Disinformation Campaigns Are Murky Blends Of Truth, Lies And Sincere Beliefs: Lessons From The Pandemic

from the mixed-motives dept

The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned an infodemic, a vast and complicated mix of information, misinformation and disinformation.

In this environment, false narratives – the virus was “planned,” that it originated as a bioweapon, that COVID-19 symptoms are caused by 5G wireless communications technology – have spread like wildfire across social media and other communication platforms. Some of these bogus narratives play a role in disinformation campaigns.

The notion of disinformation often brings to mind easy-to-spot propaganda peddled by totalitarian states, but the reality is much more complex. Though disinformation does serve an agenda, it is often camouflaged in facts and advanced by innocent and often well-meaning individuals.

As a researcher who studies how communications technologies are used during crises, I’ve found that this mix of information types makes it difficult for people, including those who build and run online platforms, to distinguish an organic rumor from an organized disinformation campaign. And this challenge is not getting any easier as efforts to understand and respond to COVID-19 get caught up in the political machinations of this year’s presidential election.

Rumors, misinformation and disinformation

Rumors are, and have always been, common during crisis events. Crises are often accompanied by uncertainty about the event and anxiety about its impacts and how people should respond. People naturally want to resolve that uncertainty and anxiety, and often attempt to do so through collective sensemaking. It’s a process of coming together to gather information and theorize about the unfolding event. Rumors are a natural byproduct.

Rumors aren’t necessarily bad. But the same conditions that produce rumors also make people vulnerable to disinformation, which is more insidious. Unlike rumors and misinformation, which may or may not be intentional, disinformation is false or misleading information spread for a particular objective, often a political or financial aim.

Disinformation has its roots in the practice of dezinformatsiya used by the Soviet Union’s intelligence agencies to attempt to change how people understood and interpreted events in the world. It’s useful to think of disinformation not as a single piece of information or even a single narrative, but as a campaign, a set of actions and narratives produced and spread to deceive for political purpose.

Lawrence Martin-Bittman, a former Soviet intelligence officer who defected from what was then Czechoslovakia and later became a professor of disinformation, described how effective disinformation campaigns are often built around a true or plausible core. They exploit existing biases, divisions and inconsistencies in a targeted group or society. And they often employ “unwitting agents” to spread their content and advance their objectives.

Regardless of the perpetrator, disinformation functions on multiple levels and scales. While a single disinformation campaign may have a specific objective – for instance, changing public opinion about a political candidate or policy – pervasive disinformation works at a more profound level to undermine democratic societies.

The case of the ‘Plandemic’ video

Distinguishing between unintentional misinformation and intentional disinformation is a critical challenge. Intent is often hard to infer, especially in online spaces where the original source of information can be obscured. In addition, disinformation can be spread by people who believe it to be true. And unintentional misinformation can be strategically amplified as part of a disinformation campaign. Definitions and distinctions get messy, fast.

Consider the case of the “Plandemic” video that blazed across social media platforms in May 2020. The video contained a range of false claims and conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Problematically, it advocated against wearing masks, claiming they would “activate” the virus, and laid the foundations for eventual refusal of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Though many of these false narratives had emerged elsewhere online, the “Plandemic” video brought them together in a single, slickly produced 26-minute video. Before being removed by the platforms for containing harmful medical misinformation, the video propagated widely on Facebook and received millions of YouTube views.

As it spread, it was actively promoted and amplified by public groups on Facebook and networked communities on Twitter associated with the anti-vaccine movement, the QAnon conspiracy theory community and pro-Trump political activism.

But was this a case of misinformation or disinformation? The answer lies in understanding how – and inferring a little about why – the video went viral.

The video’s protagonist was Dr. Judy Mikovits, a discredited scientist who had previously advocated for several false theories in the medical domain – for example, claiming that vaccines cause autism. In the lead-up to the video’s release, she was promoting a new book, which featured many of the narratives that appeared in the Plandemic video.

One of those narratives was an accusation against Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. At the time, Fauci was a focus of criticism for promoting social distancing measures that some conservatives viewed as harmful to the economy. Public comments from Mikovits and her associates suggest that damaging Fauci’s reputation was a specific goal of their campaign.

