CANBERRA — Disinformation surrounding COVID-19 creates a risk that any successful vaccine may be rejected by communities, or even face terrorist attacks, in an effort to stop the perceived threats of a vaccine.
A new report from the Global Health Security Network, “The COVID-19 pandemic vs Post-Truth,” highlights the dangers vaccine delivery may face as a growing number of conspiracy theorists — including those who believe that the vaccine will deliver microchip tracking by Bill Gates — targeting the “reality” of COVID-19 become radicalized.
“These conspiracy theories promote violence,” lead author Jennifer Hunt, lecturer at the Australian National University’s National Security College, explained at the launch of the report. “If you have demonized covert groups as part of a secret cabal to try and undermine your constitutional rights and your freedoms and liberties, violence is perhaps justified and rationalized in their minds.”
But despite this threat, the COVID-19 response has seen funders more likely to target misinformation: The unintentional spread of false information, including incorrect information on how to cure the virus or prevent it from spreading. Tacking disinformation — the intentional spreads of false information — is a harder task.
“The goal is like an inoculation — to get there before the disease.”
— Jennifer Hunt, lecturer, Australian National University’s National Security College
Conspiracies create a risk of violence
Conspiracy theory groups that create violence is evidenced with Pizzagate, Hunt said. In 2016, rumors spread online that United States Democrats — under the leadership of Hillary Clinton and campaign manager John Podesta, were running a child sex trafficking operation out of a pizza shop in Washington D.C. Online chatter led to a 28-year-old man from North Carolina, Edgar Welch, to drive from his home to the pizza shop armed with weapons to “liberate” children. Instead, he terrorized a child’s birthday party and is now in prison.
“In that particular case … what really surprised me was the speed of radicalization,” she said. “From hearing this conspiracy theory until getting in the car to drive five hours fully armed was three days.”
In response to COVID-19, Hunt explained that conspiracies are beginning to merge, with overlaps between anti-vaxxers, 5G conspiracies, and QAnon — and these conspiracies are being mainstreamed.
These messages, Hunt said, are designed to appeal to people’s fears about children, financial security, and freedoms. Pointing to a Gallup poll from August where more than one-third of Americans said they would not get vaccinated, and cases of people attacking others for wearing face masks, Hunt believes that vaccine supply chains could face the same attacks.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the appeal of these narratives and groups, and the very real dangers they pose to public health.”
Leadership — and lack of it — helps cement conspiracies
While social media spreads these conspiracies, politicians and other leading authority figures are helping to cement them. In the U.S., Hunt said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been forced to modify its public health guidelines in line with politicians who have “undermined” the response with conspiracies about the severity, origin, and nature of COVID-19. The US Food and Drug Administration is expected to follow. The World Health Organization is also a target of conspiracy theories.
“We are seeing the undermining of trust in our scientific community, in public practitioners, in nurses and physicians who are telling us one thing and politicians are telling us something different,” Hunt said. “We are already starting to see the launch of political campaigns of these conspiracy theorists who have used their wide and growing platforms to run for office.”
In the upcoming U.S. election, Hunt said over 20 QAnon followers are running, with two likely to win safe Republican seats. “We are seeing these conspiracy theories becoming mainstream, and becoming [so] powerful that they can actually impact policy making and funding decisions for the future. They gain power as they erode traditional sources of information.”
But just as politicians can add weight to disinformation, she believes can also stop it in their tracks. “When a leader says something — to start doing something or stop doing something — that carries a lot of weight. We have to lean on political leaders to be more responsible, and vote accordingly.”
To date, fact-checking and drawing attention to false information have been key approaches in combating conspiracy theories. But Hunt warned that the information being disseminated is “impenetrable to fact-checking,” and that downplaying facts is part of the conspiracy. Trying to debate ideas with conspiracy theorists is also something that is possibly a “losing proposition,” Hunt said. Combating disinformation should instead begin before a conspiracy theory has the chance of spreading.
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“The goal is like an inoculation — to get there before the disease,” she said.
To target disinformation, five key recommendations are made by Hunt in the report. First, she believes governments and researchers should work with technology companies and social media platforms to “actively monitor, target, and takedown conspiracy theories and associated user accounts for repeat offenders.” Governments should also be adapting the law used to fight child pornography and domestic extremism to also combat conspiracy groups disseminating extremist content.
