In these polarizing times, COVID-19 (coronavirus) does not provide a political figure or nation-state to point at for blame. There is no one to go to war with, and no one to sanction. The entire world has been brought to its knees in a matter of months. Unfortunately, this is also a time that the unscrupulous have stepped out from the shadows offering promises of safety and security. We are in an era that has embraced outlandish conspiracies and alternative health treatments, across the globe, making us highly susceptible to threat actors taking advantage of the ignorant and vulnerable.
During a crisis, the combination of disinformation and misinformation can cause significant damage and even loss of life. The deliberate use of information warfare has been deployed for decades, by a number of countries around the world, and used as a virtual weapon against the United States, both in times of war and peace. Some threat actors are nation-states, while others are terrorist organizations. Today, at one of our most vulnerable moments in history, it’s imperative that harmful manipulation campaigns are detected before they cause serious damage to a community, or in this case, an entire nation.
There remains a lot of confusion around COVID-19 (Coronavirus). Medical professionals aren’t entirely sure of all of the methods of transmission, and in a flurry of panic, social media has overflowed with claims that are, literally, dangerous to the public. Self-proclaimed natural health experts are giving medical advice without a medical degree or experience, suggesting that vitamins be taken at such a high dose that it is considered to be near-lethal with long-term use. A cure-all liquid is being called a ‘miracle supplement’ and contains an industrial bleaching agent. (We are not going to offer links to these sources to avoid further amplification to these stories.)
The question remains — why do such claims get traction, attention and eager participants?
Threat Actors Prey on Fearful People
Between synthetic amplification that is infecting social media, and the increase of YouTube videos with high production value, many people fall prey to disinformation in trying times. The trend over the last several decades has been to be suspicious of government and mainstream medicine, which makes the current pandemic featuring global government clampdowns the perfect fertile breeding ground to stoke the wildest of narratives. This suspicion germanates from a combination of bad actors in governments and the pharmaceutical industry, and medical insurance and healthcare workers who overprescribe drugs at predatory profits to the detriment of the public leading to things like the opioids crisis.
We are all united in our fear and fear is a force multiplier for disinformation and conspiracies.
These are genuine challenges which are further exacerbated by conspiracy theories that have been pushed since the cold war, by adversaries targeting governments and pharmaceutical companies as being sinister. As a result of these powerful narratives, we have witnessed many people gravitate toward the opposite of reason, by embracing ideas, treatments, and products which aren’t based in science and are often quite dangerous. From cancer patients taking placebos instead of chemotherapy to the anti-vax movement and 5G, when people are in a state of panic and fear, they lose the common sense they might have had, once had in a desperate grasp to get better or feel less frightened. This phenomenon is now happening to a global population as a result of COVID-19.
Pandemic Conspiracies Are Not New
Disinformation campaigns regarding viruses and the health of the world have been gradually gaining speed. You might be surprised to learn that one of the first of these campaigns began in 1983, with a story that was created in a New Dehli publication stating that the AIDS virus was created by the U.S. government to kill African-Americans and homosexuals. There was additional disinformation from “scientists for hire” that validate the story, and it began to spread throughout Africa. Eventually, this fabricated information showed up on U.S. mainstream news; and it was all created by the Russian KGB.
The multimillion-dollar effort by the KGB was to change the ideology of the opinions of Americans so that even with an abundance of data and facts, Americans would hear a disinformation narrative so many times that it would become accepted as truth for many.
Unlike today, with instantaneous information sharing, the early lies that were shared on a much slower trajectory. Experimenting with campaigns, the KGB experienced success as they continued to spread disinformation in the 80s. It was especially effective with a topic such as HIV, that already had much of the world living in fear, while other governments and our brightest reporters began to believe the stories. There was little in the way of funding to fight and debunk these lies, as no one quite understood how far-reaching these campaigns and more physical threats such as nuclear weapons always took precedence today.
When we hear the word “pandemic” people are instantly put into a condition of fear. Fear reduces the ability for critical thinking and this opens the door to be vulnerable to everything from bad treatment advice to the wildest of conspiracy theories.
The 2002 outbreak of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus in China created an entirely new condition when it crossed socio-political boundaries. The crisis in China expanded into a full-on internal crackdown, while their refusal to become involved in sharing their information with the rest of the world sparked a period of panic, anxiety, and rumor-mongering within and outside of their country. Unfortunately, it changed perceptions and set a new standard for disinformation.
Fast forward to the outbreak of SARS in 2012 and the 2014 Ebola virus. We had entered the global information sharing ecosystem presented by a combination of smartphones and social media which became the perfect ground for the continued advancement of disinformation. The World Health Organization (WHO) worked overtime with nations around the globe to keep people informed with the truth as well as address the rumors of bad medical advice that were being shared. It’s understood that people are often in a state of desperation and the quackery needed to be stopped before individuals suffered the consequences. An example of this occurred in Nigeria during the height of the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Social media channels were telling Nigerians to drink saltwater solutions and some that did suffer horrible consequences.
During pandemic outbreaks, decades of targeted propaganda, movies and even actual bad faith actions that have been taken by various global governments make it very easy to elevate suspicion around government intention situations that illicit fear.
Organizations such as the IRA pride themselves on taking advantage of a fearful environment, creating propaganda videos specifically aimed at those who are the most vulnerable. These are then shared, and re-shared, until they become part of a mainstream belief for many. Similarly, we are seeing social media disinformation being shared at an alarming rate, for sham “treatments” including some of the most bizarre and ridiculous that one could imagine. From the use of garlic, to the deadly ingestion of chlorine dioxide, people are putting their health at risk because “they saw it on the internet.”
Conspiracies are so powerful that they can drive real-world behavior from online chatter. One of the most famous examples in recent years was “pizzagate’, but in the last week alone there have been two major events related to COVID-19 conspiracies about “deep state cabals” with nefarious plots.
These narratives resulted in a security detail being assigned to Dr. Faucci after numerous death threats.
Another conspiracy narrative motivated a train engineer to derail his train in hopes of destroying a Navy Hospital ship.
In Iran, 600 people died and 3000 hospitalized using a dangerous medical hoax to protect themselves against coronavirus.
It is clear, that online conspiracies can be incredibly powerful and can drive outlandish and harmful behavior among impressionable and fearful people.
A nurse wears protective gear at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in Seattle on March 17, 2020. (NBC News)
We are in dire need of information integrity that can intelligently compare all forms of data instantly, and then offer up what is manipulated, and what is not. The mere fact that so many people adopt extreme approaches, because they heard it, or read about it on the internet, is an extremely dangerous facet of our social attitude. Creators of disinformation have the goals of triggering an emotional response and causing public outcry, for the express purpose of influencing actions, policies, and events. However, sheer human assessment is insufficient to detect, deter, and mitigate malicious disinformation campaigns in light of the vast penetration and reach of both traditional and social media.
Only the use of automated computerized systems running at scale can detect, sort, identify, and characterize the immense volumes of data measured in exabytes that are generated every day across the globe.
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.
To find out more about our team and the Blackbird.AI Mission visit us at www.blackbird.ai
CEO at Blackbird.AI