Disinformation in the Time of Pandemics

by | Apr 15, 2020 | Blog

So here we are, caught in the middle of a pandemic stemming from some failed chiroptera cuisine and aside from all of the normal daily activities, ones which a month and a half ago would have pulled me physically in several different directions and locations, I otherwise find myself at the intersection point of these three things: (1) isolation, (2) reading (in this case, browsing the internet), and (3) lots of thinking.

The good…
In addition to learning that Ozzie Osbourne somehow avoided becoming the original patient zero of COVID in the early ’80s, I also learned that the intersection of these things can support positive outcomes – including alleged productivity bursts for both William Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton. Though, neither of these men had an easy way to communicate beyond shouting from their front doorstep.

The bad…
Today, we also find ourselves inundated with extra time to think, to read, and to further ruminate on what we read. We’re also infinitely more connected to the rest of the world than William or Sir Isaac ever were. The combination of all of this sets an ecosystem ripe for the spreading of rumors and misinformation, and creates the opportunity for bad actors to weaponize the existing narratives to proliferate their own messaging and disinformation.

We see these factors coalesce in today’s pandemic along with 2 additional causes:

  1. The public has been set in a heightened emotional state due to the extended physical isolation, the economic impacts, the general feeling of the unknown
  2. A continued distrust of institutions that historically have been trustworthy (IE governmental agencies/organizations, the press, etc.) due in part to exposure to fallacies over time and otherwise the intentional erosion by foreign actors through various means

This combination of a heightened emotional state, with the context of an erosion of the trust in historically trusted intuitions, leads to one key outcome: people, reasonable people, find themselves lending credence to and relying on the rumor mill. From here, the progression in our situation has roughly followed 3 phases:

What we’re seeing now, is that these elements have lead initially to domestic actors providing the broader source and proliferation of misinformation, which allows foreign actors to further fan the flames of virality around these unintentionally false stories, and in this case is largely continuing to promote social division, the “us vs them” mentality, which in turn further delegitimizes traditionally trusted sources of information – leading us to lean on the rumor mill even more. For the most part, this is all being used by foreign actors to further confuse and obfuscate public certainty on the origination of the virus, with a primary focus on deflecting blame by seeding doubt using conspiracy theories.

With the upcoming elections in the US, we have seen a wide range of messaging campaigns popping up, including tying narratives of the COVID pandemic related quarantines to voter suppression narratives. Generally we see these all trending to continue to sow division and erode trust in the election system. We also expect that once the elections have happened, foreign actors will use all of this to question the outcomes of the election, whatever they may be – whether on the side of legitimacy from a lack of accurate voter representation or by claiming election tampering through vectors such as cyber warfare.

As an individual – It’s easy to get caught up in the rumor mill, but it’s important to remember that that’s exactly what foreign state actors are trying to accomplish with their veiled messaging campaigns using dis- and mis-information. It’s important to remember that information from historically trusted sources of factual information and 3-year-old online news forums should be weighed intentionally and differently.

As a company – keep track of the different narratives evolving in and around your business & industry. Make sure you are active in assessing the associated risks and once you understand the external forces behind the emerging narratives, you’re better positioned to actively manage situations that could inflict damage.

Bottom line…
It’s a lot to take in, but it’s important to remember to be active in your assessment of information you’re presented with. Think about how a parent treats trick-or-treating on Halloween – it’s the best bet to get candy from the houses that you know and the neighborhoods you’re familiar with, otherwise use a healthy amount of scrutiny when evaluating the things you intend to consume.

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