To combat professionals — including doctors — spreading false information, Hunt recommends that professional associations update codes of conduct to include “formal review and disciplinary processes for individuals in positions of public trust who endanger public health through promulgation of conspiracy theories.”
As part of election and policy platforms, political parties should commit to a professional code of conduct, “with sanctions and removal of campaign support for candidates and members that fail to adhere to minimum standards around the dissemination of misinformation and conspiracy theories.”
And civil society organizations and professional associations should also work to utilize their networks in identifying and targeting corporate advertising in outlets that are supporting the dissemination of conspiracy theories.
Are we doing enough to target disinformation?
Funding COVID-19 vaccines: A timeline
In the race to create a COVID-19 vaccine, an analysis of data on the Devex funding database reveals over $39.5 billion has been announced for vaccine research and development. We trace the timeline of funding.
When it comes to funding the COVID-19 response, targeting disinformation or misinformation takes up a small portion.
As of Sept. 11, an analysis of Devex funding data revealed that 21 funding announcements were made worth $474 million, along with 38 grants worth $61 million, four programs worth $56 million, seven open opportunities worth $26 million — with 16 tenders also announced, providing opportunities for the private sector to support action against misinformation and disinformation.
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In tackling disinformation, the U.S. Department of State is a leading funder with a range of grants with a particular focus on journalism. A $500,000 grant program in South Africa includes helping journalists understand disinformation and report objectively. Media is also a way to target disinformation as part of grants through embassies including Montenegro and Serbia.
“To put it simply, access to factual and accurate information, including through a free and independent media online and offline, helps people take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, save lives, and protect vulnerable population groups,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State told Devex, explaining the media focus. “Disinformation does the opposite.”
Interact with the data in this Tableau visualization:
The Indo-Pacific region is a larger focus for the U.S. Department of State. A $3 million grant scheme promoting transparent and accountable governance was developed in response to what was seen as COVID-19 creating an “environment ripe for exploitation by governments keen on consolidating power through a variety of measures,” with disinformation as one of the measures. Empowering local civil society, including media, to advocate for transparent and accountable governance is among the disinformation objectives.
A $26.1 million program to “prevent and control” COVID-19 includes a specific $5 million target for disinformation — with small grants to strengthen the capacity of civil society in “combating disinformation and hate speech at the community and national levels.”
With this regional focus, this is less about targeting the disinformation that Hunt warns of but rather countering the expanding footprint of governments such as China.
“Malign actors are opportunistic when it comes to using disinformation to promote their agendas, even at the most sensitive and critical of times,” the U.S. Department of State spokesperson said. “We need look no further than Russia’s, China’s, and Iran’s current disinformation campaigns targeting the COVID-19 health crisis, and their spurious claim that the virus is a U.S. bio-weapon.”
The U.S. Department of State works with U.S. agencies and “allies” to counter disinformation by utilizing data analytics to analyze disinformation attempts and provide early warnings, build the capacity of civil society and media, and share “fact-based and historically accurate information” disseminated through embassies.
Supporting the U.S. in targeting disinformation is Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, with disinformation a key aspect of foreign policy discussions between the two countries in June.
As part of an inquiry into the implications of the pandemic for Australia’s foreign affairs, defense, and trade, DFAT staff provided insight into how implementing disinformation programs were more challenging than plans on paper appeared. While Frances Adamson, secretary of DFAT, told the inquiry that disinformation is an area where DFAT is “very active,” staff explained that the response to date was small, in a pilot phase only, and had a focus on creating a positive message about Australia’s contribution to fighting the pandemic in the Indo-Pacific region.
“This is a six-month pilot that we’re embarked upon at the moment, which we’re just over halfway through,” Amanda Gorely, first assistant secretary for DFAT’s International Security Division, told the inquiry.
Gorely explained that there are three key objectives in this pilot project. First is to “advance a positive, accurate narrative about Australia’s actions in response to COVID-19.” Through this positive narrative, they are hoping to reduce the space for disinformation in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Finally, where appropriate, it’s to call out disinformation where it can seriously harm our national interests,” Gorely said.
How to target these challenges — created by the mainstreaming of conspiracies, including through false messaging from politicians — may be out of scope for programs such as these.
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