New but old: the disinformation pandemic resurrected
Few of those spreading disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic and government attempts to stem it knew what they were resurrecting tactics going way back to the Cold War and before.
I WAS amazed. How could otherwise intelligent, seemingly sensible people spread these myths? Most have the benefit of a tertiary education. Yet here they were spreading ideas debunked by people knowledgable in what they commented on. Not only that, they denigrated the expertise of people who had years of training and practical experience. They imagined they knew more.
The coronavirus pandemic and government actions to eliminate it brought them out, however the seeds of their disbelief had been planted years, sometimes decades before, in-part by the magical thinking of the New Age and wellness movements. Now, here they were responding to a global disease that couldn’t be diagnose or cured by a waving quartz crystal over it.
In spreading their disinformation most were probably unaware that they were continuing a long tradition of deception.
They are not skeptics
Mainstream media got it wrong. Just as it erroneously labelled disbelievers in climate change as ‘climate skeptics’, so it labelled the believers in disinformation around the Covid-19 virus as ‘covid skeptics’.
It was a misnomer if ever there was one. Skeptics are open to changing their beliefs when presented with convincing evidence. Most of those propagating disinformation about the Covid-19 virus were fixed in their beliefs. They deserved the name they were given: ‘Covid deniers’.
Using deception, a willingness to believe people who have no background in epidemiology or medicine and lacking the critical thinking ability so necessary to navigating the information glut of modern times, covid deniers engaged in a type of information warfare whose origin lay back in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.
What is information warfare?
Disinformation… misinformation… conspiracy theory… conspiracy fantasy… deception… whatever we call it, it distorts and misleads. Sometimes it is frivolous and has no lasting or damaging effect. At other times it can kill.
First, a few definitions to distinguish what I talk about:
- disinformation: false information deliberately intended to mislead, disrupt, persuade, damage, inveigle, encourage some kind of action, cause disagreement and conflict to polarise public opinion and weaken organisations, institutions and nation states; disinformation originates with nation states and their intelligence organisations, governments, religions, economic interests, community organisations and individuals
- misinformation: information believed to be true when it is not and then spread; the spreading of misinformation may be due to confirmation bias when social media users repost information which supports their beliefs and when groups of friends and acquaintances bounce misleading information back and forth to each other in a reinforcing feedback loop (the ‘echo chamber’ effect)
- conspiracy theory/conspiracy fantasists: a belief that some covert or overt influential person, government or organisation is responsible for an event, idea, practice or belief; a definition on Psychology Today says: “A conspiracy theory is a non-mainstream explanation for something about our society that involves secret, powerful, and often sinister groups. It’s unsubstantiated, meaning it’s not based on verified facts and it’s often complex. It usually includes negative and dubious beliefs about an ‘other.’”; examples include beliefs around Covid-19 as a hoax, chemtrails, vaccination, the Illuminati, the flat earth, the Rothschilds and other wealthy families, 5G broadband, Bill Gates’ implanting tracking chips in vaccines and more
- information warfare: a collective term describing engagement in influence and disinformation campaigns by government, non-state organisations and individuals
- cyberwarfare: a collective term for digital attacks on nations, institutions, businesses, infrastructure, social groups, politicians, prominent people, individuals; cyberattacks are often malicious — they intent to do harm either as damage or to reputation and credibility; cyberwarfare is sometimes defined to include information warfare, hacking, theft of information and intellectual property and ransomware attacks.
‘Useful idiot’ is a derogatory term used to describe a person or organisation that passes on disinformation or supports a cause without fully comprehending the goals of those behind it. Their cooperation may be due to manipulation by the cause’s leaders. They may be victims of their own confirmation bias.
The term is believed originate in the Soviet Union where it described non-communists susceptible to communist propaganda and manipulation and who help spread it. Useful idiots describes those who deliberately or unknowingly pass on fake information originating with state-sponsored trolls or conspiracy fantasists.