In the weeks leading up to the release of the Plandemic video, a concerted effort to lift Mikovits’ profile took shape across several social media platforms. A new Twitter account was started in her name, quickly accumulating thousands of followers. She appeared in interviews with hyperpartisan news outlets such as The Epoch Times and True Pundit. Back on Twitter, Mikovits greeted her new followers with the message: “Soon, Dr Fauci, everyone will know who you ‘really are’.”

This background suggests that Mikovits and her collaborators had several objectives beyond simply sharing her misinformed theories about COVID-19. These include financial, political and reputational motives. However, it is also possible that Mikovits is a sincere believer of the information that she was sharing, as were millions of people who shared and retweeted her content online.

What’s ahead

In the United States, as COVID-19 blurs into the presidential election, we’re likely to continue to see disinformation campaigns employed for political, financial and reputational gain. Domestic activist groups will use these techniques to produce and spread false and misleading narratives about the disease – and about the election. Foreign agents will attempt to join the conversation, often by infiltrating existing groups and attempting to steer them towards their goals.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]

For example, there will likely be attempts to use the threat of COVID-19 to frighten people away from the polls. Along with those direct attacks on election integrity, there are likely to also be indirect effects – on people’s perceptions of election integrity – from both sincere activists and agents of disinformation campaigns.

Efforts to shape attitudes and policies around voting are already in motion. These include work to draw attention to voter suppression and attempts to frame mail-in voting as vulnerable to fraud. Some of this rhetoric stems from sincere criticism meant to inspire action to make the electoral systems stronger. Other narratives, for example unsupported claims of “voter fraud,” seem to serve the primary aim of undermining trust in those systems.

History teaches that this blending of activism and active measures, of foreign and domestic actors, and of witting and unwitting agents, is nothing new. And certainly the difficulty of distinguishing between these is not made any easier in the connected era. But better understanding these intersections can help researchers, journalists, communications platform designers, policymakers and society at large develop strategies for mitigating the impacts of disinformation during this challenging moment.The Conversation

Kate Starbird, Associate Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering, University of Washington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Filed Under: covid, disinformation, information spreading, pandemic


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 4:58pm

    mm wave and cm wave, transmissions and lower are still classified as LSD dealers unless the wavelength doesn't permeate a wall or living tissue.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 30 Jul 2020 @ 5:52pm

    The first social media platform: the restroom wall.

    Things haven't changed much.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    seedeevee (profile), 30 Jul 2020 @ 6:19pm

    How Fucking Stupid Do You Think We Are?

    "Disinformation has its roots in the practice of dezinformatsiya used by the Soviet Union’s intelligence agencies to attempt to change how people understood and interpreted events in the world. "

    This is - by far - the stupidest thing I have seen printed by this website.

    In an article about "disinformation" you have deliberately published false information about the Soviet Union (The Soviet Fucking Union!) being the first to use techniques that have been around as long as humans have existed.

    You Russiagaters are dumbing down the World.

    Kate Starbird is a xenophobic hack, also.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 8:10pm

      Re: How Fucking Stupid Do You Think We Are?

      Yeah, about that... i'm pretty sure Starbird is giving the operant definition of disinformation for the purposes of the analysis and discussion. I think the whole point is that the certain class of disinformation tactics are not your average disinformation, and this has roots in the mentioned Soviet flavor. You know, like some things could have roots in the Cold War era CIA mindfuckery, or our lovely advertising industry. There was a surge of this sort of thing post WWII.

      Pretty sure you would find the first post on this page most important to you.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        seedeevee (profile), 31 Jul 2020 @ 1:16am

        Re: Re: How Fucking Stupid Do You Think We Are?

        I'd say the point is that the xenophobic cold warriors at the Hoover Institution have published and promoted Starbird precisely because she does the anti-Russian propaganda with newer lines and a fresher face. Condi Rice is getting a little old. The Hoover Institution is the same disgraceful mess it has always been.

        Information is information, Putting a Russian accent on it doesn't make it beter or worse.

        Don't really know why the guys at techdirt have an interest in this. But they have printed some of that Russiagate nonsense too . . .

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Strawb (profile), 31 Jul 2020 @ 1:24am

      Re: How Fucking Stupid Do You Think We Are?

      In an article about "disinformation" you have deliberately published false information about the Soviet Union (The Soviet Fucking Union!) being the first to use techniques that have been around as long as humans have existed.

