It takes a virus to know one.
COVID-19 has the world at a standstill, in part because it can hide within us for weeks. We may unknowingly share the virus with friends and within our community. The outcome for most people will be manageable, but for too many, the result can be tragic.
It’s a virus that we cannot see and that has the ability to hide and can strike anyone down. That brings out all our anxieties, fears and caution as we aim to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
Another virus is also having impact at a vast scale, though it’s threat is more subtle, so we aren’t thinking about it as often. It’s the virtual virus of disinformation that permeates our lives.
We sometimes share disinfo, unknowingly, with our friends and communities. Some may have recently heard that “[T]he coronavirus is created by the Americans” and that it was “genetically shaped” in “American laboratories.” That’s what they said at KP.ru (Komsomolskaya Pravda), a daily Russian tabloid newspaper). It seems a crazy thought, but by the time it reaches so many on social media, some may wonder if it might be true. And although many people are mostly unaffected, a growing minority become more distrusting of society, or their anxieties grow, and they start to make decisions counter to the health of themselves and our world.
As we join together to flatten the curve of COVID-19, let’s also join to flatten the curve of disinformation.
It’s the age of two-second attention spans and we receive content from dozens of outlets, channels and devices on a daily basis. So we are more susceptible than ever to being harmed by fake content. You could say that our digital immune system is weakening.
We can see this more clearly if we look at propaganda emanating from Russia. As COVID-19 hit our shores, experts identified at least 110 Kremlin-linked disinformation campaigns related to the pandemic. They told us, among other things, that Bill Gates and George Soros sponsored the Wuhan virus outbreak; that it is a U.K., U.S. or NATO creation; that America has a cure; that it is a man-made disease that targets Chinese DNA; that it was created with economic goals in mind, with big pharmaceutical companies spreading panic to maximize profits; that it is a biological weapon for use against Russia and China; that it will wipe out Ukraine in a few days and that the pandemic was predicted by Nostradamus and others.
The creativity of those who disinform is as great as many creative teams in the advertising industry. The big difference, however, is that those who disinform never throw out their worst ideas. In fact, their worst ideas are often the best ones to use.
Lea Gabrielle, Special Envoy and Coordinator for the Global Engagement Center at the U.S. Department of State succinctly explained the approach of Russia during recent testimony to Congress. Ms. Gabrielle, a former navy pilot and intelligence officer, said “The Kremlin often swamps the media environment with a tsunami of lies. Outside of Russia, the Kremlin seeks to weaken its adversaries by manipulating the information environment in nefarious ways, polarizing domestic political conversations, and attempting to destroy the public’s faith in good governance, independent media, and democratic principles.”
The world is being inundated with false narratives deployed by those who want to destabilize it. It is a new form of asymmetric warfare. It doesn’t come from kids in basements. It’s concocted by adults in conference rooms, like at the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg.
When we battle COVID-19, we use all of the resources of our country, whether through the stimulus plan or making more ventilators or creating makeshift hospitals. Meanwhile we pursue new tests and treatments.
In the disinformation war, we also need to immunize ourselves by working as one team.
Social media companies are doing what they can. Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft are working with the WHO and national health officials to promote verified content and make it more accessible to users (such as Google SOS alerts, which are used during crises). YouTube removes videos claiming to prevent infections. Facebook put additional limitations on posting and advertising COVID-related information, and encourages moderators of closed groups and communities to share responsibility for deleting hoaxes and conspiracy theories. Facebook announced increased funding for the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). Twitter broadened its definition of “harm” to include descriptions of treatments or cures that are harmful or ineffective. Reddit declared its readiness to fight false information on its pages by applying “a quarantine to communities that contain hoax or misinformation content.”
The Global Engagement Center of the U.S. State Department has created disinfocloud.com where you can sign up to find more than 100 tools important in our fight to counter disinformation. Another valuable site for fact-checking is Polygraph.info, led by Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and supported by the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
No one wants COVID-19 to survive. We can’t wait for the curve to flatten.
Unfortunately, the virtual virus of disinformation won’t flatten anytime soon. To achieve the equivalent of a vaccine to counter disinformation will require companies, government and each of us to join hands and partner. Our adversaries are seeking to divide us.
But we’re better and smarter than many realize. We believe major progress is possible. COVID-19 will eventually be dealt with. So will this other virtual virus.
Bob Pearson is an author, advisor and entrepreneur. Franak Viacorka is Digital Media Strategist at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, an independent agency of the Federal Government.