“Stay at home” means lots of staring at screens.
For most, it’s constant coverage of COVID-19. Diversions emerge, however, including instant Netflix hit “Tiger King.”
A bear and a dragon have managed to work into the menagerie, too, as Russia and China have “seized on the novel coronavirus to wage disinformation campaigns that seek to sow doubts about the United States’ handling of the crisis and deflect attention from their own struggles with the pandemic,” according to a New York Times report on the analysis of U.S. intelligence officials and diplomats.
Beijing’s and Moscow’s malevolence are just one component of a corresponding pathogen to the coronavirus: disinformation and misinformation.
Those are two aspects of an “infodemic,” a word the World Health Organization uses to describe “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
The infodemic in this case can be broadly categorized in three different ways, said Graham Brookie, the director and managing editor of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Disinformation, Brookie said, is the intentional spread of false information. Misinformation can be just as insidious, but often lacks the ideological motivation as disinformation; it’s the unintentional spread of false information. A smaller category, Brookie added, is economic disinformation (snake-oil coronavirus “cures”).
But just as crucial — and in a pandemic, lethal — is information suppression, which is what the Chinese government did when Wuhan doctors raised alarms about what would become a worldwide health threat, according to a Bloomberg News account of a classified report to the White House.
“In the face of a pandemic, information suppression is just as dangerous as disinformation,” Brookie said. China, he added, made the crisis “exponentially worse.”
China and Russia have also worsened world affairs with their disinformation campaigns. As described by the Times, “Kremlin-aligned websites aimed at Western audiences have trafficked in conspiracy theories to spread fear in Europe and political division in the United States.”
China, the Times continued, “has been more overtly aggressive. It has used a network of government-linked social media accounts to spread discredited, and sometimes contradictory, theories. And China has adopted Russia’s playbook for more covert operations, mimicking Kremlin disinformation campaigns and even using and amplifying some of the same conspiracy sites.”
The tactics may be relatively new. But Beijing’s and Moscow’s strategy is not.
“China and Russia have a long, long history of political and social espionage,” said Theresa Payton, who was the chief information officer in the George W. Bush administration.
Payton, who is now CEO of Fortalice Solutions and the author of the upcoming book “Manipulated: Inside the Cyberwar to Distort Elections and Distort the Truth,” added: “It used to be a ground game, but now with social media they don’t have to have boots on the ground.”
As evidenced in Russia’s election attacks, much of the meddling isn’t directly from the Kremlin, but from opaquely affiliated troll farms set up to sow social chaos. One consistent factor, Brookie said, “is this kind of message testing, discrete or in obvious platforms and seeing kind of what works and what doesn’t and then letting that percolate.” And at times, Brookie added, there are “cookie-cutter examples of it from China, replicating exactly what Russia’s done in the past.”
What Russia did in the past — and no doubt during this year’s campaign — was to try to divide the United States. But Americans can combat foreign or domestic disinformation.
For instance, citizens should pick two to three “vetted” outlets they trust more than posts or tweets, Payton said.
Of course, it’s important to vary vetted outlets. The perils of not doing so are apparent in a new Pew Research Center report titled “Cable TV and COVID-19: How Americans perceive the outbreak and view media coverage differ by main news source.”
The study states that responses to the coverage and the pandemic itself vary notable among Americans who identify Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN as their main news source. MSNBC viewers are “far more likely than the Fox News group to correctly answer that the coronavirus originated in nature rather than a laboratory and that it will take a year or more for a vaccine to be available.”
There’s also a sharp departure in perceptions of pandemic coverage: 79% of Fox News viewers said that the news media have greatly or slightly exaggerated the risks about the coronavirus outbreak compared to 35% of MSNBC viewers. Correspondingly, 92% of MSNBC viewers said that the news media are doing very or somewhat well in covering COVID-19, compared to 58% of Fox News viewers.
Sharp partisan splits are manifest in America’s politics and cable news networks. While these divides can be expected to be reflected in issues like impeachment, science, not political science, should drive coronavirus coverage. The divergence of opinions seen in Pew’s poll about the pandemic presents a danger of an inconsistent, and thus ineffectual, response.
Sourcing is a key consideration in mitigating the infodemic, Brookie and his Atlantic Council colleague Andy Carvin wrote in an Atlantic magazine piece this week. In it, they recommend five specific steps: Consider the source, and the source’s source; check your own biases; ask yourself if you’re being constructive; be emphatic, but also empathetic; and remember that anxiety is natural, but it’s also viral.
Overall, Brookie and Carvin state, “Be patient, kind, deliberate and fact-based. More people will listen. We’re in this together. It’s our civic duty to ensure we’re all making the smartest decisions and not allowing rumors or conspiracy theories to take seed. We all have a role to play. You don’t have to become an epidemiology expert — the medical professionals and journalists will do their jobs. You do have to make an effort to not spread rumors or falsehoods, or anything else that could make a public-health response harder for those around you.
“Lives depend on it.”
Wise words anytime, but particularly amid a pandemic and an infodemic.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.