'The country is in a state of trauma': COVID-19 has made the U.S. a breeding ground for propaganda

  • The novel coronavirus outbreak has upended everyday life in the US and turned the country into a breeding ground for fake news and disinformation as citizens increasingly distrust their leaders and each other.

  • Paul Barrett, a professor at NYU who published a report on disinformation and the 2020 election, told Insider he's seen an explosion in domestically sourced propaganda amid the outbreak.

  • Heightened tensions and partisanship in the US make it a "natural target" for foreign interference as well, John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the CIA, told Insider.

  • Anti-lockdown protests organized by wealthy conservative interests are popping up across the US. The data analysis firm Graphika also documented a surge in xenophobic disinformation and conspiracies from right-wing groups.

  • Russian trolls are adapting their 2016 strategy to be less conspicuous, and China is taking a page out of Russia's playbook as both countries wage intense, coordinated disinformation campaigns against the US.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

"TAKE ACTION IN LANSING," read the description of a widely publicized anti-lockdown protest at the Michigan state capital last week. "People always say: 'Conservatives never protest because they are too busy working.' Well, guess what. You're not working-- so it's time to PROTEST."

"The people are rising up against these insane shutdowns," said a Facebook ad promoting another anti-lockdown rally. "We're fighting back to demand that our elected officials reopen America."

The protests are just one indication of how the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus has upended daily life in the US. They also show how the country has turned into a breeding ground for domestic and foreign manipulation as Americans seize on conspiracies to question the motivation of their leaders and make sense of the pandemic.

"The first thing I thought of when I saw those protests was how easy it would be for the Russians or someone else to manipulate this," Michael Allen, the former Majority Staff Director for the House Intelligence Committee, told Insider.

More than 870,000 Americans have been infected with COVID-19 and over 50,000 have died. Business are shuttered, more than 26 million people have filed for unemployment in the last five weeks, and millions more are stuck indoors as states impose stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of the disease.

"The country is in a state of trauma," Allen said. "People are angry. And when they're out there seeking information, and it's readily available in a variety of forms, that's a ripe environment for foreign interference and disinformation."

coronavirus protest north carolina
Reuters/Rachel Jessen

An explosion in domestically sourced dis- and misinformation

Paul Barrett, a professor at New York University who released a report last year on how disinformation will affect the 2020 US election, told Insider he's seen an explosion of domestically sourced dis- and misinformation related to the outbreak.

"You've got people in connection with these protests saying social distancing is not necessary, that state guidelines to protect people's health are an infringement on their political or constitutional rights, and so on," Barrett said. "These Facebook groups are started by Americans to trade information and provoke people to join these protests, and so far as I know, no one has identified any of these groups as being Russia-based or fake."

He added that the phenomenon has become "inflamed" in large part by President Donald Trump "jumping into the mix" and calling for protesters to "LIBERATE" their states.

The ubiquitous nature of social media and easy access to the internet make homegrown misinformation and propaganda as potent a threat as foreign disinformation.

The Washington Post reported that many of the anti-lockdown protests are supported by a "network of right-leaning individuals and groups, aided by nimble online outfits" that have "helped incubate the fervor erupting in state capitals across the country."

Though the anti-lockdown activism is often organic and sincerely felt, The Post reported that "it is also being amplified, and in some cases coordinated, by longtime conservative activists, whose robust operations were initially set up with help from Republican megadonors."

The movement shows that "political misinformation and disinformation is not a straightforward message pushing people to elect a certain candidate," and that it often "imitates and preys on emotional sentiment and previously held positions," Barrett said.

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Tuesday, April 21, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Associated Press

Conservative groups share more disinformation than liberal groups

There is an "unprecedented volume of misinformation around the coronavirus, spreading both across platforms and across the globe," the data analysis firm Graphika found.

Conservative groups have a larger footprint on the global disinformation map surrounding coronavirus than liberal groups; they make up 27% and 8% of the total presence, respectively. Right-wing groups — particularly in the US, Italy, and France — are also more active than left-wing groups in engaging with coronavirus disinformation.

Racism and xenophobia are core narratives pushed by online communities that produce and engage with such content, the report said.

There is a "strong emphasis" on content that focuses on the origin of the virus, demonstrated by the popularity of hashtags like #ChinaVirus and #WuhanCoronavirus, according to the report. The hashtag #KungFlu was also popular in February and March, and "the use of this hashtag was mostly, if not entirely, concentrated in the US Right-Wing cluster."

Trump himself often promotes similar narratives; he brushed off concerns that the use of such terms would put Asian-Americans at risk of xenophobic attacks, and he's repeatedly referred to the novel coronavirus as the "Chinese virus" and "China virus."

The president and his loyalists have also pushed an unproven conspiracy theory that claims the coronavirus was created in or accidently escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China.

Right-wing outfits in the US like Zero Hedge and the QAnon community are highly engaged with sharing coronavirus conspiracies and misinformation, Graphika found. And influential figures like Bill Gates and George Soros — both of whom strongly support social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders — are frequent targets for these communities.

New york coronavirus testing
New york coronavirus testing

Sgt. Amouris Coss/U.S. Army National Guard/Handout/Reuters

'This could get dangerous'

A representative for Graphika and former intelligence officials told Insider that there's no evidence so far that the Russian government is directly involved in organizing or promoting anti-lockdown protests in the US.