Disinformation brings destruction, endangers public health
Disinformation leads to destructive action and endangers public health worldwide:
- a 2019 Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab report on online publishing platform Medium, about the Pakistani government’s polio immunisation program, quoted The New York Times: “unidentified gunmen had killed a health worker and two security personnel accompanying a team of health workers in Chaman; after another health worker was killed by gunmen in the neighboring province of Balochistan on April 25, the Pakistani government was forced to curtail the campaign to ensure the safety of the 270,000 workers administering the vaccine”
- in the Congo, disinformation about ebola led to attacks on hospitals and health care workers; the ebola outbreak in Congo officially began in August 2018 and killed 2264 people; as in the West, evangelical religions are implicated in the spread of disinformation; according to the WHO, Congolese megachurch Pastor Jules Mulindwa said he could create an antidote to the virus by praying over an ordinary bottle of water — “Then you drink it and you’ll be healed, even if you have Ebola”
- linking low vaccination rates with anti-vaxx sentiment, in March 2017, Australia’s Daily Telegraph reported 37 new cases in a week of whooping cough in the northern NSW “nerve centre of militant anti-vaxxers and jab-suspicious hippies”, Mullumbimby; “in April there were 83 cases in children and a total of 152 so far this year in the Northern NSW Health District”; Australian Medical Association president Dr Michael Gonnon said whooping cough rates in Northern NSW were probably much higher than recorded figures because many in the community eschew the GP in favour of alternative practitioners; children on the NSW North Coast have the lowest vaccination rate in the country and “suffered four times more whooping cough than comparable areas in 2016”
- an example of how disinformation leads to destructive action was the burning of 5G broadband repeater stations after disinformation allegedly linking them to Covid-19 and other health effects was spread in a number of countries.
Information warfare — nothing new here
The disinformation we now see circulating around social media and the internet is really the latest adaptation of something that reaches way back to the opening decades of the Twentieth Century. In those days it was the work of nation state intelligence agencies with geopolitical agendas. Now, their methods have been blended with new approaches. The internet is their vector of global contamination.
The myths around vaccination, Covid-19 and 5G broadband are examples of information warfare. Paralleling them is government hacking, sabotage and data theft such as the alleged theft of intellectual property from Western military equipment and other corporations and universities by China, to boost its industrial and military expansion.
In 2020, disinformation became a social movement
Look at photographs of demonstrations of conspiracy fantasists and we see a plethora of placards about Covid, masks, vaccination, right-libertarian ideas about personal freedom, 5G and more. They clearly demonstrate how, by the middle months of 2020, what were previously the beliefs of separate groups were being mashed-up to commingle what were previously separate beliefs into the shared beliefs of what became a social movement.
By the middle of the year there was a wide range of disinformation circulating online, much of it focused on the Covid-19 pandemic and measures taken by government to stem its spread. The international spread of arch-conspirator, QAnon, succeeded in bringing these different interests together as an informal bloc with a strong online presence in social media.
Disinformation around the virus brought out not only the magical thinking that would have been at home in the New Age movement of the 1990s, but a whole range of new and ludicrous allegations. These the Covid deniers mashed with existing imaginary and disproven allegations:
- Bill Gates wants to use any vaccine developed for Covid-19 to inject personal tracking devices into people
- 5G broadband wireless spreads or stimulates Covid-19
- lockdowns imposed by governments to stem the spread of Covid-19 are not public health precautions but are ways by which governments control us
- masks to protect others from Covid-19 are a health hazard because they accumulate disease organisms and lead to oxygen starvation and carbon dioxide build-up, and are ineffective
- personal freedom is more important than public health and wearing masks and social distancing
- social distancing in an unwarranted infringement of personal freedom
- the Covid-19 virus is not as dangerous or contagious as health authorities claim and is no worse than the common cold
- the Covid-19 virus and disease does not exist and is a hoax.
These joined existing, long-running beliefs:
- vaccination causes autism in children as well as other disorders in adults
- fluoridation of the water supply constitutes deliberate poisoning.
There are others. In the state of Victoria and aided by News Corporation and other rabid rightwing media, attacks became personal when they labelled the premier, Daniel Andrews, as ‘Dictator Dan’ and made other slurs when his government shut down the state to successfully reduce the spread of the Covid virus. A similar lockdown had earlier eliminated the virus in Tasmania following the Covid-19 outbreak in the state’s north-west. It worked and at the time of writing, nearly a year after the outbreak, Tasmania remains Covid-free. The lockdown succeeding in limiting the spread of the virus in Melbourne, however more lockdowns followed in 2020 and early 2021 after the virus escaped from a quarantine hotel. The announcement of the five day, February 2021 lockdown brought a few hundred pro-disease people onto the streets in protest.
In December 2021, a story in The Conversation revealed analysis which disclosed that a high proportion of campaigners against the premier of Victoria were anonymous sockpuppet accounts created by people using fake profiles, however very little activity came from computer bots. ”Where it did, it was more common from the side campaigning against Andrews”. Anti-Andrews tweets were amplified by far-right media commentators to sow social conflict and division.
For what purpose Bill Gates wants to inject tracking devices into people and how they would be tracked was something the deniers couldn’t explain. How do electromagnetic transmissions spread a virus, or trigger it in individuals after it is introduced by some other means? No answer to that one either. And why would governments resort to lockdowns to stem the spread of the virus and deliberately damage economies when they didn’t have to? That was a hard one to answer because it defied the economics of capitalism.
