Fake News with fatal consequences – Covid-19 and the penetrating power of disinformation

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has been overwhelmed by a wave of fake news and disinformation. Conspiracy theories mingle with false health advice, misinformation seeks to prove that the corona virus does not exist, and creates uncertainty and doubt about governments, institutions, and policymakers. And this has real-world consequences. While disinformation is not a new phenomenon in this context, the Corona crisis shows the penetrating power that coordinated disinformation campaigns can have, taking on enormous relevance especially in view of upcoming elections or economic developments. In this article, we take a closer look at the fake news surrounding Covid-19 to show the danger posed by targeted false reports – in both a sociopolitical and an economic context.

I make the world as I like it…

The world is currently gripped by a veritable infodemic. Not only political authorities and scientists are convinced of this, but also the numbers show it: According to Deutsche Welle, the EU has recorded more than 600 Corona-related false reports in Europe since the outbreak of the pandemic[1]. And these seem to be quite effective: people doubt the existence of the virus, demonstrate in the capital against the Corona measures or put themselves and others in danger by disregarding the hygiene and distance rules. At the same time, they share the false information – often believing they are doing something good – with their social environment and on social media, contributing to a massive spread of disinformation. They successfully ignore extremist tendencies of corona deniers and conspiracy preachers.

But why is disinformation so successful in times of Covid-19? The answer to this is complex. Some factors that currently encourage the belief of fake news include the uncertainty, complexity, and fear that the current situation brings to many people. Misinformation and conspiracy narratives reduce these negative emotions: For example, those who are convinced that the virus does not exist do not have to worry about contagion or an uncertain future, they have an excuse not to comply with onerous regulations, and they are given simple answers to difficult questions (Who is to blame for the situation? Quite simply, Bill Gates or 5G technology).

Disinformation – a symptom of the pandemic or coordinated campaigning?

Many people are aware that disinformation is currently omnipresent – but where do the false information and fake news articles actually come from? Are they written and disseminated by individuals who simply don’t know any better, or is there possibly more to it than that? A conclusive and well-founded answer to these questions cannot be provided at this point in time. However, initial investigations suggest that it is more a matter of coordinated disinformation campaigns than of random misinformation from individual users.

Initial reports from the EU[2] and US security authorities point to links with Russia, and researchers at the University of Oxford have also identified a central role for Russian media in the dissemination of disinformation[3]. According to research by the New York Times, it also seems likely that interest groups such as the anti-5G movement or vaccination opponents are involved in the targeted distribution of disinformation and want to use the current situation to push through their own agenda. And they are doing so successfully – after all, there have now been worldwide attempts to destroy 5G masts, for example.

All these facts fit in with the trends and developments of recent years that have made it into the public consciousness – to a greater or lesser extent – especially with the 2016 U.S. presidential election: Governments and interest groups are increasingly trying to divide societies, manipulate election results, influence industries and markets, or destroy economic actors through so-called information warfare. This is also the case with Covid-19: With doubts about the existence or the trigger of the virus, resentment against politics is growing, disputes with corona deniers are increasingly escalating, and opponents of the pharmaceutical industry or telecommunications sector are stirring up sentiment against individual global players.

At the same time, insecure and angry people quickly become susceptible to completely different topics and narratives that have little to do with the actual pandemic. For example, conspiracy movements such as QAnon or extremist groups try to profit from the consequences of the misinformation and recruit more and more people for their own interests.

3 things that the infodemic makes clear

Disinformation and its effects have been considered by science for a long time – but the current infodemic once again puts the truthfulness of individual findings on display with all clarity. Three aspects are particularly interesting and relevant.

First: Everything can be faked and disinformation – no matter how crazy its content – can convince many people of its truthfulness. This is shown, among other things, by the current influx of absurd conspiracy narratives. Once people are open to “alternative facts,” information gaps, fears and uncertainty can be filled with almost any content that gives people a clear line of thinking, belief or anchor.

Second, disinformation has real effects. Their impact is not limited to the digital space alone. Once it has found a place in people’s minds, thinking is quickly followed by action – this is particularly evident in the current “hygiene demonstration” in many German cities. Only at the end of August, a woman at such a demonstration in Berlin triggered a rush of demo participants to the Reichstag with false information.

And third, targeted disinformation campaigns are more real than ever and will increase, not decrease, in the future. In the digital age, states and other actors no longer fight with weapons for physical territory, but with information for the minds and hearts of the population. The weapons in this new battle are also becoming smarter and increasing their penetrating power: new technologies such as artificial intelligence and bots enable the automation of misinformation, make deep fakes possible and make it more difficult to identify disinformation campaigns as such.

What does that mean for the future?

The power with which disinformation currently influences the thinking and behavior of countless people should not simply be ignored. Anyone who was still not aware of the danger of coordinated information attacks after the 2016 U.S. presidential election should be convinced by now at the latest that targeted disinformation campaigns are a hard reality and have a real influence on global decisions and developments. Those who still believe that this issue only affects distant nations like China, Russia or the US are enormously mistaken. Already in 2019, targeted social media manipulation campaigns could be detected in over 70 countries around the world – roughly doubling the number in just two years[4]. In addition, past examples indicate that massive manipulation attempts through disinformation are also to be expected in the upcoming German federal election in 2021: For example, there were attempts to influence the election results with the targeted dissemination of digital propaganda and false information in the 2019 European election, the Brexit election, as well as in the last German federal election in 2017, as the researchers from the British Scientist found out, among others[5].

Against this background, then, current developments point to a worsening and aggravation of the problem. Hybrid warfare – whether against states and governments, individual decision-makers or economic actors – will increase. And whether individuals, states or governments, companies or entire industries – anyone can find themselves at the center of a disinformation campaign. This makes it all the more important to address the problem and take appropriate action. Three components are particularly important: awareness and competence in decision-making by employees or the general population, preparation and prevention in institutions, associations and companies, intervention and defense in the event of an emergency.

Do you need assistance with disinformation? We are happy to help you!

Better safe than sorry.

[1] https://www.dw.com/de/streut-russland-fake-news-%C3%BCber-corona/a-54418030

[2] https://euvsdisinfo.eu/eeas-special-report-disinformation-on-the-coronavirus-short-assessment-of-the-information-environment/

[3] https://comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/93/2020/06/Covid-19-Misinfo-Targeting-French-German-and-Spanish-Social-Media-Users-Final.pdf

[4] https://comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk/research/cybertroops2019/

[5] https://www.isdglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/isd_Click-for-Outrage.pdf