      From Wikipedia:
      "The English word disinformation is a loan translation of the Russian dezinformatsiya,[1][2][3] derived from the title of a KGB black propaganda department.[4] Joseph Stalin coined the term, giving it a French-sounding name to claim it had a Western origin.[1] Russian use began with a "special disinformation office" in 1923.[5] Disinformation was defined in Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1952) as "false information with the intention to deceive public opinion".[1][2][6]"

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        seedeevee (profile), 1 Aug 2020 @ 9:45pm

        Re: Re: How Fucking Stupid Do You Think We Are?

        Wow, Wikipedia. It must be true and the end of this matter.

        And, I am sure, just as it is printed on your screen there, that Joseph Stalin coined the term.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 2 Aug 2020 @ 6:13am

          Re: Re: Re: How Fucking Stupid Do You Think We Are?

          Are you claiming the wiki text is wrong or are you claiming the references for said text contain incorrect information ... or maybe both?

          Inquiring minds want to know.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2020 @ 1:31am

      Re: How Fucking Stupid Do You Think We Are?

      The concept has been around for centuries (even the original meaning of fake news had been used in the Wars of the French Revolution), but the word disinformation was only coined in the middle of the 20th century in Russia.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2020 @ 5:59am

      Re: How Fucking Stupid Do You Think We Are?

      I don't know how fucking stupid whoever you're addressing think "we" are, but I think they would be completely justified in thinking that you are plenty fucking stupid. Because, you know, you are.

      Calling an observation of a historical fact "xenophobic" is plenty fucking stupid.

      Using a rant about non-existent xenophobia in a sideline comment to dismiss the entire rest of the message is plenty fucking stupid. Especially as we can see right through your stupid bullshit.

      I eagerly await your stupid response.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        seedeevee (profile), 1 Aug 2020 @ 9:54pm

        Re: Re: How Fucking Stupid Do You Think We Are?

        Good to see that you put on your moron hat today and that you think that xenophobia has nothing to do with the histories you read.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 31 Jul 2020 @ 3:07am

    concept of thinking..

    1 interesting site that shows Both sides.

    https://web.ground.news/article/1b7646cb-ae50-4406-b13f-88a05d3d400d/trump-blasts-trending-se ction-on-twitter-really-ridiculous-illegal-and-of-course-very-unfair

    For those that complain that Black people are the problem, I ask them to say, WHAT IF, a white person did it? What would you be saying? NOTHING.

    Pointing fingers generally means no one is fixing things.

    How easy is it to produce 10 different comments all saying Slightly different things, so that no one can figure out WHAT the hell is going on..
    OR hide What is happening.

    "Its for the Children", means someone WANTS to help the children, and the comment PULLS them away from other things happening.
    The internet is great for many things, but the BIG thing is WHO do you listen to?? ok, that person was TRYING to help the Children, I will listen to that person..
    And Even if another group/person Shows that what ios said about the children, that 100,000+ of them are having a problem.. that Number is based on 20 year of data, that 2/3 of those are paper work NOT being kept properly. Another Part is Runaways, family problems, Child endangerment problems...and out of the 100,000+ we MIGHT have 300. 300 over a 20 year period.. but What happened? 300 Children missing. Its been 10-20 years since they went away/disappeared/vanished. But 300/100,000??? ISNT that bad. 0.3 %(?)
    In many countries its WORSE. esp for Emigrants..

    In a country with SPECIALISTS for everything.. who do you listen to? he has 2 medical professionals responsible for the WHOLE NATION, not counting WHO.
    And HIMSELF, runs up to the podium...and opens mouth.

    Anyone remember they CLOSED the tech dept, that explains TECH to the congress?

    So, WHY is HE UP THERE TRYING TO TELL US WHAT TO DO. he has Supposedly hired 2000+ persons to monitor all of the gov. FOR HIMSELF..(reps told him who to post), and he has FIRED most of them, some more then 1 time.

    The only problem I tend to see.. Is that there are people that NEED to have someone tell them WHAT to believe or see. really.
    NOW! there is something special here about that comment. I believe everyone is smart, BUT you feed them Bits. Small amounts to understand. NOT A TON, not an oz.. A BIT. and then another bit. then another bit..and the parts start to be put together. Slowly. Show them how things Fit, and how to look at things and see that its strange, and abit Offf..

