Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Disinformation Outbreak About the Coronavirus Outbreak: What to Make of the False Information Plague?
The Disinformation Outbreak About the Coronavirus Outbreak: What to Make of the False Information Plague?

The Disinformation Outbreak About the Coronavirus Outbreak: What to Make of the False Information Plague?

Post by Clint Watts

March 9, 2020

The global COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak portended a coming tsunami of coronavirus conspiracy theories from all corners of the earth. Anyone using a social media account or even viewing mainstream news shows has encountered waves of confusing and conflicting information about the virus, its origins, its spread and how it can be countered. These waters got even muddier this week when reports emerged that, according to the Washington Post, the “State Department blames ‘swarms of online, false personas’ from Russia for wave of coronavirus misinformation online.” The headline reminded me of the counterterrorism era of the mid-2000s when everything that went boom in the world must have been al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda-linked or al-Qaeda-like. The more the US’s counterterrorism ranks grew, the more terrorists and terrorist connections popped up. 

Today we’ve reached a similar threshold in disinformation, where lots of Russia-hunters now seek out and find disinformation they believe to be Russian, Russia-linked or Russia-like. Russia will surely create and amplify disinformation about the coronavirus but they are but one of many disinformation peddlers out there today. A better understanding of the coronavirus disinformation threat actor spectrum and their intended objectives can help determine where counter disinfo efforts should focus today and later over the long term.  

What should we worry more about? Coronavirus or coronavirus disinformation?

Fear provokes emotions and creates vulnerability in our minds, paving the way for the acceptance of bogus information we’d usually not consider credible. Dr. David DeSteno discussed the challenge of coronavirus panic in his New York Times post last month: “When the emotions we feel aren’t calibrated for the threat or when we’re making judgments in domains where we have little knowledge or relevant information, our feelings become more likely to lead us astray.” This disinformation doorway is wide open today, leading to irrational societal behavior and troves of information sewage that are drowning out the experts we need to hear. Sure, we should be concerned about Russian disinformation over the longer term, but they are not even perhaps the most pervasive nation state regarding coronavirus misinformation nor the most prescient threat staring us in the face.

America and the world’s top concerns, in the near term, for thwarting coronavirus disinformation should focus on those actors that are:

  • Threatening public safety
    • The number of variants in this regard are too many to count, but three examples are:
      • Inciting panic 
      • Undermining medical professionals with pseudoscience
      • Offering fake cures for COVID-19 and selling bogus products
  • Stressing financial markets
    • Examples are:  
      • Creating runs on banks by telling people to secure their cash
      • Manipulating market trends through selling/buying panic
      • Opportunistic targeting of companies based on coronavirus
  • Advancing racism that provokes conflict 
    • Recent examples of this are:

These forms of acute disinformation require an immediate response. The US’s social media companies have responded sharply to this threat, but governments have been slower to refute these conspiracies as they struggle to keep up with the necessary logistical response to coronavirus  and maintain their credibility as public messengers.

Over the longer term, the more enduring Advanced Persistent Manipulators (APM), nation states, political groups and public relations firms will try to distort reality and perceptions over who or what caused the coronavirus outbreak.  Countering this disinformation will require a sustained, persistent refutation from the U.S. and Western governments.  

Figure 1 (below) shows a quick breakdown of the many actor sets perpetrating coronavirus disinformation and offers a recommendation for how we might collectively respond to the coronavirus disinformation challenge. 

  • Fraudsters & Pranksters – High Impact, Near-Term Risk

The greatest near-term disinformation threat are those perpetrating frauds to incite fear for growing their online following, influence audiences to buy bogus products or generate quick ad revenue. They will continue to proliferate disinformation on fringe websites and via pop-up ads, amplify conspiracies through computational propaganda (i.e. bots) and push digital forgeries including deepfakes. Their output will be the highest of all perpetrators and most will be unsophisticated in their development and delivery. Social media companies will police them quickly, but the sheer volume of perpetrators in this category will be difficult to keep up with in the near term. These lower-tech disinfo creators will also iterate quickly with their bogus narratives and schemes, providing content ammunition to more sophisticated long-term disinformation threats.

  • Companies & Their Competitors – High Impact, Near-Term Risk

Coronavirus has created rarely seen market gyrations. It’s a ripe opportunity for corporate opportunists to seize on public fear to manipulate market trends to their advantage, tarnish competitors or move niche products. Fringe websites, pop-up ads and computational propaganda from these grifters will be a problem in the near-term and can cause harm to consumers and the public at large. The output will be the lowest of the disinformation peddlers, but likely a bit more sophisticated since these perpetrators have a bit of money. This will be a risk in the near-term and will wane over time as people begin to calibrate their fear to correspond with the actual, rather than perceived, threat of coronavirus.

