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4 Things I’ve Learned From Analysing Russia-Aligned COVID-19 Coverage

Much social unrest has emerged amid COVID-19, such as anti-lockdown protests, attacks on 5G masts, and violent reactions when asked to wear masks. As I write this, a murky far-right group called ‘UK Freedom Movement’ is organising a new spate of anti-lockdown protests around the UK.

This month I’ve been reviewing Russia-aligned news sites. I’ve been looking for key narratives on COVID-19 and the US election. I’ve examined two types of sites: those directly linked to the Russian state, and those with a similar political stance. Many sites share the same core group of authors.

Here are some of my findings, related to the current discussions on social unrest, conspiracy theories and the infodemic.

They’re consistent across websites

Topics covered on these sites reflect COVID-19 conspiracy narratives found on social media since the pandemic began. Here are three prime examples.

Bill Gates the ‘criminal globalist’

The Microsoft boss features regularly, from the Kremlin-funded news outlet InfoRos to the Russia-aligned news site Fort Russ. Narratives unfold along similar lines.

They claim that Gates is the ‘criminal globalist’ ringleader of a cabal using coronavirus as a smokescreen to impose mandatory tracking and mandatory vaccines.

Justifications for singling out Gates are usually his prescient 2015 talk, in which he highlighted the global risk of a pandemic, or the Gates Foundation’s funding of WHO.

Herd immunity vs lockdown

Another key narrative centres on the benefits of herd immunity, often juxtaposed against the negatives of lockdown. Sweden is the poster child for herd immunity. Lockdown is presented as a corrupt government-led attempt to remove people’s basic freedoms.

It’s not hard to imagine how this framing could trigger people who value freedom above all else – and cause events like the anti-lockdown protests that have been cropping up across the US and UK.

The smouldering culture war of Trump and Brexit has extended into new battle lines of ‘lockdown vs herd immunity’. As a result, pandemic control efforts are at risk.

Scapegoating China

China is presented as an innocent player in the pandemic. The US is blamed for targeting China with information warfare in order to blame it for the coronavirus.

In some articles, the authors claim that the pandemic could create a ‘New Cold War’ between the US and China, with severe consequences for the global economy.

Other sites take it even further, claiming that COVID-19 could spark a nuclear war between the US and a newly formed Russia/China alliance.

They claim COVID-19 will reshape the world 

Another popular theme is how the outcome of the US 2020 election, plus the effects of coronavirus will cause the US to lose hegemony. The result will be a shift into multilateralism.

Some sites claim coronavirus will cause Western governments to “face a legitimacy crisis like never before”, eventually causing so much chaos that it will reshape the global order.

To reinforce this point they highlight how the US has failed to protect its people from coronavirus, so it can no longer be called a superpower. Multilateralism is presented as inevitable, due to the unprecedented crisis the world now faces.

Anti-imperialism has been a key feature of pro-Russian media for decades. It overlaps with certain far-left lines of thinking, especially among those who critique Western military actions around the world.

They don’t support Trump

“Voters now must choose between Donald Trump, an unstable, incompetent president whose blatant narcissism has been on full display as the nation suffers from coronavirus, and the former vice-president who will diligently represent the rich and govern for their good above all others.”

American Herald Tribune

We often assume that Russia-aligned media is pro-Trump. In fact, many of these news sources criticise Trump as much as Biden. Criticisms of Trump include poor handling of the pandemic, and ‘imperialist shenanigans’ in foreign policy.

Framing of Biden often paints him as sleazy, citing the recent Tara Reade case as evidence. Some articles suggest he may have dementia. Such framing of both candidates as hopeless choices could be a subtle attempt at voter suppression. 

They frame themselves as ‘independent’ thinkers

Most of these websites present themselves as bastions of independent thought. They encourage readers to go beyond the mainstream and discover ‘new’ perspectives.

It reflects a common refrain among social media conspiracy theorists, who often talk about the need to “do your own research” . Often, that translates as “using Google or YouTube to find content that reinforces one’s existing views”.

