Our previous article described some of the bizarre speculations and conspiracy theories circulating about the COVID-19 pandemic—ranging from the more or less plausible, but unproven, to the absurd. Many of them, such as 5G networks supposedly spreading infections or the pandemic having been concocted to promote tyrannical, world governance, are easily dismissed, but are still being widely circulated on social media.
What's more, it appears that much of the disinformation has arisen not just from domestic, garden-variety kooks and conspiracy theorists, but also from foreign propaganda sources—the often sophisticated and nefarious machinations of foreign governments. It seems the anti-technology propagandists are getting more than a little help from foreign collaborators.
The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by a tsunami of false information that makes finding solutions more difficult—what the World Health Organization calls an "infodemic." These orchestrated disinformation campaigns are consistent with the longstanding, ongoing attempts by foreign interests to promulgate propaganda that sows dissension in, humiliates, and discredits the West.
MEDICAL DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGNS: SOVIET STYLE
American conservatives have every right to be skeptical of charges of "Russian interference." The theory has been used by the left as a political bludgeon, implying that Trump supporters are all Russian bots. But foreign interference exists, and can take on different forms. The fact that some Democrats constantly cry wolf—"Russia, Russia Russia"—doesn't mean that the Russian information warfare is imaginary.
Russia's health-related disinformation and propaganda campaigns are nothing new. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union concocted an elaborate disinformation scheme, called Operation INFEKTION, to blame the appearance of HIV and AIDS on U.S. military research. "Western intelligence services were most commonly tasked with gathering information, but their Soviet bloc counterparts placed much greater emphasis on deception operations to influence opinions or actions of individuals and governments. These 'active measures' (aktivinyye meropriatia, as the Soviets called them) included manipulation and media control, written and oral disinformation," writes historian Thomas Boghardt.
The campaign to implicate the United States in the AIDS pandemic was one such measure: the Soviets first planted the story in a sympathetic Indian newspaper, and then followed it up with other fake stories that cited the initial report.
The TV "news channel" RT (formerly Russia Today), which has its roots in Pravda, the Kremlin's English-language propaganda arm, is an important mouthpiece for Russian President Vladimir Putin's agenda. A 2017 report from the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence found that the network uses the internet and social media to conduct "strategic messaging for the Russian government" and that its programming aims "at undermining viewers' trust of U.S. democratic procedures" and technologies in which U.S. research, development, and application are preeminent.
According to the DNI's report, for example, RT became a platform to push anti-fracking disinformation in order to damage the American shale industry. As an indication of the lengths to which Russia will go to foment strife and divisiveness in the U.S., in 2016, Russian agents organized both anti-Islam and pro-Islam protests in the same location at the same time, using separate Facebook pages operated from a troll farm in St. Petersburg.
A study by a group of American academics published in 2018 in the American Journal of Public Health found that thousands of Russian social media accounts have spread anti-vaccine messaging. From the examination of almost two million tweets posted between 2014 and 2017, the researchers found that Russian troll accounts were significantly more likely to tweet about vaccination than were Twitter users generally. They noted that Russian tweets like "Apparently only the elite get 'clean' #vaccines. And what do we, normal ppl, get?!" seem intended to exacerbate socioeconomic tensions in the United States.
Russia's sophisticated, massive, and secretive propaganda apparatus, whose headquarters are at the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, has been active in spreading all sorts of coronavirus conspiracies. On February 3rd, following the World Health Organization's declaration of a COVID-19 coronavirus global health emergency, an obscure Twitter account in Moscow began retweeting an American blog charging that the virus was a biological weapon. The headline called the evidence "irrefutable," even though top scientists had already debunked that claim and declared the novel virus to be natural.
A similar false claim was about the supposed origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus: that Japanese Nobel laureate Tasuku Honjo had alleged that the new coronavirus is not natural and that China manufactured it. This was also widely shared on social media. Professor Honjo has categorically denied making such a statement.
In March, another dangerous example of Russian disinformation came to light when RT and Sputnik broadcast that hand-washing was ineffective against the coronavirus. Another "alternative news source" in Russia reported that there was no pandemic and that the deaths in Italy were the common flu, according to Laura Cooper, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia.
It's not just Russian news outlets; bots have played a prominent role in social media's propagation of medical disinformation. According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, almost half of the Twitter accounts posting messages about the coronavirus pandemic are probably bots. Researchers culling through more than 200 million tweets that discussed the virus since January found that about 45% were sent by accounts that behave more like bots than humans. They also identified more than 100 false narratives about COVID-19. As NPR reported last month:
It is too early to say conclusively which individuals or groups are behind the bot accounts, but researchers said the tweets appeared aimed at sowing division in America ... "We do know that it looks like it's a propaganda machine, and it definitely matches the Russian and Chinese playbooks, but it would take a tremendous amount of resources to substantiate that," said Kathleen Carley, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who is conducting a study into bot-generated coronavirus activity on Twitter.