  • Political & Social Groups – Mixed Impact, Long-Term Risk

After the initial spike in fraudsters, political and social groups dove into the disinformation stew. Their content differs from financially motivated peddlers as they not only want to influence audiences, but see the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to discredit adversaries, provoke conflict with rivals and ultimately distort reality about the causes and response to the virus. Political and social group output is accelerating and will remain steady with a variety of sophistication in methods. There is a decent degree of near-term risk from this largely domestic disinformation source as it hampers appropriate response to the outbreak and, over the long-term, poses a high risk to democracies.  Bickering over who is to blame for an inadequate COVID-19 response will make it difficult to know what did and did not work in containing the outbreak, will erode trust in essential institutions (like the CDC) and will leave countries again un- or under-prepared for future outbreaks of deadly diseases and pandemics.

  • Nation States – Persistent, Long-Term High Risk

Nation states that persistently disseminate disinformation will absolutely create false narratives about the coronavirus outbreak. Their output will be steady, their sophistication higher on average and over the longer term. The big three—Russia, Iran and China—will use state-sponsored news to advance a few chosen narratives about the outbreak that develop or amplify pseudoscience and revised histories about the coronavirus’s origin and its spread. Over the near term, this will be of lower risk. However, over the long term, if not challenged, nation-state disinformation, will be extremely damaging to the United States due to its persistence. Nation states will push this sustained disinformation in their own languages to cast doubt and assert blame on America. They’ll also program this same disinformation in their near abroad, via local languages on local platforms (hypothetical example: the French language in Africa) and amongst their allies to undermine confidence in the U.S. and create distance between their authoritarian sphere of influence and the West. Finally, these authoritarian regimes will inject bogus conspiracies into American audiences seeking to incite conflict amongst the public and use the coronavirus to drive a wedge between competing groups.  

Is it Russia? Or are there other nations at play in coronavirus disinformation?

Talk of Russian disinformation has quickly emerged and the Russians have and will continue to advance charges against the U.S., but they are not alone or even perhaps the most pervasive in doing so. Kremlin disinformation against the U.S., and that of other authoritarian regimes, will be consistent and persistent in laying blame for the coronavirus outbreak through a range of similar conspiratorial narratives. They’ll also blame an inadequate global response to contain the outbreak on the U.S.  

Much like the Soviet Union’s notorious Operation Infektion where Russia convinced large swaths of foreign populations the U.S. was responsible for the AIDS epidemic, American adversaries will use repetition to drive the narrative into targeted audiences that it’s the U.S. that’s at fault for the coronavirus outbreak and its impact. Thus far, the chosen narrative appears to be that the U.S. created the coronavirus as a biological weapon. Russia has gotten a good deal of attention thus far for advancing such conspiracies, but I’d assess Iran has advanced this false narrative to a higher degree and the Russian disinformation ecosystem elevates it even further. Iran’s suffering from the coronavirus outbreak and its inability to contain it incentivizes them to churn out a substantial amount of disinformation pointing to the U.S. as a culprit. China also seems to be pushing disinformation, but thus far it’s more focused on reshaping world opinions about the Chinese response to the outbreak being superior to that of other countries, particularly that of the U.S. (Russia and Iran also appear to be boosting the narrative that China’s capabilities and its global response are superior to those of the U.S.)

What should we do to contain the disinformation outbreak about the Covid-19 outbreak?

Western governments, and particularly the United States, can help us all by putting forth top experts in public forums and in a timely, routine manner to give the public good information about coronavirus, its spread and the response.  

The social media companies seem to be working overtime to quell the spike in coronavirus disinformation, but their triaging systems are likely overwhelmed. The platforms can, and seem to be trying, to elevate accurate information about coronavirus, mitigating its spread and treating the outbreak. We social media users can help by continually flagging nonsense we see about coronavirus. We can also help stop the spread of disinformation by improving our own evaluation of information sources and the experts to whom we listen and amplify. Tricks in this regard, which I learned in U.S. government intelligence training and discussed in Messing With The Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News, are the following. 

When one sees shady coronavirus news on social media, three quick questions to ask are:

  • Who wrote or made this coronavirus information?  
    • If the person that made the information won’t attach their name to it or you believe uses a pseudonym, then there’s likely a reason—usually, it’s because the information they’ve provided isn’t very good.
  • Where is the source of this coronavirus information physically located in the world?
    • If one can’t figure out where in the world the information is coming from, then the information outlet may not want people to find it because they cannot or do not want to stand behind the information they are producing.
  • How does this information source on coronavirus make its money?
    • Most reputable outlets offer subscriptions or host ads. If one can’t figure out how an information outlet makes its money, then that may indicate an entity behind the scenes is using the outlet for manipulative purposes.

When one tries to evaluate the expertise of someone writing or speaking about coronavirus, there are three quick checks for evaluating an expert:

  • What are their certifications? 
    • We should all be looking for doctors and public health experts in this time of crisis.
  • What is their experience with diseases and epidemics?
    • Not all doctors are equally experienced with coronavirus. Does the expert have a particular specialty in infectious diseases, epidemics and responding to epidemics? 
  • What is the data and analysis they are using?
    • The expert should be using talking points from the best available statistics about the coronavirus and their analysis about how it should proceed. Discussions of other epidemics can be helpful, but may or may not apply to what’s happening to today.