Deniers and conspiracy theory vectors have a range of answers to their critics. Many of them, like the alternative explanations about 5G and Covid-19, are contradictory. They usually don’t bother developing credible answers because their purpose is to trigger doubt and emotional response in gullible people rather than expound a rational theory about why their ideas might be right. How their allegations work seems to be of little interest to them because their use of rational logic is non-existent. Reality matters little to liars who spread conspiracy theories. The facts don’t matter to them. Emotional reaction does.
Disinformation: the handmaiden of destabilisation
Disinformation as a tactic is not something new. It has been practiced since before the Second World War. It is a tactic that sits within the strategy of destabilising nations or gaining advantage over them. Equally, it is a tactic within the loose and uncoordinated strategies of the various ideological camps in societies.
The Cold War promoted disinformation as a tool of influence and deception when it was used by both East and West — the US, Russia, East Germany and other Eastern Bloc powers, especially intelligence agencies like the CIA, KGB and Stasi (East German intelligence service). Print and radio were the preferred methods of influencing the public.
Then came the internet. Suddenly, anyone could use the techniques of influence, inveigle and disinformation. After the initial burst of digital utopianism when the internet was seen as a liberating force, nation states realised the potential of the new technology and started to weaponise it. America’s intelligence agencies, Russia’s Internet Research Agency and China’s 50 Cent Army all joined the escalating information war. Both the Russian and Chinese troll factories are ostensibly independent of government, a lightly-vieled separation that gives governments plausible deniability of their involvement. The Chinese Communist Party, which in a one-party state is synonymous with the government, the party-state, makes use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media banned in China, clearly revealing direct government involvement.
Russian interference, both influence and disinformation campaigns using facebook ads, fake social media accounts and bots to sow confusion and dissension was deployed to influence the 2016 US election. The leaking of Democratic National Committee emails by the so-named Guccifer 2.0, and distributed by DCLeaks and on Wikileaks, was attributed to Russian intelligence hackers according to the subsequent Mueller investigation. The purpose was to prevent Democrat candidate, Hillary Clinton, from winning. It worked.
Wikileaks was set up as an online space where anonymous whistleblowers could expose confidential information about what government and other institutions were doing. The posting of Russian electoral disinformation on the site demonstrates how even initiatives set up with noble intentions can be weaponised.
During the 2020 US presidential election and under intense political, media and social pressure Facebook took many disinformation sources offline. The corporation has done the same with Covid conspiracy accounts and anti-vaxxers, however success has been only partial.
We are now in the middle of a global information war that is being fought in different theatres ranging through government intelligence services, corporations, the media, formal and informal community organisations and alliances, and citizens. If the disinformation pandemic has achieved anything it it to democratise information warfare. Anyone with a computer and broadband connection can now become a combatant.
Who hides behind disinformation?
Who is responsible for creating and spreading disinformation and what is their intention? The answer is a range of people and organisations with different agendas. ‘Who’ often explains why they spread disinformation.
It comes down to intention. Motivations include:
Commercial agents of disinformation
Commercial disinformation/misinformation sources are people trying to sell us something. Why don’t they use the usual marketing channels? Often, it’s because they are trying to sell dodgy products or, at lest, products accompanied by contestable or dubious claims. They have to concoct a story to make us believe that their product does something it doesn’t do.
An example was the Australian TV chef/anti-vaxxer, Pete Evans. Pete sold a machine which emitted light which he claimed cured or prevented infection by the Covid-19 virus. That ended when the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which approves therapies and medical products, fined him for misleading advertising and stopped his selling the device (and: Pete Evans dumped by Channel Ten, Coles and Woolworths after posting neo-Nazi symbol).
“Any ad that claims a health product prevents or cures COVID-19 is likely to be illegal”, the TGA asserts. With the TGA giving more attention to them during the pandemic, sellers of dodgy goods and services are likely to carefully phrase their claims so they do not appear to be preventatives or cures.
In February 2021, the Great Australia Party, a new entity on the political landscape which, going by its description which states “you are the “Supreme, Absolute, Uncontrollable Authority” in this country”, appears to be right-libertarian, announced Pete Evans would stand as its candidate in the NSW senate elections.
So-called ’wellness’ practitioners can be implicated in selling unproven ‘natural’ products that are supposed preventatives or cures. The case of pharmacies selling crystals supposedly capable of preventing or healing Covid-19 and a range of other ailments was exposed on social media in October 2020.
Taking advantage of bad situations to sell something is not new. Fake cures, technologies and publications are a few of the products purveyed during times of crisis.
Geopolitical agents of disinformation
It goes like this. Sometimes working through proxies, amplify the voices of those in Western nations who sow social discord and conflict. Multiply their message by setting up fake social media accounts to spread disinformation and create the impression that dissent is widespread. Create greater discord by promoting the argument of both sides and by shrinking the middle ground of opinion to drive people to extreme points of view.
