Carefully planned posts on Twitter by Russian and Chinese sources are using the COVID-19 pandemic to spread discord in the west. The apparent goal is to confuse people about the facts of the disease, to discredit official sources of information, and where possible to degrade confidence in the ability of western governments to deal with the resulting crisis.
Today, at one of our most vulnerable moments in history, the United States is detecting a substantial amount of targeted disinformation
To accomplish this, official sources, such as Russia’s Sputnik news agency, began reporting that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s, condition with the coronavirus had become so serious that he’d been placed on a ventilator. News reports from some outlets began to take this information and ran stories about how he might have to turn over the reins of power. Others interviewed sources saying that a ventilator for Johnson was inevitable.
Meanwhile, Chinese Twitter accounts began a series of reports saying that the coronavirus was actually a bioweapon gone wrong, and had been released by agents of the U.S. Army while they were in Wuhan, China, in November. The Chinese charges began to appear in social media, and eventually in news stories in some outlets in the U.S.
“Today, at one of our most vulnerable moments
in history, the United States is detecting a substantial amount of targeted disinformation campaigns in many countries and many are directed against the United States,” said Wasim Khaled, CEO and co-founder of Blackbird.AI in an email. “During a crisis, the combination of disinformation and malicious malinformation can cause significant damage and even loss of life,” he explained.
“It’s incredibly broad range,” said Tony Barrett, strategist at the West End Strategy Team. “The Russians are reliably attempting to sew discord in the west. It’s not surprising that they’re doing that now.”
Barrett also notes that not all disinformation happens at the hands of state actors trying to weaken the west. Some of it, he said, is spread in cynical attempts to turn the COVID-19 pandemic into a means of making a profit. “The premature pushing of drugs for treating COVID-19 is particularly irresponsible and problematic,” he said. He noted that some of this disinformation has been picked up at the highest levels of government.
“There are a couple of things happening in terms of disinformation and amplification involving COVID-19”, said Casey Ellis, CTO and founder of Bugcrowd, including drugs that might be helpful to treat or prevent the virus.
Ellis, who said his company’s involvement in tracking disinformation came from his work in election security. “COVID-19 has increased the vulnerabilities and the ability to monkey with the outcome of the election. It is very real,” he said.
“Much of the disinformation we’ve seen is the classic scamming,” he added. Ellis said that this involves fake information that will then get people to fall for classic phishing attacks by promising a cure or other solution for the disease. Ellis said that one of the results of this disinformation is the panic buying that’s shown up in countries impacted by the coronavirus.
“This includes a series of campaigns that are intended to get social security details for identity theft,” he said. These campaigns promise access to some critically needed commodity, such as masks, or even perhaps toilet paper, and then promise to provide those items by entering a credit card number and other personal information.
“In a recent analysis of almost 50 million social media posts examined over a period of 20 days,” Khaled explained, “one of the core themes that was discovered is the delegitimization of news organizations and politicians in the weeks prior to the COVID-19 pandemic taking hold in the United States. The goal of this campaign was to downplay health risks across the American public, and to cast doubt on the critical warnings and directions given by the U.S. Government, state and local officials, public health agencies, and experts in the field.”
“The second critical disinformation campaign that we discovered has gained significant traction globally, and was a conspiracy theory that the U.S. had bioengineered COVID-19 and introduced it into China with the U.S. Army,” Khaled said.
“This malicious content was seeded into public media in China, and within hours it was rapidly distributed by social media users who believed these narratives and then amplified them. Drafting on these growing narratives, Chinese government officials started publicly denying that the Coronavirus started in Hubei province, and they even cited conspiracy websites claiming the U.S. was responsible for the virus.”
Notably, many of those conspiracy sites are home-grown U.S. disinformation sites that were created for their creators’ own political agendas.
Blackbird.AI has published an exhaustive report on COVID-19 disinformation in the U.S. and Europe. The findings included disinformation attacking European fears involving the EU’s recent immigration crisis.
What to Do
One of the reasons that disinformation of the type we’re seeing surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is so hard to fight is because it frequently follows a campaign of media delegitimization. Especially in state-sponsored disinformation, the so-called “mainstream” media is discredited. But this also happens with disinformation that’s designed to cover up fraud by citing facts that the media “doesn’t want you to know.”
For consumers of media, this means that you need to look at multiple independent sources of information. It doesn’t necessarily matter what sources those may be, but rather that they are independent. If they all agree, then whatever the information you’re considering might be true.
“There’s potential for it being a false flag action,” Ellis said. This means that the information you’re seeing on social media may not have come from the place it claims to be from. He also noted that just because disinformation appears to be from a nation state actor, that doesn’t mean that’s always true, because it could also be from a fraudster trying gain legitimacy. He said that this is made worse by what he calls “sock puppets,” which are social media accounts usually belonging to bots, that serve to amplify the claims.
“It is critical to understand and forensically determine where malicious content originated, who shared it or created it, when it was created, what accounts shared it, and what types of content they shared in the past,” Khaled said. “Current crises develop quickly and can easily overwhelm authorities, even at the nation-state level, and the ability to understand what’s real and what’s not is paramount to save lives.”