    The ONLY real problem tends to be, getting the news, to decide... truth, opinion, stupid, and LIES. And if we could find a way to SORT THIS, and require that IT BE TITLED AS SUCH... we might have a chance of common since(I hate spelling 1 of 3 versions.).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2020 @ 5:49am

    "Disinformation Campaigns Are Murky Blends Of Truth, Lies And Sincere Beliefs: Lessons From The Pandemic"

    Based upon this definition, I guess that the trump admin is not engaged in a disinformation campaign as there is zero truth in anything he says. If he stated the sky is blue this morning, by afternoon he would deny saying that. Seems the entire gop is off in lala land telling themselves that everything is ok.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      seedeevee (profile), 1 Aug 2020 @ 9:55pm

      Re:

      The sky changes color throughout the day. That a fact of life. You should learn to deal with it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 2 Aug 2020 @ 6:19am

        Re: Re:

        Is it the color of the sky or is it the filtering of light?
        Please Mr Professor, I am wanting to learn.
        Either way, the gop wants you to disbelieve all science, apparently science disagrees with their dogma or is it the other way around?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Peter (profile), 31 Jul 2020 @ 8:34am

    Government and Media have abused our Trust over and over, ...

    ... and they are paying the price. More precisely - we all are paying the price.

    There have always been people making things up. Generally, nobody cared. Because people would rather believe the government and the media, who had a reputation for being reliable.

    Until government and media figured out the people would trust them regardless of whether they were telling truth.

    After the government got away with the starting a war (Iraq) based on lies, all dams broke away. Constitutional boundaries that had worked well for centuries were removed by the magic words "national security". International contracts - written and unwritten ones - were broken to gain some short term benefits. And trade wars were - and are being - started to promote interests of American companies.

    George Floyd and Corona weren't the first sign that the foundations had eroded behind all the blustering. But they have opened the eyes of many that the government had stopped function. Stopped being meet even the most basic requirements of a government.

    Which means it does not take make much for people to look elsewhere for answers.

    That is the problem, and not some idiots blaming China or 5G-Technology for the outbreak of Corona in Ameriaca.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      seedeevee (profile), 1 Aug 2020 @ 9:57pm

      Re: Government and Media have abused our Trust over and over, ..

      Iraq wasn't the first war started by lies. That's why we have been getting all of the Russia bullshit by these bullshitters. They need enemies for their war profiteers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mark Gisleson (profile), 31 Jul 2020 @ 8:59am

    Here's another article

    Professor Starbird wrote a similar article in 2018: https://medium.com/s/story/the-trolls-within-how-russian-information-operations-infiltrated-online-c ommunities-691fb969b9e4

    Frankly, I'd be more interested in reading about how the CIA uses these strategies domestically.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 31 Jul 2020 @ 1:50pm

      Re: Here's another article

      its funny as I thought the CIA was supposed to be International info, rather then National. The FBI is National.
      But it seems we have more police in this country, then we need or want. and they are BORED..
      If there is nothing to do, Find something to do, or Fire the extra thats not needed? no, you cant, because there is a time to have Everyone help...NOT just the police.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      seedeevee (profile), 1 Aug 2020 @ 9:59pm

      Re: Here's another article

      The fact that you read Starbird's article shows you how the CIA strategizes internal information policies.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Aug 2020 @ 7:34am

    What Percentage Protection from a Vaccine?

    There have been multiple reports that victims of Covid-19 have recovered only to be reinfected. If recovery from full infection fails to guarantee immunity, what degree of defense does the simulated infection offered by a vaccine promise? Statistical modeling could estimate the expected value of the vaccine's efficacy, but any mention of this is glaringly absent from the government discourse. Given how long it's taken the Cheeto-Headed crap-weasel in the Oval Office to be bothered to wear a mask and that he's ordered reporting to be shunted into White House hands, bypassing the CDC, it seems it seems entirely unlikely the necessary data will be made available for analysis by honest researchers as long as the Crap-Weasel-in-Chief rules.

    We need to accept that removing Trump from office is critical to the survival our nation. One cough, one sneeze, one deliciously derisive raspberry properly delivered could solve our Cheeto problem...he still doesn't wear eye-protection.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Aug 2020 @ 6:51pm

    ...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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