The argument itself doesn’t matter. What does is creating social discord and distrust of institutions like science, law, government and the media as well as fellow citizens . Doing that fragments opinion and populations. It polarises arguments, pushing people towards the fringes and amplifying the voices on the fringes. Fragmented populations make for weaker nation states and weaker social democracy. Government programs can be delayed of shut down.
Let’s summarise how disinformation for geopolitical purposes works:
Purpose: Weaken nation states, particularly the Western democracies.
Tactic: Sow distrust in public institutions, corporations, media and government.
- spread disinformation, misinformation and conspiracy theories via authentic as well as fake social media accounts
- polarise public opinion
- exacerbate the intensity of argument in societies by shrinking the middle ground of opinion and driving beliefs and attitudes to the polar extremes
- discredit citizens with opposing views.
States like Russia and China create and spread disinformation to gain geopolitical advantage. So, of course, does the US and other Western states. The aim of non-Western states is to fragment and polarise opinion in democratic nations to sow distrust and create dispute to make political and economic decisions more fraught and difficult. Doing this weakens democracies. The internet and social media are the vectors for spreading disinformation in Western and allied nations. It is difficult for Western nations to do the same in China, Russia, Iran and North Korea because those regimes control their citizens’ access to information. Western social media platforms and many webistes are shut out.
Ideological agents of disinformation
Disinformation in both the physical world and the online world is propagated through networks. It works like this:
- disinformationists create messages and post them to their own online sites and to their fellow travellers who they know will spread them
- acting perhaps through confirmation bias, the cadres in those networks distribute the messages through their own networks; they are the loose links between networks who spread the messages to those far-removed from the disinformation cadres and into mainstream media.
This is how traffickers of disinformation about vaccination, 5G broadband, Covid-19 prevention and treatment, masks to filter the Covid-19 virus, vaccination, Bill Gates and other conspiracy theories distribute disinformation to weaken the argument of their opponents and build their own following. They are the ideological warriors of disinformation.
It’s about ‘truth’ and separation
Disinformation of an ideological nature attempts to convince us of the truth of the ideology and separate us from whatever ideology we presently subscribe to. It creates doubts about whatever ideology we subscribe to into which it has a store of alternative explanations to fill the doubt-gaps.
During the Cold War America, Russia and East Germany used disinformation— ‘active measures’—presented in a variety of ways to persuade people of the superiority of their ideology, whether capitalism or communism. Russia’s public photographic displays of violence against black Americans during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s was internally-directed propaganda designed to make America look bad and convince people of the superiority of the Soviet system. It was an example of publicising information that was true but that discredit the perpetrators.
Supported by the KGB, the Stasi, as well as the West German intelligence service and sometimes the CIA, intelligence agencies published magazines which during the Cold War were distributed on their opponent’s side of the Berlin Wall. The stories seemed innocuous, however small details were changed to create a preferred reading which served the propaganda purposes of the different sides. Leaking stolen documents was another Cold War tactic. Sometimes, documents were distributed unchanged because in their authentic form they could do the preferred damage. Other times, small changes to the text would be made to mislead readers.
Disinformation driven by ideological motives overlaps with the geopolitical when wielded by nation states. We presently see this with China as it attempts to reframe its annexation of islets and reefs in the South China Sea, some of which are also claimed by neighbouring states.
International health agencies and dental associations have endorsed fluoridation of the water supply as a safe and effective means of improving dental health. Opponents see it as a health risk and an attack on their individual freedom to choose. Fluoridation became a clash of ideas and, thus, ideological. The issue is spans decades and continues at a lower intensity now that is has been joined by the plethora of other issues around 5G, vaccination and Covid virus measures.
So-called ‘natural health’ interests came out in support of the anti-fluoridation movement. Opponents included users of the products of a lucrative industry pedalling dietary, vitamin and other supplements and organic food, as well as natural health practitioners, illustrating the overlap between ideological and commercial sources of claims and counterclaims around the issue. Not all providers and users of natural health products and services oppose fluoridation.
The campaigns continued over many years in Australia and the US and are still current although less visible than they were. Some people active in the anti-fluoridation campaign appear to be active in other pseudo-health-related issues such as anti-5G broadband. They include “alternative medical practitioners and health food enthusiasts”, according to Wikipedia.
Noting that a small minority of dental and medical people oppose fluoridation, Wikipedia identifying some of those against it: “During the 1950s and 1960s, conspiracy theorists claimed that fluoridation was a communist plot to undermine American public health… there were a few religious groups (mostly Christian Scientists in the US)… and occasionally consumer groups and environmentalists… libertarians, the John Birch Society and groups like the Green parties in the UK and New Zealand.”
It is worth noting the far-right credentials of some of these opponents because they reappear in contemporary campaigns against vaccination and government Covid-19 measures.