Pro-Russia news sites tap into this way of thinking. They use it as a defining aspect of their reporting. It’s a message likely to resonate with the exact kind of person who questions everything.

What’s the link to real life unrest? 

Looking at these websites in aggregate, it’s easy to see how their typical narratives link to social unrest during the pandemic.

I’ve noticed the same themes popping up over and over on social media. Ordinary citizens share them in mainstream Facebook groups (e.g. local news and discussion groups).

These ideas have become rooted in public consciousness. They drive a growing sense of distrust in Western governments, particularly in the UK and US, where populations are already polarised. Both countries have handled the pandemic badly, so it’s easier to create scepticism among a fearful population.

If we were to survey the beliefs of anti-lockdown protesters, 5G mast attackers, and mask-related violence, I bet we’d find echoes of the same narratives found across these ‘alternative’ news websites, many of them either Russian government funded, or publishing work from the same authors.

How Do Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Leverage Tribalism To Threaten Public Health?

In recent days, large crowds of Trump supporters have taken to the streets of US cities, demanding an end to coronavirus restrictions.

Donald Trump has publicly encouraged these protests via Twitter, urging his followers to ‘liberate’ various cities from stringent lockdown measures. Critics have slammed Trump’s actions, accusing him of ‘fomenting rebellion’ and risking public health.

But why are people of a certain political ideology so keen to disregard public health advice at such a time of crisis? I believe part of the answer is found in political tribalism combined with widespread coronavirus conspiracy theories.

In this post, I’ll explain how conspiracy theories and disinformation leverage tribalism to influence people’s behaviour towards the coronavirus.

Divided societies, universal threat

When the pandemic first hit, some hoped that the shared experience of facing universal threat would bring warring political tribes together. But it seems the opposite is happening. One key driver of this is an organised and sustained campaign of disinformation, which is using the virus as an expedient tool.

The UK and US response to the virus have been unlike those of many other countries. For example, Portugal, Germany, New Zealand, Canada and South Korea have already managed to regain some level of control over its spread.

In contrast, both the UK and the US were slow to implement lockdown measures. Both gave their populations mixed messages about how to handle the pandemic. Both countries’ leaders have displayed a cavalier attitude towards the virus.

Political tribalism in the UK and the US is now affecting their populations’ response to the coronavirus crisis. This tribalism is a hangover from 2016, the same force that played a role in the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit – polarising the populations in the process.

Conspiracies demonise groups

A sustained torrent of coronavirus disinformation has compounded these issues. In particular, numerous coronavirus conspiracy theories have eroded trust in public institutions among some segments of the population. Distrust of experts is nothing new. It’s been a central feature of tribal politics since 2016 and shows no sign of dissipating in this pandemic.

Common conspiracy narratives include: coronavirus as a distraction to install 5G, 5G causing the virus, coronavirus as a US-created bioweapon, Bill Gates’ plan to use the virus to install tracking devices and implement forced vaccinations, and the virus as an excuse to impose military martial law on US cities.

Tribalism means viewing the world as ‘us vs them’, with ‘us’ being superior and ‘them’ being threatening. This perspective is inherent in these conspiracy theories, which revolve around the demonisation of a particular group (e.g. elites, the establishment, experts, the WHO, China, and so on). True believers view anyone who supports the demonised group as being part of it. And so the tribal divisions persist.

Casting doubt on the coronavirus situation is the end result of these narratives, as they promote a distrust of expert advice and official organisations. Shifts in population behaviour result: refusals to heed public health advice to observe lockdown, wear masks and practise social distancing.

From Facebook to the streets

The situation has become particularly dangerous in the US, with its current protests. It’s here that the role of social media comes under the spotlight.

Private Facebook groups have been key sites for inciting and organising these protests. Some groups are large, such as ‘Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine’, or ‘Reopen Virginia’ (the latter with over 18,000 members)

Both groups are rife with talk about the aforementioned conspiracy narratives, such as the below from the Michigan group.

