others, but feeling that there’s no way to defend yourself without casting doubt on your accuser.

That’s how a lot of men will see it, anyway.

I don’t.

I was falsely accused of possession of child pornography by the actual owner, and let me say unequivocally that I would have given anything for a proper investigation.

Instead, I lost my job, and about half my friends, and in the end I was run out of town.

It happened in Iqaluit, a couple of years before it became the capital of the Nunavut territory. It’s a tiny place, with a population about 4500 when school was in session, and barely 4000 when it wasn’t.

Some of the people involved are still alive, and some aren’t, and out of respect for them all, I’m going to be deliberately vague.

I was one of a handful of people in town who knew anything at all about computers. I was working late one evening, recommissioning a server that had been in a colleague’s possession for over a year. I’m going to call the guy X, because I can’t bear to associate any human name to that animal.

The computer had a bunch of personal files on it, and I browsed through the folders quickly to make sure nothing essential would be lost when I reformatted the drive.

I found the images in a folder named ‘Family Photos’.

I was sexually assaulted when I was a child. I don’t think I’ve ever actually written those words before. I only do it here to demonstrate I knew what I was seeing1.

It’s not possible to describe the revulsion I felt at that moment, or my horror when I realised I’d have to look again to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.

I did, though. Then I called my boss, the owner of the company, an Inuk man my age. X was this guy’s mentor; he’d looked after him since childhood. My boss listened to me, then admitted that he’d long suspected him of abusing girls.

He confessed to me that his younger sister had committed suicide when she was 12. He was a teenager at the time. He told me he still had her private journal, and said that two pages of it directly incriminated X in her distress. He was clearly conflicted, and equally clearly, couldn’t reconcile his affection for the man with his suspicions.

That was my first step in his twisted world. There are no straight lines. Anyone who suspects becomes complicit. From the moment they choose to ignore even the mildest signs, they’re caught. It costs them more and more to maintain the fiction over time, but the pressure to excuse increasingly glaring evidence only enmeshes them deeper.

The worse it gets, the further you sink. It’s quicksand.

I couldn’t let it go, though. My boss intimated that we could beguile X, lure him into self-incrimination and turn the tables on him once we’d got him dead to rights. I didn’t dissuade him, mostly because I was still processing the realisation that he’d known about the matter for years.

But I removed the disk from the machine, and took it home.

Back at our apartment, I put the hard drive onto the coffee table, and in fits and starts, explained to my partner what was in it. It became clear to me that I had two options.

The first was to take the .30-30 calibre Marlin rifle out from under my bed and shoot that fucker dead. His house was out near the edge of town, and it would be trivially easy to stake him out from behind a rock in the endless tundra, then put him down as he walked to his car. People hunt caribou all the time, and the herds regularly stroll right into town. A stray bullet would be easy to arrange.

I was perfectly at home with this option. I’m still okay with it. I would put him down like a dog if I thought it would fix things.

I sat there, staring at that drive, for about three hours, undecided. Finally, I phoned the police.

It came down to this: If I did for him, no one would know what he’d done. He’d get what he deserved, but the rest of the community would not.

I trusted the staff sergeant of the local RCMP detachment. He’d been quite good about a brutality complaint that I lodged against a constable I’d witnessed beating a handcuffed man. I felt I could trust him to see this through.

He sent a corporal around, and she took possession of the drive, but seemed nonplussed about what to do with it. This was the ‘90s, and not many people there had seen the inside of a computer before. They took the drive back to the station, but didn’t take a statement, or take any step that I could see to confirm chain of custody.

The next morning, they called X in to take his statement. He told them that only two people had ever touched the contents of that computer, and since he would never have put illegal materials onto the drive, it must have been me. He said he felt bewildered and betrayed. He couldn’t explain what would motivate me to attack him this way.

A week or so later I lost my job. I got a disciplinary letter for removing company equipment (the hard drive) from the premises without permission. It was clearly—I’d say pointedly—written by X. The next day, my boss showed up, and went off on me, angrily listing all my shortcomings. When I started to reply, he lost it. He repeatedly screamed at me to fuck off, and to get the fuck out.

So I did. It was the only time in my life I’ve been fired for cause, and I don’t regret it.

The moment he started shouting, I realised what was happening. I recognised how tortured the guy was, how he was willing to do anything, anything at all, to avoid dealing with awful truth.

It didn’t stop there. The whisper campaign had only just begun. Quite literally, the town wasn’t big enough for the both of us. X pulled out all the stops. An accomplished manipulator, he managed to poison about half the friendships I had in that close-knit community. I didn’t even try to find another job.

Over the next six months, I bore up, but the writing was on the wall. I sent out applications for employment back in Ottawa, secured a decent consultancy, and moved.