Religions implicated in anti-vaccination campaign
Religious opposition to a Covid vaccine forms a subset of the broader ideological opposition and disinformation campaign. Its main vector are the fringe evangelical churches and cults, however mainstream Christian churches are also implicated:
- in 2020 the Anglican archbishop of Sydney came out opposing the Oxford vaccine, then under development, because it contains genetic material from an aborted 1973 fetus; he was not necessarily against some other vaccine formulation
- a Reuters report published in The Guardian in February 2021 revealed that “Medical teams working to immunise Brazil’s remote indigenous villages against the coronavirus have encountered fierce resistance in some communities where evangelical missionaries are stoking fears of the vaccine, say tribal leaders and advocates. On the São Francisco reservation in the state of Amazonas, Jamamadi villagers sent health workers packing with bows and arrows when they visited by helicopter this month, said Claudemir da Silva, an Apurinã leader representing indigenous communities on the Purus river, a tributary of the Amazon. “It’s not happening in all villages, just in those that have missionaries or evangelical chapels where pastors are convincing the people not to receive the vaccine, that they will turn into an alligator and other crazy ideas,” he said by phone.
- Shadim Hussain reported on Australia’s ABC network that “I have already seen suspicion or outright opposition within the Muslim community in the UK to a vaccine. Some of this is religious in tone, some is more broadly cultural rather than religious, and some simply reflects concern about the safety of a fast-track vaccine”.
- The Huffington Post reports that “the religious group most commonly associated with anti-vaccination sentiment is the Church of Christ, Scientist. Christian Scientists routinely turn down vaccinations, which has been linked to a number of measles outbreaks among members of the faith. “
The curious case of pastel QAnon
Wired’s 28 January 2021 story headline summed it up: The yoga world is riddled with anti-vaxxers and QAnon believers.
The story is about the American, part-time yoga teacher and member of a wellness community, Cecile Guerin, and her dilemma in finding anti-vaxx and other conspiracy fantasies among her yoga teacher colleagues and in the wellness movement, and her difficulty in reconciling them with her role monitoring conspiracy fantasies as a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
“Some yoga influencers and new age spirituality leaders saw the pandemic as an opportunity, and began providing a platform to conspiracy theories… It’s hard to tell just how much conspiracy theories have infiltrated the wellness and yoga space. Researchers have tried to document the recent revival of ‘conspirituality’ — the intersection of yoga, spirituality and holistic health with conspiracy theories… The trend stretches beyond influencers. Conspiracy content shared by yoga and wellness enthusiasts, or what researcher Marc-André Argentino calls ‘Pastel QAnon’, also appears in various forms in spaces which are difficult for researchers to access, including private Facebook groups, or in the form of short-lived content such as Instagram stories.” she wrote.
“It’s not a coincidence that conspiracy theories have taken root in the yoga and wellness communities. The pandemic has hit the industry hard. In the US, a survey showed that 2020 saw a 23 per cent increase in yoga studio closures, depriving thousands of teachers of income, and encouraging many to capitalise on content which generates traffic and cash… The historical links between yoga and New Age pursuits and extremist politics are well-documented, including Nazi Germany’s interest in astrology and alternative medicine and the way yoga has sometimes served as inspiration to fascist ideology, including in Britain. ”
Perhaps the involvement of the wellness movement in Covid conspiracy fantasies and anti-vaxx should not come as such a surprise, some elements within it, anyhow. They are the ones selling self-proclaimed health foods and pharmaceuticals.
Yoga as well as meditation in Australia was largely a practice of groups of enthusiasts before the New Age movement of the 1990s boosted their popularity, especially as spiritual practices. The New Age movement was the ideological/spiritual garden out of which the wellness movement grew. Fed by their distrust of conventional medicine, their embrace of complementary or alternative medicine and New Age spiritual ideas that were all-too-often accepted without seeking evidence of its claims, provided fertile ground for the consequent growth of conspiracy fantasies.
The difficulty for the many yoga, wellness and complementary medicine practitioners who are not conspiracy fantasist is that fantasists among them could make people suspicious and affect their businesses which are already suffering through the lockdowns and other impacts of the pandemic.
Critical thinking the real arbiter of truth
Whether information or disinformation depends on an individual’s point of view, however logic and scientific evidence are the real arbiter because they are open to questioning and change.
For opponents of Covid-19 lockdowns, masks and social distancing, and those who claim Covid-19 is a hoax despite 2.3 million deaths from the disease by early February 2021, 107.8 million confirmed cases and others suffering long-term illness from the disease, the internet is the main means of propagating their disinformation and recruiting support.
How to spread disinformation
Fake information, commonly called lies, the distorted information we know as misinformation plus rumour, unsubstantiated allegation, innuendo and ad hominem attack are common techniques used to spread false information for commercial and ideological purposes.