Source: https://twitter.com/willsommer/status/1250838111992647680

In ‘Reopen Virginia’, there are comments like the below, in which users are calling for civil unrest while also demonising the outgroup (in this case, ‘leftist Democrats’). The post has attracted significant engagement in both comments and likes.

Source: https://twitter.com/jaredlholt/status/1250842215435337728/photo/3

These posts clearly illustrate how belief in tribal conspiracy theories not only leads to coronavirus scepticism and denial, but also promotes a drive to take real-life protest action, which could potentially turn violent.

What’s more, we have no way of knowing who is producing these comments. To what extent do they reflect the views of genuine American citizens? Have they been compromised by those who seek to stoke division and cause social unrest?

Conspiracy theories aren’t only a problem for Facebook. YouTube hosts thousands of videos discussing conspiracy theories in great detail. The platform recently changed its policies, to crack down on coronavirus and 5G content, but it’s likely too little, too late.

Once such ideas have taken root in minds already suspicious of experts and official organisations, platform takedowns are viewed as a sign of elite censorship. This adds even more fuel to the conspiracy theory fire.

Local groups are key targets

Private local Facebook groups are a prime target for influence operations. They have already been identified as key battle sites for the US 2020 election, where influence operatives aim to manipulate the political narratives in key swing states. Targeting local Facebook groups is an effective way to do this. As well as activity such as voter suppression in these groups, influence operations can also compel populations to protest on the streets.

It’s difficult for researchers and analysts to study private Facebook groups in aggregate, as tools such as CrowdTangle don’t allow access to private groups. But as these groups are hotspots for US 2020 manipulation activities, Facebook would be advised to monitor them carefully. Its moderators should be alert not only for signs of voter suppression attempts, but also for coordinated attempts to incite populations to real life violence.

We must take conspiracies seriously

These times of heightened fear offer a prime opportunity to for disinformation purveyors to influence the outcome of the US 2020 election. When political tribalism is so entrenched, fact checking and counter disinformation messaging campaigns are unlikely to be effective on a large scale, instead simply exacerbating existing suspicions of the establishment and ‘elites’.

Coronavirus conspiracy theories aren’t trivial. They have the potential to cause real life harm on a massive scale, by encouraging populations to ignore public health advice and instigate real life violence.

It’s essential that social media companies take conspiracy theories seriously, particularly within private groups. Whether or not they do so may end up as a key deciding factor of the US 2020 election. 

6 Things I’ve Learned From Tracking Coronavirus Disinformation

Disinformation thrives on chaos, and a global pandemic is about as chaotic as it gets. For those who seek to disinform, the coronavirus presents a far grander opportunity than either the 2016 US election or the vote on Brexit. The upcoming 2020 US presidential election further fans the flames.

With that in mind, it’s important to regularly stop and take stock of lessons learned from the front lines of disinformation tracking. I’ve been studying cross-platform coronavirus narratives for the last month or so. Here are a few of the things I’ve found.

1. Q is a major player

Qanon is a mega conspiracy narrative that encompasses a whole range of smaller ones. The basic premise of Qanon has Donald Trump in league with a shadowy figure called Q. Together, Trump and Q are fighting against a group of elite paedophiles entrenched within the mainstream media and the Democrat Party.

Previous presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and current one Joe Biden have both been major targets for Q’s accusations. Every so often, Q releases tantalising nuggets of new information (called ‘Q drops’) for his followers to chew over. These have sparked a whole ecosystem of pervasive social media content, from Twitter threads to entire YouTube channels.

Coronavirus disinformation is being well-leveraged by Q and his followers. Q related themes and activity underpin many of the most widely spread corona conspiracies, including coronavirus being either a hoax or a bioweapon, 5G causing the virus, a supposed plan to enforce mandatory vaccinations, and the imminent arrival of military martial law.

2. Mainstream media is pushing conspiracy narratives

Conservative media sources in the US, such as Fox News, play a significant role in promoting narratives that draw on conspiracies, including around the coronavirus. They claim it’s ‘not a big deal’, or it’s ‘just like the flu’, or, ‘it’s all a big hoax’.

