February 21, 2020

Coronavirus: The makings of a disinformation pandemic?

*Postscript: This blog was published before the current pandemic of the virus. As the rate of infections and virus have spread globally, so have continued misinformation and disinformation about it. This has endangered efforts to control the coronavirus. The GDI will focus its efforts on mapping these coronavirus related conspiracies over the coming weeks and months.

The spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) has triggered worldwide panic and frenzy of news coverage. Headlines each day bill the uptick in cases and deaths.

Yet disinformation about the virus is spreading faster than the virus itself. According to The World Health Organization, the virus has been reported in 26 countries. In the past month, fact-checkers from 39 countries have worked to debunk 495 falsehoods in 15 languages. That’s more countries than the virus is present.

The case of the coronavirus shows four typical patterns that we at GDI have seen across different types of disinformation campaigns:

  1. Official information and data are twisted to disinform:

Disinformation (e.g. ominous groups causing the virus) and misinformation (e.g. preventatives or cures) are overlapping with stories on the coronavirus.

Take the case of the number of “worldwide” deaths, for example. It seems that every news source from CNN to Russia Today is eager to share figures that imply Covid-19 is an issue globally. The World Health Organization reports that there are currently over 75,000 cases and more than 2,000 deaths. Yet, in truth, China accounts for 98% of the cases and 99% of deaths, according to the most recent data.

Disinformation, misinformation and sensationalist reporting like calling 1% of deaths "worldwide" are combining together in a toxic soup of poor information.

Such alarmist framing makes the threat seem far more immient to audiences around the world, and that provides fertile ground for the growth of malicious, potentially harmful conspiracies.

Information is being distorted in other ways too. Wikipedia, one of the top visited platforms for information about the virus - with 18 million unique views - is a trusted source for everything from celebrity bios to country statistics. Yet network administrators have had to shut down editing privileges on the coronavirus page due to the introduction of conspiracies, misconstrued evidence, and false information. Since January 3, 2020, the page has undergone “more than 6,500 edits by over 1,200 editors.”

2. Adversarial narratives are being pushed using the coronavirus as the strawman

Like most disinformation campaigns, rumors - here related to the coronavirus - began to appear on fringe news sites, social media, and health journals almost immediately after the first cases were reported.

Many of these rumors share clear propaganda messaging, what the GDI has termed “adversarial narratives,” which serves as the connective tissue between them. Related narratives promote conspiracy theories against China and the US - and even Bill Gates - as the sinister forces behind the virus.

For example, InfoWars is touting the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus is a bioweapon that was developed by the US and unleashed by China:

New theories regarding coronavirus often build on existing adversarial narratives from topics like 5G and vaccines. For example, one debunked theory claims that Wuhan was the first region to implement 5G technology and that the virus is actually a result of the damaging effects of 5G signals. While these topics may seem unrelated, tying new theories into established disinformation networks allows disinformation actors to build on existing beliefs, reach new audiences, and increase the perception of threat. Understanding how narratives form cross-topical networks is essential to design effective interventions.

3. Disinformation campaigns are being picked up by mainstream media

Adversarial narrative messaging succeeds as a disinformation tactic when it infiltrates even mainstream and trusted media sources. This has repeatedly happened on various news sites covering the coronavirus.

For example, the Daily Express, a UK newspaper, had published a now-proven false map that promoted the theory that the Chinese government is covering up the extent of the virus by rapidly cremating its victims, thus producing increased levels of sulfur dioxide in the air. (The GDI assessed the Daily Express for its disinformation risks as part of its study of the UK media market).

Adversarial narratives “win” as a weapon of disinformation when they are laundered and repeated by trusted sources, even when the sources do not explicitly endorse them. For example, US Senator Tom Cotton implied during a TV interview on Fox News, and since has repeatedly reiterated the position, that the coronavirus may have originated as a bioweapon in a Chinese “super lab.” By broadcasting the Senator’s words to a national audience, this debunked conspiracy theory is given authority, validation and amplification.

These editorial breaches in mainstream media relate to their overall operational check-and-balances. Omer Ben Jacob at Wired explains that the fight to counter the spread of publicly facing disinformation across mainstream media channels has been majorly challenged by the relatively small teams that moderate platforms and run online news teams. There’s too much disinformation to sort through on the coronavirus and too few people. Even with oversight, too many adversarial narratives can fall through the cracks.

4. Disinformation actors are making money off the issue

Lastly, we see those that monetise disinformation are also trying to cash in on the coronavirus.

The GDI believes that part of the disinformation problem is that actors are in it for financial gain - whether for the ads on their sites or the merchandise they push. The GDI estimates that disinformation sites rake in revenues of nearly a quarter billion dollars each year from the ads that appear on the sites.

For example, here are ads for well-known brands like Made.com appearing on www.zerohedge.com, a previously flagged disinformation news site, next to an article about the coronavirus that interweaves various conspiracy theories about it with real facts.

Also, questionable news sites that push debunked theories are monetising their products on the back of the coronavirus.

For example, a well-known US-based televangelist is selling his own US$125 silver solution on his own website as he also promotes the theory that this “remedy” can build your immunity against the coronavirus.

The Take-Away

Disinformation campaigns related to pandemics have been used to scare citizens for decades. The coronavirus is unfortunately nothing new.

According to Dr. Pano Yannakogergos of New York University (who is the faculty lead on Global Security, Conflict, and Cybercrime), “The spread of disinformation about COVID-19 reaffirms that any crisis (or virus) will be exploited by the disinformation machines of America’s geopolitical competitors.”

This harks back to days of past when Russia used health emergencies to undermine the US. One of the most famous scare campaigns was Russia’s “Operation Infection” in 1980. Foreign Policy Magazine suggests that “The KGB” spread information about HIV to “portray the virus as a U.S. biological weapon in a bid to undermine Washington’s standing in the world.” Thus, a whirlwind of conspiracies was born.

Today, while the tactics remain the same, the methods of spreading disinformation have become easier.

And thanks to programmatic advertising, viral marketing, and social networks, those proffering disinformation are able to reach their targets easier.

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