- Make up fake information or misrepresent existing information
Create false information about a person, institution, idea or government, distribute it directly and through secondary sources and amplify it through fake and authentic social media accounts and bots.
An April 2020 article in The New York Times reported how anti-vaxxers, members of QAnon and other rightwing forces allege a 2015 Ted talk given by Bill Gates in which he warned of a pandemic and discussed the ebola outbreak in Africa proved he had foreknowledge of the Covid-19 pandemic and purposely caused it.
The Gates speech had no connection with the Covid-19 outbreak, which came years later.
2. Mix false with accurate details to make the claim partially reflect reality so as to beguile readers into assuming the entire claim is true.
The detail: The drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were thought to have promise in treating Covid-19. Hydroxychloroquine was trialed as a treatment. US President Donald Trump became an agent of disinformation when he deliberately gave the drug greater credibility by describing it as a ‘game changer’ in treating Covid-19 infection. In early 2021 Australian Coalition MP Craig Kelly lobbied the federal health minister and medical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, to have scientists on the Covid-19 taskforce review their recommendations against the use of the drugs hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin to treat coronavirus.
False detail: The claim of medical consensus that the drug is effective in treating Covid-19.
Accurate detail: Hydroxychloroquine showed limited to no veracity in treating the virus and potentially caused collateral health damage. People were reported to have received medical treatment after overdosing on the drugs.
The accurate detail that the drug was originally thought of value in treating the virus was blended with the false detail that it is an effective treatment. The US Food and Drug Administration withdrew hydroxychloroquine from emergency use.
The idea that garlic prevents Covid-19 circulated through social media early in 2020. What is true is that garlic is a common treatment for some conditions, although research results are preliminary or contested. What is also true is that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that garlic can prevent or cure Covid-19.
What we have here is the extrapolation of garlic’s claimed benefits in treating some conditions to the claim that it is a treatment for covid-19. This conflates the claims, mixing what may be true with what is not to give it the appearance of credibility.
Mixing true with untrue information and openly distributing or leaking it to the media or other entities which further distribute and amplify it was a common Cold War disinformation tactic used by US, East German and Soviet intelligence agencies. The purpose was to weaken confidence in the original source and sow distrust among the public for geopolitical and ideological advantage.
The same thing is happening with the pandemic. Both Russia and China have been accused of fanning the flames of dissent in Western nations, sometimes by setting up fake social media accounts with disinformative content that is shared across social media. The originators know that confirmation bias will spread it through social media and into mainstream media. With doubt, confusion and disagreement raging, institutions are weakened, their energy is consumed in dealing with their loss of credibility brought by the disinformation campaign. When social conflict moves from online into demonstrations on the street, citizens become confused, opinion fractured, societies conflicted and democratic states weakened.
This is how agents of disinformation and those spreading their messages without intention to support them further the ideological agenda of other states and non-state organisations like QAnon.
3. Leak stolen documents
Stolen and leaked documents are the bread and butter of Wikileaks. Even without altering their content, stolen but authentic documents strategically leaked at the right time can contradict a government or corporation and damage its agenda. Information about the source of the leaked documents and who leaked them may be false. Sometimes, small details may be altered for tactical effect.
Governments engage in this tactic to gain geopolitical advantage. So do their opponents. Edward Snowden stole and leaked documents from the National Security Agency about the agency’s global surveillance program, damaging its work.
Set up to reveal the hidden doings of governments, it wasn’t long before intelligence agencies realised the potential of Wikileaks to distribute damaging, leaked documents. The most notorious instance in recent times was the leaking of Democratic National Convention and Hillary Clinton emails and documents to destroy the public credibility of the Democrats during the 2016 US election. Forensic analysis by cybersecurity experts pointed to a Russian source behind the hacks and leaks, most likely Russia’s St Petersburg-based troll factory, the Internet Research Agency.
4. Polarise public opinion by pushing it towards the fringes.
Pushing viewpoints towards the fringes polarises controversies and online conversations and reinforces fringe beliefs.
The purpose is to shrink the middle ground where workable compromise may be made. This can be done by diminishing and overpowering centrist points of view by discrediting them and amplifying fringe voices.
Four tactics used by external agencies, sometimes those of nation states or their proxies, are:
- bot farming — a bot, or robot, is a software application that automates online tasks, coordinates automated attacks on networks such as a DDOS (Distributed Denial Of Service) attacks by a network of bots, and distributes posts to multiple online sites
- setting up fake social media accounts to distribute disinformation
- setting up opposing social media accounts and feeding them content to stimulate controversy and exacerbate and polarise public disagreement over some issue
- using fake social media accounts to post to existing social media so as to inflame disagreement and give the impression that a point of view has a large following.