Although these stories may be less colourful than those of the average Q acolyte, they are still risky. Provenance in established media sources provides the necessary social proof to make the narratives more credible in the minds of their audiences.

What’s more, this scenario means less work for those who intend to manipulate public opinion around the coronavirus. They no longer have to waste time crafting convincing content, but can simply engage with organic content that already exists. And that’s exactly what they’re doing, with a firm eye on the US 2020 election.

3. Coronavirus tribalism is prevalent

Pitting ‘us’ against ‘them’ is at the core of most disinformation, including conspiracy theories. The narratives can take many forms, but always come down to one group (the ingroup) facing off against a predefined opposing group (the outgroup).

For Qanon, it’s Q’s followers who are the ‘enlightened’ ingroup, joining forces with him and Trump to battle the predatory elites. In British politics, we see ‘patriotic’ supporters of Brexit setting themselves against ‘treacherous’ Remainers (and vice versa).

Tribalism even filters down to matters of life or death, i.e. the coronavirus. On social media, I’ve noticed a recurring adversarial narrative emerging around how best to respond to the pandemic. One camp downplays the severity of the virus, claiming measures such as the lockdown are an overreaction, while the other camp is strongly in favour of lockdown and promotes WHO advice to Stay At Home. Each camp supports their own and attacks the other, often in derogatory and aggressive ways.

When people are already suspicious of ‘elites’ and experts, there’s a real tendency to dismiss guidance from governments and public health organisations, which can lead to the flouting of virus mitigation measures. Real world harms can result.

4. Virus fears are being monetised 

The chaos and fear of a global pandemic has spawned many opportunities for leveraging the attention economy. In addition to conspiracy theories, there are many examples of people making money by tapping into the fear, confinement, and increased search for answers.

I’ve identified two main ways of doing this. The first is through creating highly clickable content about the virus. This content may or may not be factual; it doesn’t matter to the creator, as long as it brings in the clicks.  The content is published on websites festooned with online ads, where each click brings extra ad dollars to the site owner.

The second way is to create content on topics such as ‘miracle cures’, which then feeds into attempts to sell products. Vitamin C is a prime example. It’s a cynical exploitation of people’s fearfulness about the virus and their need to somehow regain a sense of control.

These ‘miracle cures’ are not scientifically proven. They provide a false sense of security, which may lead to individuals choosing not to self isolate and spreading the virus as a result.

5. Takedowns have a ‘backfire effect’ 

Although takedowns are a necessary part of tackling the disinformation problem, by denying bad actors freedom of reach, they can also strengthen the impetus behind conspiracy theories by feeding into an existing sense of elite suppression. Here, the platforms are viewed as part of the elite, working together to keep the ‘truth’ hidden from the people.

Conspiracy theorists are quick to react to takedowns by working them into their narratives. With 5G, a trend has sprung up of referring to it as ‘5gee’ or similar permutations, in an attempt to avoid the keyword being picked up by moderators or analysts who are tracking it.

For conspiracy adherents, this sense of persecution further reinforces their existing worldview, making them more likely to cling onto it. In this way, a ‘backfire effect’ has occurred. 

6. Platform responses are shifting 

Social media companies are frequently accused of not doing enough to reduce the flood of misleading content that overwhelms their platforms. I don’t believe they’re reluctant to do so, but they have to balance it with being seen as supportive of free speech. Finding that balance can be challenging when addressing conspiracy theories, as opposed to purely false information.

Most conspiracy theories are spun up like candy floss around a small kernel of truth. A typical post will build a whole story around how some real life event is of possible significance to the wider narrative arc. This creates murky territory for the platforms because the difference between opinion and actual false information is not always clear-cut.

But things have shifted after some conspiracy theories, such as the one about 5G causing coronavirus, triggered real life harms. A recent video by notorious conspiracy theorist David Icke was pulled from YouTube just days after it was released, heralding a change in approach.

A growing amount of research indicates that coronavirus conspiracy theories form a central part of coordinated influence operations.  We can no longer afford to overlook the role of conspiracy theories in influence operations. 