That said, "we should be on guard," John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the CIA, told Insider. "They have to be tempted. It's a natural target for them."

Disinformation, or "dezinformatsiya," is a brand of information warfare that the Russians have been using since at least the Cold War. Disinformation campaigns are just one of several active measures Russian intelligence uses to sow discord among, and within, nations perceived as hostile to Moscow's goals.

In 2016, allies of the Kremlin paid Russian internet trolls to carry out a disinformation campaign and spread pro-Trump agitprop aimed at deceiving the public and stoking political divisions leading up to the election. The trolls went so far as to organize and promote real-life rallies in the US about Trump and hotbutton issues like immigration and police brutality.

This time around, when Graphika analyzed narratives about the coronavirus designed to stoke geopolitical tensions, initial insights showed that pro-Kremlin voices have spread messaging "in various geographies" focused on undermining trust in global institutions and promoting the failures of other governments.

"This could get dangerous," said Allen, who previously served on the National Security Council during the Bush administration. "If the shelter-in-place issue becomes more political than it already is, it's going to be really bad. It's one of a million things they can manipulate: 'You've been mistreated, your government screwed you out of your job, your government crazily overestimated the number of deaths and put you out of work for its own agenda.'"

He added: "The whole point of sheltering in place, of social distancing, is to get the infections and deaths to go down. But [foreign actors] will use the fact that the deaths went down to say the government didn't know what it was doing."

Vladimir Putin
Adam Berry/Getty Images

Russian trolls adapt their strategy to be less conspicuous

Russian interference in the US this time will likely be more sophisticated than it was in 2016, Steve Hall, the CIA's former chief of Russian operations, told Insider.

"The organizations that conduct these activities for the Russian government are intelligence services that are very capable and have unlimited resources," Hall said. "Putin counts himself as an intelligence officer too, you know, he says 'there's no such thing as a former KGB officer.'"

Russian intelligence services are "also very good at learning their lessons and improving their game since they've been doing this for so long," he added. "They've probably learned a lot from 2016."

Now, Russia will wage a more covert influence campaign.

"The messaging we see won't be as much crude English, they won't be as brazen and buy Facebook ads where the bill can lead straight back to someone in Moscow," Allen said.

Indeed, the Russians are already adapting their strategy to be less conspicuous. The New York Times tracked several ways the Internet Research Agency's tactics have evolved since it first burst into the US political scene in 2016.

Among other things, the group is copying and pasting chunks of text to avoid publishing posts with grammatical and syntax errors; it's using less text and fewer hashtags while reposting more screenshots; it's working harder to hide its social media accounts instead of trying to build up huge followings; it's blurring or removing watermarks to conceal the source of images and memes it posts online; and instead of creating new accounts on Facebook, it's relying more on local people and media to post stories to the platform.

McLaughlin said Russia will also likely escalate its actions this time around.

"Expect them to employ 'deep fake' techniques that make forensic detection of their activity more difficult by social media companies that are now more alert to their techniques and have to some degree tightened up on their activities," he said.

Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping
Wu Hong/Pool Photo via AP

China follows Russia's lead

But foreign interference in the US — related to the both coronavirus and the upcoming election — isn't limited to just Russia.

"The Chinese aren't as adept as the Russians are at this, but they will step into the breach a little more because of this unique situation with COVID-19," Allen said.

In one recent instance, Chinese operatives were behind the rapid spread of a series of messages to Americans in mid-March warning that the Trump administration was about to lock down the entire country. The messages were so widespread over a two-day period that the National Security Council had to announce on Twitter that they were "FAKE."

The technique the operatives used to spread their disinformation — blasting out text messages to Americans' cell phones — alarmed US officials, who told The New York Times they'd never seen anything like it before.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy, an organization that tracks the spread of disinformation on social media, also recently updated its dashboard to account for Chinese government-backed propaganda (it previously monitored only Russia-linked accounts).

And the Center for New American Security determined that Beijing is "exploiting the relative openness of the United States' and other democracies' social media platforms to manipulate the narrative around its policies," while using some of China's own social media platforms to broaden its surveillance capabilities.

donald trump xi jinping
Reuters/Carlos Barria

'They have taken one of our greatest attributes and turned it against us'

An internal State Department report this month confirmed that China, Russia, and Iran are waging increasingly intense and coordinated disinformation campaigns against the US related to the coronavirus outbreak.

All three countries are using social media, government agencies, and state-sponsored media outlets to disseminate false information to domestic and global audiences denigrating the US and blaming it for the pandemic, the report said.

"We're not prepared for this," Allen said. "We're just not good at it. We are terrible in the defense category because we're such an open society and, rightfully so, we view information as an empowering force. But they've [malign actors] taken one of our greatest attributes and turned it against us."

Trump, meanwhile, "has provided absolutely no leadership on the issues we've been talking about," Barrett said. "In fact, he's a bigger part of the problem than a part of the solution."

"People have brought firearms to some of these anti-lockdown protests," he added. "There hasn't been actual violence so far, thank goodness, but when the president makes these exclamations calling to 'liberate' states, there's a lot of force behind it, and that could be interpreted by desperate people as a call for violence."

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