US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — Studying disinformation is a bit like the work of a virologist: the subject 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.
Unlike erroneous information, misinformation is not just inaccurate: it is actively aimed at misleading. In social networks, they may seem identical, since the semantic content is sometimes the same. In practice, both can be equally dangerous, especially now. For health care, factual information is important, especially when it comes to something relevant, for example, how we respond to the new coronavirus spreading in our localities.
Online disinformation 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 Russians and Chinese, for spreading misinformation on social networks. That would be right, but that would not be enough. Unfortunately, foreign interested forces are not the worst. The greatest danger is ourselves, the Americans.
Our own “production” of misinformation is booming. Everything from false hope inspired by fake drugs to politically motivated memes and hashtags can create confusion or panic, which makes it difficult to have a consistent and sensible response to a crisis. These actions have exacerbated the crisis, and as a result, people will die or are dying now.
Although Russian and Chinese misinformation, which serves to disseminate various myths about the coronavirus, does exist, foreign interested forces often simply pick up what we Americans “created” ourselves. Instead of inventing myths, taking information “from the ceiling”, hostile foreign states take inaccurate information that we give them, and, “washed and smoothed” it, turn it into misinformation.
Take, for example, persistent rumors that the virus was created by scientists (this is not so) and spread, “escaping” from a laboratory in China (this is not so). This theory was not created at the troll factory in St. Petersburg or at the Moscow bunker of the GRU (the GRU is the main directorate of Russian military intelligence).
According to our research, the first English-language tweet in which this theory was proposed was published on January 20. Its author was an American who did not indicate her name, holding conservative views, who in her profile claims to love Jesus, her family, her country, her freedom and her weapons. So that you do not think that this reflects any kind of ideological bias, pay attention to the fact that the second English-language tweet was published the next day by a liberal, university scientist with a blue checkmark in his account.
Foreign forces, of course, are able to create their own myths and fakes, and this is especially true for health problems. Indeed, Russians have been doing just that for a long time. In the 1980s, the Soviet KGB successfully propagated the myth that AIDS was the biological weapon that the CIA created. More recently, at an early stage of its activity, the Internet Research Agency (a disinformation organization that became known through Mueller’s investigation) spread false rumors in the health sector on social networks.
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 outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta and an outbreak of salmonellosis in upstate New York (associated with typically Thanksgiving American turkeys!). Despite the fact that the Russians posted various content on the network, including videos and photographs that “illustrated events,” and used hundreds of social media accounts to spread their fakes, they still did not achieve tangible results in their activities. Studies have shown that most social media users do not actually distribute fake content. Although Americans often claim.
In 2015, after these unsuccessful attempts, the Russian Internet Research Agency changed tactics. It ceased to manufacture news material and, instead of creating fakes, began to rely on real events and real comments, taking advantage of our instability and concern about what we know (or, in our opinion, know). Instead of bombarding a wide audience with information disseminated through anonymous accounts, AII began to engage left and right community members in the process by providing them with tailored messages. This tactic dealt with issues related to health, including vaccination and climate change, as well as a number of other topics.
In accordance with the new strategy, the Agency ceased to create fakes and began to tell people what to think, feel, how to perceive the available information about events, which often meant a transition from the spread of misinformation to the suggestion of opinions and interpretations. It turns out that the latter is more efficient and effective. Telling people what they want to hear, rather than what you want to impose on them, can be much more convincing. In other cases, as, for example, with materials against vaccination, this tactic meant participating in today’s discussions and spreading the lies that America had already inspired. This is facilitated by the fact that Americans, regardless of ideological predilections, create a lot of controversial content that can be borrowed. Russians don’t have to go far,
The same goes for coronavirus misinformation. In the course of our research, we found many networks with dummy accounts (one of them we can connect with Russia) that use the discussion of coronavirus as a tool for political attacks. To the right-wing Americans, these trolls criticize the reaction of the liberals, claim that the coronavirus is used to rob them of their freedom, and accuse China of spreading it. To left-wing Americans, they claim that the administration’s reaction is immoral and inadequate, and blame Trump.
Both those and other arguments are brought by real Americans, as a rule, being guided by good intentions. However, trolls use these attacks to achieve their goals, and therefore they repeat them, propagandizing the most loud and unsightly of them. Thus, during the crisis, they exacerbate existing disagreements to the limit, as a result of which it becomes even more difficult to reach the much-needed compromise. As before, these networks use hashtags from comments of Americans themselves, for example #TrumpLiedPeopleDied and #ReopenAmerica. They do not sow discord, but in every possible way try to aggravate them.
However, not only our hashtags and memes feed foreign misinformation. In 2016, Internet Research Agency trolls regularly retweeted and reposted conspiracy theorizing websites such as Naturalnews.com and Infowars.com, created by Alex Jones. In recent weeks, these websites have been discussing the theory of the origin of coronavirus in a Chinese laboratory, as well as other panic and hysterical virus-related materials. Since then, such fake materials have appeared on social networks thousands of times.
Among the accounts that distribute these materials, there are pro-Russian and influential social networks associated with Russian state-owned media. However, it is worth noting that these sites continue to attract the disinformation that the KGB once spread. For instance, in 2019, they posted materials on a conspiracy theological theory that the CIA secretly participated in the spread of HIV.
These companies may not have a clear intention to spread misinformation, and most likely they simply expect to cash in on 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 are discussing the various actions of the United States, as a result of which the crisis associated with the spread of coronavirus has become more serious than it could (or should) be. To this list it is necessary to add the role of the public itself in spreading global misinformation.
We must pay attention to the fact that we ourselves are to blame for the problems associated with the spread of misinformation. At a time when most of the news and information that people learn is socially mediated, we should have citizens and platforms that are more resistant to lies and more susceptible to facts.
But first of all, we must stop helping the trolls and do what they do.
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The article is written and prepared by our foreign editors from different countries around the world – material edited and published by Ordo News staff in our US newsroom press.