It broke my heart. I love the Arctic, the people and the land. It should have been my home. I was there during an historic moment—the creation of the first territory in North America to be governed by its indigenous people. The challenges were huge, and I’d have given anything to help.

More than anything else, I felt bruised in my soul, knowing that X, that monster, had skated. I’d been exiled. But he remained, likely still preying on the innocent.

He killed that little girl, and got away with it. The fucker. He got away with it.

He got away with it.

That’s what ate at me every day. I didn’t do enough. I didn’t get him. In the years since then, I’ve told this story to a few trusted friends, but I’ve never written it down. It was just too hard. I could explain everything, or nothing. One way or another, we all become enmeshed in the lies.

The story ended well, by the way. Maybe not for me, but for the town.

About two years after I’d moved down south, I had to meet the Iqaluit flight to pick up a friend. Standing in arrivals, I was startled to see another acquaintance approaching. We’d always been cordial but distant. He shook my hand (not everyone did) and said, “Hey, I bet you’ll be glad to hear this: X is in jail.”

The boil at the heart of that town had finally been lanced. It turned out that the talk didn’t stop after I’d left. Within a year or so, three adult survivors came forward. Canada had recently removed the statute of limitations concerning sexual and child abuse. He was placed on trial and convicted for crimes he’d committed many years before.

I don’t know if it was my accusation that started things. It might have been, it might not. But the prosecution succeeded because the the law was changed to allow abuse survivors to report in their own time. No matter how many years had passed.

I have an idea how Christian Porter must be feeling now. But what I can’t understand is why he would want anything but justice. And justice means openness. When I was falsely accused, I wanted nothing more than for every single fact to be exposed.

I desperately, futilely wanted to step in front of the people shunning me and yell at them to accuse me to my face so I could prove my innocence. But the poison of sexual abuse doesn’t allow that kind of behaviour. It’s all shadow games, mistrust piled on distrust.

It’s lies all the way down.

I believe the only way to deal with this is to rip the scab right off2. Tear the whole thing open. Let the world see every hideous bit of it. The last thing in the world I wanted was for people to shut up. I wanted to shout my innocence from the rooftops. I wanted to confront every one of those faithless so-called friends who believed me capable of such hideous cruelty. I wanted to shove my innocence down their throat.

If Christian Porter is innocent—and he claims he is—then he has an opportunity. He literally writes the laws. He can find a way to establish the truth of the matter. Yes, the accusation has cost him immensely. I understand exactly how that feels.

What I cannot understand is how an innocent man could want anything but the entire truth. For himself, for the poor woman, for all of us. There is no way I would not want everything laid bare.

It’s the only way we can ever get past this.

1 Don’t ask me to discuss the details. I won’t. Not with you. This isn’t my story. My story is done. It wasn’t a family member. The guy who did it died long ago. I’m alive, and he isn’t. And that’s all I need.
2 Yes, I can see the paradox. This is from the guy who for over half a century never told a soul about his own assault. And refuses talk about it even now. I get it. This is precisely why survivors deserve the right to confront the truth in their own time.

This Isn’t A Debate


A rehearsal of the Wan Smolbag Theatre play Kaekae Rat, a show about conspiracy and deception

My first head-on encounter with wilful disinformation was trivial and illuminating. Back in the mid-80s, I was barely 20 years old, working in one of Ottawa’s busiest restaurants. As with restaurants everywhere, artists, students and social misfits were over-represented.

A pair of very pretty front of house people, he a dancer and she a budding intellectual, were discussing Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, as young lovers do. They were leaning across the service bar in the back, making eyes at each other. Professing her love for the, uh, book, she said something astonishingly wrong about it. He enthusiastically agreed.

I, the stunted Beatnik, stupidly thought their enthusiasm was driven by a shared love of learning.

“No it’s not!” I blurted. “The whole point of the book is that there won’t be any resolution!”

They didn’t even break eye contact with one another. I offered a couple more increasingly agitated points, but they ignored me.

I was right there. Speaking. To them.

And they ignored me. Me. Who was right there.

God I was stupid.

It took me decades to come to terms with a thing I should have learned right then and there: Ideas aren’t debated. They’re contested. Ideas exist only to bind us together.

Yes, only. The fact that ideas also allow information to be stacked up so that even a fool such as I can pontificate about the ornate intellectual structures in Foucault’s Pendulum or Gravity’s Rainbow is Darwinian coincidence. We’re flying to other worlds on peacock feathers.

If we survive as a species, it will be through the power of ideas to build common cause and save us from ourselves.

If we collapse, it will be through the power of ideas that unite (enough of) us in opposition to the idea of a common cause.

The fact that it’s taken me decades to come to this realisation makes me very sad. The fact that I’ve come to this realisation at all gives me hope.

Climate change theory isn’t up for debate. It never was. Ever. It was just a widening body of data leading inexorably to a more nuanced understanding of the same conclusion: If we change the composition of the atmosphere sufficiently, the climate will change too.

