Social isolation-sparked rush online creates perfect environment for infodemic, professor argues

There are two infectious pandemics at work around the globe. One is a biological virus and the other is disinformation that sows fear, distrust, falsehoods, and errors. They are similar in many ways. Both are spread through human interaction and both are having a tremendous impact on health, the economy, and security. One is understood to be “viral” in the literal sense, where the other has information that can be classified as spreading disinformation, misinformation or rumors in a “viral” fashion via social media.

In fact, back in February, the World Health Organization (WHO) proactively forecast a massive infodemic. Officials were concerned that it would be extremely difficult for people to find reliable and valid sources for guidance on COVID-19. The WHO defines an infodemic as an excessive amount of disinformation, misinformation and rumors, making concrete solutions and effective public response problematic.

As governmental leaders and health organizations are consumed with managing the virus, they are also fighting off disinformation.

Early on, the WHO recognized the significance of an infodemic, and therefore engaged Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to manage coronavirus disinformation. Disinformation, just like the coronavirus, is highly contagious and through social media, can be spread to immediate and distant contacts. Similarly, just like COVID-19, efforts to find the original source are incredibly important to prevent future disinformation, but also to “quarantine” the source to prevent future erroneous campaigns.

Dr. Travis Morris

For example, in mid-March, a Chinese source alleged that the U.S. Army was in some way responsible for the growth of the virus. The source suggested that COVID-19 was actually a U.S. weapon planted by U.S. personnel in the city of Wuhan. The fact that this bit of disinformation was tweeted by a Chinese Foreign Minister in a controversial article validated the falsehood to some degree, which, if believed on a large scale, could have prompted a political intervention or other response.

The spread of disinformation is nothing new. During the Cold War, numerous biological weapon disinformation campaigns were deployed. For example, the Soviet Union accused the United States of developing biological weapons and releasing them into the general public. One of the most popular disinformation campaigns, Operation INFEKTION, occurred in the early 1980s, when the Soviets claimed that AIDS was a biological weapon designed and deployed by the U.S. military to discredit the United States and its foreign policy initiatives.

Even more recently, in 2018, Maj. Gen. Igor Kirillov, the leader of the Russian military radiation, chemical, and biological protection unit, declared that the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, Georgia, was involved in illicit biological weapons activities for the United States. The Russian disinformation narrative claimed that the center was a front for a biological weapons lab designed to study, collect, and store pathogen samples for the Pentagon. His accusations were disseminated via Facebook other social media platforms in Georgia.

Collecting COVID-19 disinformation

Researchers, think tanks and governmental agencies are currently engaged in monitoring and collecting disinformation as it relates to COVID-19. For example, NewsGuard’s New Coronavirus Dis-Information Tracking Center analyzes news from Germany, Italy, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. To date, the center has identified 153 false pieces of information related to the virus. This information ranges from false health content, to the promotion of a conspiracy theory involving the United States or other countries, or false treatment methods to cure the virus like drinking colloidal silver or swallowing bleach. On a similar note, the United Nations and European Union database are monitoring the infodemic. The European Union has recorded 80 incidences of disinformation since Jan. 22 and has noted a current disinformation trend of Russian origin that centers on the amplification of Iranian accusations that COVID-19 is a U.S. biological weapon.

This infodemic exacerbates the problems related to the pandemic and COVID-19. As governmental leaders and health organizations are consumed with managing the virus, they are also fighting off disinformation, which could be a catalyst of other serious problems, such as causing large segments of a population to fear that crime, looting, food shortages or power/water outages are imminent. In this current environment of isolation, in which most information is being derived from online sources, false stories can generate real panics, thus complicating the treatment of COVID-19.

Again, disinformation is not new, but the current trend has mutated into a form that is unprecedented in previous propaganda or disinformation campaigns. This infodemic has unfolded unlike any other in earth’s history.

Four factors make this infodemic unprecedented:

  1. The dissemination rate is rapid via the internet/social media
  2. The power of an individual, a single individual, can generate disinformation that has the potential to reach millions in 24 hours
  3. Nation states are involved
  4. The general public is complicit in the contagion as it “shares” this disinformation and thus creates an infodemic of unprecedented proportions.

Swarming the internet

Another compounding factor is the byproduct of sheltering in place or quarantine. Millions of people are now scouring the internet and social media sites for information at unprecedented levels, since employment, entertainment, social outings and sports have changed drastically, or disappeared. The physical isolation that individuals now feel has led to an increased online population. When viewed through a certain perspective, this has created a perfect environment for pieces of disinformation to replicate, similar to the potential for COVID-19 infections during a sporting event attended by tens of thousands. As individuals search the internet for the latest pandemic information, they are also confronted by disinformation, falsehoods and exaggerations. The situation is compounded when politics are injected and disinformation is underlined with fear backed by political staging.

So, how can a citizen avoid becoming an unwitting participant in spreading this disinformation? Awareness is the first call to action. Disinformation exists and is being created by individuals and groups to leverage the pandemic to their advantage. It is important to note, that just like the coronavirus, disinformation is also contagious and can function like a virus amplified by spreading false claims through social media sites.

One way to minimize the impact of disinformation is to quarantine the information — that means knowing the facts and validating the information if possible before sharing.

One way to minimize the impact of disinformation is to quarantine the information — that means knowing the facts and validating the information if possible before sharing. Be leery of information in which fear, invalidated claims or politics are extremely downplayed or exaggerated. Individual decisions do make a difference and can reduce the effectiveness of disinformation, at least at this level. However, when deep fakes or more sophisticated tactics are used, only time and expert validation can identify something as disinformation. This makes deducing what is true and false even more complicated.

Just like the actual coronavirus, where we are now and where we will be one month from now is difficult to accurately predict. One thing is certain — the infodemic and the virus will evolve together in an intertwined narrative and have outcomes that will be unexpected unless detected and proactively addressed. Therefore, just as it is important to prevent spreading COVID-19 via individual decisions, equal concern should be given to stopping the spread of disinformation.

Dr. Travis Morris is an associate professor of criminal justice at Norwich University and director of its Peace and War Center.

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