The process is described in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) Disinformation Playbook. Although the Playbook was devised to address disinformation about issues before Covid-19 and 5G broadband, it retains relevance in describing the disinformation-agent approach to that and to science.
The Playbook describes the anti-science process with examples—
The fake: Conduct counterfeit science and pass it off as legitimate research.
Example: The disbarred doctor, Andrew Wakefield’s discredited claim that vaccination causes autism.
The Blitz: Harass scientists who speak out with results or views inconvenient for industry.
While the UCS Playbook addresses industry disinformation in this case, it can be extrapolated to addressing contemporary issues as well.
Example: Attacks by the Covid-denial movement on US immunologist Anthony Fauci, a member of the Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force that addressed the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States and one of the world’s leading experts on infectious disease.
The Diversion: Manufacture uncertainty about science where little or none exists.
Example: Diversion of proposals to reduce global heating by fossil fuels to the supposed solution of ’clean coal’ technology.
The Screen: Buy credibility through alliances with academia or professional societies.
Example: The Chinese government’s establishing Confucius Institutes in Australian universities to further its ‘soft power’ strategy to achieve geopolitical and ideological goals.
The Fix: Manipulate government officials or processes to inappropriately influence policy.
Example: Donald Trump offered multiple examples such as alleged industry influence on his policy to allow industrial exploitation of public lands.
Open old wounds and create new fissures
An example of pushing public opinion to the fringe is the conspiracy theory alleging 5G broadband transmits or stimulates the Covid-19 virus. Both claims have been made, demonstrating how conspiracy theorists change what they say in trying to sound plausible.
The argument quickly polarised and believers took to the streets during the Covid pandemic in Mullumbimby — a northern NSW town now regarded as the epicentre of conspiracy theories around 5G and vaccination — Melbourne, London and Berlin. 5G repeater antenna were burned in some cities despite the risks of disrupting important communication. Rational voices countered these claims, however they remain strongly contested and leave the many people in the middle confused and open to persuasion.
Opening new fissures around something that is an issue is a well-used tactic in spreading disinformation. Directing existing anti-vaxx sentiment towards the new target of the Covid-19 vaccines is an example.
Sometimes, agents of disinformation invent something to exploit as a new fissure. Not so many years ago, wearing a mask to prevent the spread of disease would not have been questioned. Chinese students in Australian cities were to be seen wearing masks to filter polluted urban air. With Covid-19 in 2020, a simple precaution became politicised and polarised to such an extent it created a public health risk. Masks were portrayed as either a symbol of government control or a symbol of social solidarity.
Polarising public opinion into sometimes-hostile opposing camps is a practice of Russian and Chinese cyberwarriors. China’s troll farms are implicated, as the Financial Times describes:
“While Russia has traditionally relied on bots to push its agenda online, China’s Communist Party has raised a volunteer troll army of real people, most of them young men, to go online and attack its enemies. For years, China’s nationalist trolls were known as 50-cents, or ‘wumao’ for the Rmb0.50 they were said to earn for each patriotic post.
“Some co-ordinate ‘mass bombings’ of public figures’ social media platforms, flooding targets with intimidating posts and shutting down online debate… The youth league urges these web warriors to steer online discourse in a patriotic direction.”. And here.
The ironic contradiction of the anti-science movement
Most reposters of disinformation do so unaware that they are implicated in the work of ideologues, nation states and nefarious organisations. Most are unaware that they participate in what has been described as the ‘anti-science’ movement or ‘science denialism’.
It’s ironic that some of them support measures to ameliorate and end climate change yet they find a common home with conspiracy theorists where they rub shoulders with the anti-vaxx, anti-5G and science-denial movements. How do they accept the science of climate change yet deny the science of immunology?
Climate change relies on science to monitor and address the issue, so it could reasonably be expected that those who want to ameliorate a changing climate would afford credibility to the scientific process in other areas too. Not so. They cherrypick the science they believe in, choosing that which suits their beliefs and ignore or oppose it when it does not.
If anything, this double standard demonstrates a clear failure to understand science and the scientific process. Doing this is often a deliberate choice and doesn’t seem to produce any cognitive dissonance among its perpetrators. They live happily in a state of ironic contradiction.
Synchronous crises: the challenge of disinformation
The persistence of conspiracy fantasies and the willingness of people to multiply their reach diminishes a society’s capacity to deal with the multiple synchronous challenges it faces.
Australia is currently dealing with a number of synchronous challenges:
- a Covid-19 pandemic with medical staff having become infected, regional lockdowns and their impact on employment and livelihoods, local and household economies and a large-scale disinformation campaign hampering solutions
- the financial crisis and impending recession brought by the pandemic
- the impacts of climate change with widespread and long-term drought combined with recovery from 2019–2020’s extensive bushfires
- cyberattacks by foreign hacker states and their agents
- the deteriorating security situation in the East and South China Sea, with China seizing control of islands also claimed by other countries in the region while it conducts economic warfare against imports of Australia’s primary products, harasses Australian journalists, imprisons dual citizens, unduly influences Chinese people living in Australia and tries to influence Australian institutions.