THE CHINA CONNECTION
Of course, a conversation about strategic disinformation campaigns mounted by foreign interests would be incomplete without considering China. According to the New York Times, "Chinese officials and institutions have spread talking points centered on two narratives: that the United States is to blame for the origins of the [SARS-CoV-2] virus and that the Communist Party has successfully contained the virus after a hard-fought campaign, affirming the superiority of its system."
On March 12th, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, posted a link on Twitter to what he described as a "very much important" article that falsely attributed the origins of the coronavirus to the U.S. (It's interesting to note that the platform is blocked in China). This widely-censured gesture was only the tip of the iceberg.
An Oxford University study released last year reports that "China has become a major player in the global disinformation order. Until the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, most evidence of Chinese computational propaganda occurred on domestic platforms such as Weibo, WeChat, and QQ. But China's new-found interest in aggressively using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube should raise concerns for democracies."
"China has adopted Russia's playbook for more covert operations, mimicking Kremlin disinformation campaigns and even using and amplifying some of the same conspiracy sites," according to the New York Times. Those tactics, of course, include trolls, bots, and relentless conspiracy-mongering.
Twitter is well aware of China's use of its platform to sway public opinion and influence events. In August and September of 2019, the company suspended more than 5,000 suspected Chinese state-controlled accounts and released data about them. It also banned around 200,000 related accounts that had been created but were not yet very active. "Overall, these accounts were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground. Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation," Twitter reports.
For the past two years, ProPublica, an independent investigative press organization, has tracked more than 10,000 suspected fake Twitter accounts involved in a coordinated influence campaign with ties to the Chinese government. These included hacked accounts of users from around the world that have been corrupted and used to post disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak. They include a professor in North Carolina; a graphic artist and a mother in Massachusetts; a web designer in the U.K.; and a business analyst in Australia. "Suspected Chinese operatives have stepped up their efforts in recent days, according to private messages shared with ProPublica, offering influential Chinese-speaking Twitter users cash for favorable posts," ProPublica writes.
"With the [COVID-19] epidemic spreading across the world, these accounts have sought to promote the Chinese government's image abroad," according to ProPublica. They cite a typical tweet that proclaimed, "We were not scared during the outbreak because our country was our rearguard. Many disease-fighting warriors were thrust to the front lines. Even more volunteers helped in seemingly trivial yet important ways."
It sounds to these Americans' ears as though the Chinese propagandists may be prolific, but could use a lesson in subtlety.
MEDICAL DISINFORMATION CAN BE LETHAL
Disinformation operations are widespread. The 2019 Oxford Study found that at least 70 countries worldwide have active disinformation campaigns. "Governments are spreading disinformation to discredit political opponents, bury opposing views and interfere in foreign affairs," writes the New York Times.
And while this might be par for the course in the realms of geopolitics, and seeking commercial advantage, (such as Russia's disparaging of American technologies), these tactics are dangerous—even deadly—when the domain is scientific and medical knowledge.
Russia's using trolls and bots to foment controversy about vaccines in the United States has no apparent commercial motivation, but seems calculated only to stimulate divisiveness and harm the health of Americans.
Council on Foreign Relations Fellow David Fidler points out that disinformation is a menace to public health "because it undermines confidence in the underlying science, questions the motivations of health professionals, politicizes health activities, and creates problems for responses to disease challenges."
He cites as an example the (mis-)use of social media platforms, such as Facebook and WhatsApp, to blame foreigners for the presence and spread of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "Such messaging has informed attacks that armed factions have launched against Ebola treatment centers in the DRC as symbols of foreign meddling," he writes.
The Department of Defense's Laura Cooper is not optimistic about the future. "I think the most pernicious disinformation that we have to contend with is the disinformation that is sowing global ... mistrust and confusion ... messages that are endangering global health because they're undermining the efforts of governments, of health agencies and of organizations that are in charge of disseminating accurate information about the virus to the public," she said. "We're seeing a variety of actors around the world who are using COVID-19 to target or blame Western allies, or the United States in particular. And I really think ... of it as a global disinformation ecosystem where a news item that generates in one part of the world then gets amplified and picked up elsewhere."
Where does that leave us? Harvard University expert on mis- and disinformation Claire Wardle has said, "The best way to fight misinformation is to swamp the landscape with accurate information that is easy to digest, engaging and easy to share on mobile devices." And where should it come from? Most often, we believe, from sources such as the CDC and NIH, scientific journals like Science, Nature, Cell, and JAMA, and the online sites STAT, American Council on Science and Health, and Genetic Literacy Project.
And who should do it? All of us who believe that public policy and individual decision-making should be evidence-based. If we don't defend science, who will?
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Kathleen Hefferon, Ph.D., teaches microbiology at Cornell University.