The Disinformation Olympics

The COVID-19 Infodemic has just begun.

In these polarizing times, the COVID-19 virus does not immediately provide a political figure or nation-state to blame. There are no armies or insurgents to go to war with, and no governments to sanction. In a matter of months, the entire world has been brought to its knees through the mounting stress on our healthcare systems, curtailments on free movement, and rising death tolls. Unfortunately, this is also a moment in which unscrupulous actors have stepped out from the shadows, offering promises of safety, security and reason. We are living in an era that has embraced outlandish conspiracies and alternative health treatments, rendering increasing numbers of us as highly susceptible to threat actors who seek to take advantage of our vulnerabilities.

During a crisis, the deployment of disinformation and misinformation into our information ecosystems can cause significant erosion of trust in societal institutions, harm to human health, or even loss of life. The deliberate use of information warfare has been leveraged for decades as a virtual weapon against the United States, both in times of war and in peace. Today, at one of our most vulnerable moments in history, it is imperative that harmful manipulation campaigns are detected before they are able to cause serious damage to our society at both the community and national levels.

At the time of writing, there remains much still unknown about the COVID-19 virus. Medical professionals are yet to definitively understand its methods of transmission, symptoms or potential cures or preventions. In a flurry of panic, social media now overflows with claims that pose a significant danger to public health (ones which we deliberately do not provide links to avoid further amplification of this disinformation). Self-proclaimed natural health experts give medical advice without a medical degree or experience, suggesting that vitamins be taken at such high doses considered to be near-lethal with long-term use. A cure-all liquid containing an industrial bleaching agent is marketed as a ‘miracle supplement’ for preventing coronavirus infection. The list goes on — COVID-19 is shaping up to become the Olympics of disinformation, with more and more people are putting their health at risk for “something they saw on the internet”. The question remains: why do such claims get traction, attention and eager participants?

Threat Actors Prey on Fearful People

Between the synthetic amplification of manipulated content that is infecting social media and sophisticated YouTube video hoaxes with high production value, many people fall prey to disinformation in trying times. Over the past few decades, the U.S. has witnessed growing trends towards skepticism and suspicion of perceived government overreach and mainstream medicine, making the current COVID-19 pandemic and its associated government lockdowns and leadership from national health agencies a fertile breeding ground to stoke the wildest of narratives. As is often the case with disinformation and conspiracy, this growing distrust often germinates in genuine issues such as the U.S. opioid crisis, where the confluence of predatory pharmaceutical industry entities and complicit government actors, medical insurers and healthcare workers caused the widespread overprescription of addictive drugs to the detriment of public health, all in the name of private profit.

We are all united in our fear and fear is a force multiplier for disinformation and conspiracies.

Concern over genuine issues can thus often be exacerbated by conspiracy theories that prey on existing fears and uncertainties. As a result of these powerful disinformation narratives, we are now witnessing many people gravitating toward the opposite of reason, by embracing ideas, treatments, and products which are not based in verifiable science. From cancer patients choosing placebos instead of chemotherapy, to the anti-vax movement and distrust of 5G, when panic and fear is amplified, people lose sight of common sense in a bid to regain perceived control over their lives. This phenomenon is now happening on a global scale as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic Conspiracies Are Not New

Disinformation campaigns around public health have been gradually gaining speed over many years. An early example is the publication of a 1983 article stating that the AIDS virus was deliberately manufactured by the U.S. government to kill African-Americans and homosexuals. This was further backed up by hired “scientists” who publicly validated the story. The rumor began to spread throughout African countries experiencing high levels of AIDS infections, before being picked up by mainstream U.S. news. Its origin? — the Soviet Union’s KGB.

This multimillion-dollar effort by the KGB represented a concerted attempt to tarnish the public image of the U.S. around the world and sow discord among American citizens.

Unlike today’s technological capabilities for instantaneous information sharing, the disinformation campaigns of the 1980s were propagated on a much slower trajectory. However, with less awareness of the far-reaching threat of disinformation and little in the way of funding to fight and debunk these fabrications, these KGB hoaxes were often successful in rooting themselves in the minds of many otherwise informed and intelligent individuals. This proved particularly true for an issue such as AIDS and HIV which already had much of the world living in fear before the infection’s origins and methods of transmission became widely known.

When we hear the word “pandemic” it instantly engenders a condition of panic and fear. Fear reduces the ability for critical thinking, opening the door to our increased vulnerability to everything from poor medical advice to the wildest of conspiracy theories.

In more recent history, the 2002 outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus in China precipitated a major socio-political crisis for the country as Chinese leadership stalled in their initial response to the virus before launching widespread containment measures. The government’s hesitation to share information on the virus with the rest of the world sparked a period of panic, anxiety and rumor-mongering both inside and outside of China. Unfortunately, this also served to set a new standard for medical disinformation. Fast forward to the 2012 outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and the 2014 Ebola virus in West Africa. Unlike 2002, world populations had now entered the age of widespread digitally-networked global information-sharing, primed by the ubiquity of smartphones and social media which provided the perfect conditions for the continued advancement of disinformation. The World Health Organization (WHO) worked with national governments around the globe to keep citizens informed of the genuine facts of these pandemics and address poor medical advice that increasingly circulated online. For instance, at the height of the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, a hoax spread on social media touting saltwater as a preventative measure for the virus, leading to several deaths and many more individuals hospitalized.

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 Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) pride themselves on taking advantage of fearful, uncertain environments, creating propaganda videos and social media messaging specifically aimed at individuals identified as the most vulnerable to disinformation. These are then shared over and over, until they become part of mainstream beliefs for many who are repeatedly exposed to such content.

Conspiracies are so powerful that they can drive real-world behavior from online chatter. One of the most famous examples in recent years was the “Pizzagate” hoax and subsequent armed assault, but in the last week alone there have been at least two major events related to COVID-19 conspiracies about “deep state cabals” with nefarious plots, as outlined below.

April 2, 2020: Conspiratorial narratives involving Dr Fauci (head of the US Centers for Disease and Prevention) resulted in a security detail being assigned to him after he received numerous death threats.
April 3, 2020: The QAnon conspiracy theory motivated a train engineer to derail his train in hopes of destroying a Navy Hospital ship.
April 7, 2020: In Iran, 600 people have now died and 3,000 have been hospitalized after following the advice of a dangerous medical hoax advocating high-concentration alcohol as a cure for COVID-19.
March 17, 2020: A nurse wears protective gear at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in Seattle.

We are in dire need of information integrity that can intelligently compare multiple sources of varied data and offer a sound analysis of what is manipulated and what is not. The mere fact that so many people adopt such extreme behaviors or worldviews, simply through reading about it on the internet, is an extremely dangerous facet of our social attitude. The goal of disinformation actors is to trigger an emotional response and cause public outcry with the express purpose of influencing actions, policies, and events. However, mere human assessment appears increasingly insufficient to detect, deter, and mitigate malicious disinformation campaigns in light of the vast penetration and reach of both traditional and social media. At Blackbird.AI we believe the use of automated computerized systems running at scale can detect, sort, identify, and characterize the immense volumes of data that are generated every day across the globe.

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. In the age of the Disinformation Olympics, the ability to understand what is real and what is not is paramount to saving future lives.

Blackbird.AI’s Disinformation AI Platform provides Fortune 500 and National Security customers with automated defensive and offensive capabilities to defend against a new generation of disinformation driven threats.

To find out more about our team and the Blackbird.AI Mission visit us at www.blackbird.ai

We help Brands, Governments and Journalists see the “story behind the story” for a more authentic information ecosystem.

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