Voter fraud isn’t subject to debate. Fraud is remarkably easy to detect, and always has been, even back in the days of Machine politics. Actual voter fraud generally isn’t designed to hide the results. It’s a show of force. It’s a public statement of contempt for the mere concept of democracy. It is the idea of autocracy embodied, designed to unify the population in submission.

Fake narratives of voter fraud are, paradoxically, the same thing.

Vaccination isn’t subject to debate. Discovery? Yes. Research? Of course. But not debate. There is literally nothing in the fundamental proposition that is subject to question: If we assist the body in developing immunity to dangerous diseases, we will suffer less as a species.

But if we do allow people to pretend it’s a debate, every word of that last sentence can be assailed:

“If—” Ah! You’re not even sure yourself and you want to force me to take that poison?!

“we—” Who’s we, Kemo Sabe? I never consented to this!

“assist the body in developing immunity—” Assistance?!? It’s invasion! We’re messing with God’s Plan! We’re poisoning ourselves now and for generations to come!

“to dangerous diseases—” It’s no worse than the flu! I had it, and I was fine!

“we will suffer less—” MORE

“as a species.” Leave me out of your mind control plots, Bill Gates! I’m not even sure we are the same species.

And yet, in the face of this, we spend inordinate amounts of time and effort trying to equip the truth-tellers, the fact-checkers, the cooperators and the listeners with tools to cope with the liars and the stone-hearted exclusionists.

Forgive me if this simile offends, but telling reputable media professionals how to better contend with this phenomenon is disturbingly similar to telling women to dress sensibly. You’re demeaning us, second-guessing what we’re already doing, and making the problem ours alone when it’s emphatically not.

We haven’t lost our readers’ trust. It’s not like it slipped between the cushions while we were streaming Tiger King. We’ve been systematically delegitimised and defamed by bad faith actors.

In this light, telling media people to Do Better and to Build Trust is counter-productive. We should do it, of course, but not because it’s going to solve the disinformation blight. Better information is a public good in and of itself, but it’s not a suitable antidote to false narratives that unite one group against another.

We won’t win this contest by debating. We win by exposing bad faith.

The solution has always been the same: Single out the ringleaders and show them up for the charlatans they are. Because the charlatans are there. Every time—or at least so often that the exceptions are statistically unmeasurable.

Purveyors of falsehood and conspiracies know this. That’s why they reserve an especially virulent stream of invective for the most charismatic leaders, the ones who don’t argue, but persuade. They’ll stop at nothing if they fear their ideas are taking hold.

That’s not how we roll, of course. But we have a weapon that is equally effective. We can expose. We expend exabytes of data—years of effort every day—exposing the lie, but only a fraction of that exposing the liars and their selfish motives, and punishing them. And yet:


Twitter avatar for @yoyoelYoel Roth @yoyoel

Research has shown that many types of harmful misinformation are disproportionately spread by small groups of dedicated bad-faith actors. Clearly defined and enforced strikes are a way to address these harms in a proportionate, straightforward way.

evelyn douek @evelyndouek

Super clear system. Repeat offenders are a huge part of the problem: now, they’re on notice, with plenty of chance to adjust to Twitter’s rules, which it’s entitled to have


At every nexus of false conspiracy, there is always a liar. There’s someone who knows better, and still does the deed. And does it for reasons people despise. Always. That’s who should be targeted. That’s who should be punished. People who wilfully and knowingly spread falsehoods for their own benefit.

It’s a shockingly painful grind, but it works. It worked against Tobacco, arguably the most addictive recreational substance going. The day we turned the corner on tobacco abuse was the day governments in the USA and elsewhere got the tobacco companies to admit they lied, and made it intensely painful for them to continue lying.

The day will never come when people are no longer in the thrall of ideas that elevate them by debasing others. But here’s the thing: powerful ideas have to be sincerely held. Once the liars are exposed, it becomes easier for people to congregate around better ideas.

Again, what needs to be exposed is not just the lie, but the liar. You can’t just catch someone out in a contradiction, proclaim ‘You lie!’ and consider them forever disqualified. You need to expose the corrupt end their duplicity serves, and punish that.

Trump could wear a dozen impeachments like medals on his chest in service of his Big Lie, and nobody would flinch. It’s the tax fraud that’ll do him in. The outcome of an impeachment is debatable by design. A fraud charge much less so. The outcome is contestable, sure, but not debatable. Except in very limited circumstances, you can’t win by redefining fraud1.

And then, when that’s done, we need better ideas about how to save ourselves. The data comes later. We know how to save ourselves. We just have to find a way to agree that enough of us want to.

1 This isn’t a general argument against legal precedent. It’s a specific argument that for most intents and purposes the definition of fraud is settled, and it’s considered a serious crime.