These might be separate challenges, however dealing with them all at once taxes government and the people. Their dissatisfaction and unease becomes a fertile field for disinformation agents.
Dealing with a single crisis is easier than dealing with multiple synchronous challenges. Doing so effectively is made all the more difficult by the pandemic of disinformation.
Stopping the plague
How do we stop the plague of disinformation distorting the infosphere? We probably can’t stop it because some people want to believe, whatever it is. We can counter it, however.
Alarmed at the growing disinformation campaigns, the Union of Concerned Scientists identified a range of means by which disinformation is spread and issued guidelines to help navigate the maze.
How to spot disinformation:
- does it seem implausible?
- does it confirm your beliefs or play to your emotions?
- is it difficult to separate facts from opinions?
- does it ignore experts (from government, science or reputable public health organisations)?
- is the original source hard to pin down?
- does the source have a financial, political or other stake in the claim?
News articles, video and social media posts:
- does it identify original sources of factual content?
- does it link to independent experts with relevant knowledge and/or to peer-reviewed science?
- does it make it easy to identify funding sources, ideological or policy positions?
- is it produced by an individual or organisation that has an established position on the topic?
- does it present diverse points of view fairly while acknowledging the importance of expertise?
- does it treat individuals who have diverse perspectives with respect?
- does it distinguish facts from opinions?
- does it back up its statements with evidence?
- are other news sources presenting the information similarly?
- is the content free from racial, gendered or otherwise problematic stereotypes?
- is the information consistent with what scientists and other experts say on the topic?
Report or study:
- are the authors experts on the subject?
- is the study peer-reviewed?
- have the authors disclosed their conflicts of interest and funding sources? if yes, does the sponsor have a vested interest in the outcome of the study?
- does the publisher have a preexisting policy or ideological position on the topic?
- is the tone objective?
- does it describe potential positives and negatives in clear terms? does it cite and critique conflicting findings?
- if other scientists have commented about the study, are they raising major concerns with how the study was conducted?
Encountering disinformation: what to do
When we encounter a piece of disinformation, the best thing to do is stop its spread. A first step is the inoculation method: instead of repeating the disinformation, warn our friends, family and coworkers about the types of Covid-19 disinformation and tactics. Research shows that when we are alerted that disinformation may be encountered we think more critically about it, thereby inoculating us from further deception.
Note that it’s critical that we don’t reshare the disinformation, even if it’s in an effort to point out that it is wrong. Doing that simply spreads it.
The Richard Dawkins Foundation offers a set of questions we can apply when assessing claims:
- how reliable is the source of the claim?
- does the source make similar claims?
- have the claims been verified by somebody else?
- does this fit with the way the world works?
- has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
- where does the preponderance of evidence point?
- is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
- is the claimant providing positive evidence?
- does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
- are personal beliefs driving the claim?
Talking with disbelievers
‘I want to believe’. So says the statement above the UFO on the poster in FBI special agents Fox Mulder’s office in the TV series, The X-Files. It is also applicable to disinformationists who want to believe because they have a financial, ideological or psychological reason to believe in anti-science, covid-denial or other claims.
Many on social media now refuse to engage with promoters of dis-and-misinformation because of their refusal to discuss their beliefs in a logical and rational manner. You cannot change the minds of people who really want to believe, they say.
Where believers are open to discussion, however, rather than attack the person for being incredulous it is more productive to destabilise their belief by asking questions such as:
- where does your information come from?
- why do you believe this?
- where do the people you follow get their information?
- how do you know it is true?
The focus is on the information, not the person, so that they do not feel they are being personally attacked.
The skeptical activist
In a world awash with disinformation, misinformation, deception and downright lies, a growing number of rational people are taking action to debunk and counter dubious claims. They are the skeptical activists.
Skeptical activists believe that investigation using rational, critical thinking, existing knowledge and the methods verified by science leads to the most reliable knowledge. Also known as skeptical enquiry of scientific skepticism, skeptical activism seeks evidence for claims rather than relying on assumption and what others say. Their approach works best as open enquiry, not just the debunking of fake claims. Open enquiry starts without a fixed notion about whether something is true or not.
Like all skeptics, the activists base what they believe on what the evidence suggests. They remain open to changing their mind when presented with factual and reproducible evidence to the contrary.
Perhaps, as we swim in the ocean of claim and counterclaim, disinformation and deception, skeptical activism is our vaccine to sanity and clarity, our inoculation against a new, dark age of ignorance.
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