If someone had fallen asleep a decade ago and only just woken up today, they could hardly avoid the conclusion that the world had gone mad.
Why, they may ask, are conspiracy theorists and white supremacists taking to the streets to protest against public health guidelines designed to protect them from a deadly pandemic? And why are some politicians going out of their way to trash expert opinion and, in the process, lending credence to wild conspiracy theories?
In many respects, the coronavirus has hit at the worst possible time, with tensions high between the United States and China. Our lengthy sleeper would be aware of the power of social media but would have missed recent humanitarian and political crises that showed just how social media platforms, with their lax approach to oversight, are open to abuse by malign actors.
Facebook has admitted that it failed to stop its platform being used to incite the violence that led in 2017 to the mass killing and expulsion of the Rohingya from Myan- mar. Since then, big tech companies have announced policy changes to contain the spread of disinformation and incitement to violence, but independent research has found that enforcement of these changes is still patchy or yet to happen.
Disinformation – false or misleading information created and disseminated for economic gain or to deceive the public – has a long history. But COVID-19 has taken its reach and impact to new levels.
The virus brought together distinct streams of conspiracy theories, far-right extremism, politically motivated propaganda, foreign influence operations and profit-driven fakery to create an unprecedented torrent of disinformation.
There is now a thriving market for disinformation. The Global Disinformation Index reported in July that advertisers had unwittingly provided $25 million to nearly 500 English-speaking coronavirus disinformation sites.
While social media platforms have democratized the tools of propaganda, COVID-19 meant that the whole world was looking for answers to similar questions at the same time. And huge numbers of people were locked down at home, spending an increasing amount of time online. As a result, the virus became the key factor on which life choices, government policies and economic growth depended, and therefore a vehicle for state and non-state actors to appeal to audiences across the world.
Add to this the fact that a series of political figures were espousing conspiracy theories and propaganda to further their political goals, and you have a truly toxic online mix.
A new virus will naturally inspire conspiracy theories – uncertainty around its symptoms, treatment or re-infection risks and the changing scientific consensus as more information emerges, render it vulnerable to speculation. But this time the planting of conspiracies by heads of state, online ‘influencers’ and algorithmic systems supercharged them.
As the coronavirus developed into a challenge to Donald Trump’s chances of re-election, a public health matter was repurposed as a geopolitical issue with the virus’s origin in China becoming a central feature in his Twitter assault on Beijing. The US president has sought, in a very personal way, to shift all the blame for the damage caused by the virus on to China, often calling on the support of conspiracy theorists.
QAnon – a pro-Trump group promoting the myth of a ‘deep state’ that aims to take him down – was ready to come to the rescue. The QAnon canon includes such myths as the coronavirus being created by the Democrats and Chinese to hurt Trump.
After years of political figures branding legitimate journalism as ‘fake news’ and social media companies pushing hard the message of user empowerment, it should not really be surprising that a portion of the public has come to believe that the truth about the pandemic was accessible via their social feed rather than the traditional gatekeepers.
Leaders such as Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin, who have more control over their respective information ecosystems, have not expressed overt support for domestically targeted COVID-19 disinformation. That said, Russian and Chinese state-affiliated outlets are more than willing to publish coronavirus related disinformation or peddle conspiracy theories, such that the virus may have originated as a US or Nato biological weapon.
While initial influence operations by China and Russia focused on sowing confusion about the virus’s origin, research shows the latest subject of contention is the race to produce a vaccine. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a disinformation campaign originating from the Russian-backed ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ in occupied eastern Ukraine, has already used the fictitious story of a vaccine trial to undermine the Ukrainian government.
COVID-19 disinformation is a sign of a broader trend in geopolitics. In place of military force, authoritarian states are increasingly exploiting the open media environments of democracies to try to shape public opinion and undermine social cohesion, sometimes in surprising ways. For ex- ample, disinformation that equates coronavirus restrictions with population control and the curtailment of freedom can help to remould a public health issue as an identity one, weaponizing it for subversion. The potency of digital disinformation to shape hearts and minds has not gone unnoticed by countries that want to expand their influence, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.
While the opportunities for exploiting such subversive possibilities are clear, it may be too early to conclude that the world has gone completely mad. A Reuters Institute study conducted in Britain in June 2020 showed that only 10 per cent of interviewees trusted news on social media as compared with 44 per cent who trusted news organizations.
We cannot afford to be complacent, however. Statistics do not necessarily reveal the whole picture and when it comes to social media platforms that serve billions, even a small percentage has impact.
As geopolitical power finds new forms of mediation, democracies need to sieve through the infoglut with clarity, perseverance and decisiveness to move forward, or the future may prove even more unpredictable than 2020.