Although Russian and Chinese disinformation does exist, their trolls often just pick up what we, the Americans, “created” themselves, writes the author of the American publication. For example, persistent rumors that the coronavirus was created by scientists and spread by “escaping” from a laboratory in China, began with a tweet from an American woman. Studying disinformation is a bit like the work of a virologist: the object of your research is difficult to detect, the symptoms can vary greatly, and most importantly, it can be difficult to determine the source. This is especially true for the study of misinformation about coronavirus.
In contrast to the incorrect information, disinformation, not just inaccurate: it is actively aimed at misleading. In social networks, they may seem identical, because the semantic content is sometimes the same. In practice, both can be equally dangerous, especially now. Evidence-based information is important for public health, especially when it comes to something relevant, such as how we respond to a new coronavirus that is spreading in our localities. Online misinformation during a health crisis is fraught with consequences that literally affect people’s lives in the real world. It is easy to blame foreign interested forces, such as the Russians and Chinese, for spreading misinformation on social networks. That would be the right thing to do, but it wouldn’t be enough. Unfortunately, foreign interested forces are not the worst thing. The greatest danger is ourselves, the Americans.
Our own” production ” of disinformation is thriving. Anything from false hope instilled by fake medicines to the creation of politically motivated memes and hashtags can create confusion or panic that makes it difficult to respond consistently and intelligently to a crisis. These actions have worsened the crisis, and as a result, people will be dying or are dying now.
Although Russian and Chinese disinformation that serves to spread various myths about coronavirus does exist, foreign interested forces often simply select what we, the Americans, “created” ourselves. Instead of making up myths, taking information “from the ceiling”, hostile foreign countries take the false information that we give them, and, “washing and smoothing” it, turn it into disinformation.
Take, for example, the persistent rumors that the virus was created by scientists (this is not true) and spread by “escaping” from a laboratory in China (this is not true). This theory was not created in a Troll factory in St. Petersburg or in a GRU bunker in Moscow (the GRU is the Main Directorate of Russian military intelligence). According to our research, the first English-language tweet that suggested this theory was published on January 20. Its author was an unnamed American woman with conservative views who claims in her profile that she loves Jesus, her family, her country, her freedom, and her weapons. Lest you think this reflects some kind of ideological bias, note that the second English-language tweet was posted the next day by a liberal, a University academic with a blue checkmark on the account. The creation and dissemination of disinformation do not imply discrimination on the basis of ideology.
Foreign forces are, of course, able to create their own myths and fakes, and this is especially true for health issues. Indeed, the Russians have been doing just that for a long time. In the 1980s, the Soviet KGB successfully propagated the myth that AIDS was a biological weapon created by the CIA. More recently, the Internet Research Agency (a disinformation organization made famous by the Mueller investigation) spread false health rumors on social media at an early stage of its operation.
For some time, Russian trolls used this tactic, but with less success. For example, in 2014, they fabricated panic-inducing materials, including fakes about an Ebola outbreak in Atlanta and an outbreak of salmonellosis in upstate new York (associated with typically American thanksgiving turkeys!). Despite the fact that the Russians posted a variety of content on the Internet, including videos and photos that “illustrated events”, and used hundreds of accounts in social networks to spread their fakes, they did not achieve tangible results in their activities. Research has shown that most social media users don’t actually distribute fake content. Although Americans often say that they do not trust the “leading” media in matters related to events in the country in real-time, they probably still trust them. In 2015, after these failed attempts, the Russian Internet Research Agency changed its tactics. It stopped fabricating news stories and instead of creating fakes, it began to rely on real events and real comments, taking advantage of our instability and concern about what we know (or think we know). Instead of bombarding a wide audience with the information distributed through anonymous accounts, the AII began to involve members of the left-and right-wing community in this process, providing them with specially selected messages. This tactic covered health-related issues, including vaccination and climate change, as well as a range of other topics.
Under the new strategy, the Agency stopped creating fakes and started telling people what to think, what to feel, and how to perceive existing information about events, which often meant moving from spreading misinformation to inculcating opinions and interpretations. It turns out that the latter is more effective and efficient. Telling people what they want to hear, rather than what you want to force on them, can be much more persuasive. In other cases, such as with anti-vaccination materials, this tactic meant participating in today’s discussions and spreading the lies that America had already told itself. This is facilitated by the fact that Americans, regardless of their ideological preferences, create a lot of controversial content that can be borrowed. Russians don’t have to go far to find a juicy meme or infuriating video to post it online in order to arouse resentment among their followers and make them hate their opponents even more.
The same continues to apply to misinformation about coronavirus. In the course of our research, we found many networks with fictitious accounts (one of which we can link to Russia) that use discussions about coronavirus as a tool for political attacks. In front of right-wing Americans, these trolls criticize the reaction of liberals, claim that the coronavirus is being used to take away their freedom, and blame China for spreading it. In front of left-wing Americans, they claim that the administration’s response is immoral and inadequate, and blame trump. Both these and other arguments are made by real Americans, as a rule, guided by good intentions. However, trolls use these attacks to achieve their goals, and so they repeat them, promoting the loudest and most unsightly of them. Thus, in times of crisis, they escalate existing differences to the limit, making it even more difficult to reach a much-needed compromise. As before, these networks use hashtags from comments by Americans themselves, such as #TrumpLiedPeopleDied and #ReopenAmerica. They do not sow discord, but they try in every possible way to exacerbate it.
However, foreign misinformation is fueled not only by our hashtags and memes. In 2016, trolls from the Internet Research Agency regularly retweeted and reposted websites that spread conspiracy theories, for example, Naturalnews.com and Infowars.com, created by Alex Jones. In recent weeks, these websites have been discussing the theory of the origin of the coronavirus in a Chinese laboratory, as well as other panic-and hysteria-inducing materials related to the virus. Since then, such fake materials have appeared on social networks thousands of times. Among the accounts that distribute these materials are Pro-Russian and influential social networks linked to Russian state media. However, it is worth noting that these sites continue to attract misinformation that was once distributed by the KGB. For example, in 2019, they posted materials about a conspiracy theory that the CIA was secretly involved in spreading HIV. These companies may not have an explicit intention to spread misinformation, and most likely just expect to profit from it. But they, like many companies like them, are already profiting by repeating the actions of foreign States trying to undermine our security.
Many commentators have discussed various actions by the United States that have made the coronavirus crisis more serious than it could (or should) be. To this list must be added the role of the public itself in spreading global misinformation. We must pay attention to the fact that we are to blame for the problems associated with the spread of misinformation. At a time when most of the news and information that people absorb is socially mediated, we should have citizens and platforms that are more resistant to lies and more receptive to facts.
But first of all, we must stop helping trolls and doing what they do.