Tribalism In The Time Of Coronavirus

As I write this, the world has descended into a major crisis, with effects more far-reaching than anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime. A powerful virus has swept onto the scene and is now ripping its way through the world. Barely any country has been spared.

Here in the UK, the coronavirus crisis is getting worse by the day. But merely observing the city streets on this sunny spring Sunday would give no indication of the gravity of the situation. Indeed, some UK tourist spots, notably Snowdon, experienced their ‘busiest day in living memory’. That’s quite something at a time when a highly contagious virus is on the loose.

In contrast, the streets of Paris, Lisbon and Barcelona are deserted. Most EU countries have issued a decisive response, putting their populations under strict lockdown to try and curb the spread of the virus. The UK government hasn’t followed suit.

Britain is saddled with unfortunate leadership in such a time of crisis. Messages from central government have been unclear and have arrived far too late. Many people have died. Amid the frenzied warnings from other countries, tribalism, rooted in the impulses that drove Brexit, still bisects British society — even influencing how we perceive the choice between life and health, or possible death. 

Brexit tribalism could be seen as a barometer for who will approve or disapprove of Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus situation. No scientific study has yet been conducted to prove or disprove this, but research from Cambridge has shown that Leave (and Trump) voters have a strong tendency to believe conspiracy theories.

So if I may hypothesise for a moment, it would go as follows.

Those who believe Johnson is doing well and don’t believe in the necessity of self isolation — more likely to be Leave voters. Those who believe Johnson is doing the wrong thing and we should follow the majority of the EU (and the world) into lockdown — more likely to be Remain voters. 

I can’t help but wonder if these divided attitudes are linked to the government’s aggressively anti-EU narrative. Could it possibly be that our leaders are reluctant to implement lockdown because it would mean them falling into line with the EU? The British government can’t possibly be seen to do that. On the contrary, it must do the exact opposite. After all, there’s a voter base to keep happy.

This tribal stance has filtered down to the population. People’s cavalier real-life behaviour at a critical juncture risks the health and safety of us all.

We’ve gone beyond Brexit concerns now. Freedom of movement is no longer the most important thing at stake. Continued tribal attitudes in the UK could now lead to significant numbers of deaths. The reckoning has arrived. No matter what side of the political spectrum we’re on, we must ensure that tribalism does not cloud our actions on tackling the virus, as the New European so rightly points out.

There’s another factor influencing public opinion around coronavirus: online disinformation. It’s been a key part of turbocharging existing tribal divisions.

Based on my research so far, I’ve seen the following positions solidifying into recurring narratives. Many are from sources that originate in the United States, but the shared language and overlapping ideologies mean they can mostly be considered as UK-relevant too.  

Narratives primarily from conservative/right-wing/pro-Leave sources:

  • The coronavirus is a hoax used as a smokescreen for elites to take control of society
  • It’s no worse than the flu, so there’s no need to believe WHO or UN advice (in fact we shouldn’t trust them because they may be part of the elite conspiracy)
  • Social distancing is unnecessary / too extreme
  • China is to blame for all this. To quote Trump, coronavirus is ‘the Chinese virus’ 

Narratives primarily from liberal/left-wing/centrist/pro-Remain sources:

  • The coronavirus is real, serious, and affects everyone 
  • It can’t be compared to flu
  • We should trust advice from WHO/UN and other legitimate experts
  • Social distancing and possibly lockdown is necessary to save lives across the wider population. 

Most of the disinformation that I’ve observed so far plays on the core narrative strands in the first group. People targeted by these narratives might well be less likely to take the virus seriously and more likely to carry on with a semblance of normal life, thus continuing the pandemic. This unhelpful behaviour is exacerbated by the population spending more time at home and hence online, seeking out constant updates on this critical global threat.

In the next post, I will unravel the coronavirus disinformation narratives in more detail, providing data-driven examples. It’s critical to understand the why behind the seeding of this disinformation, so I’ll also discuss the various incentives that are driving it.

Social Proof And How To Game It

Every day, countless online sources compete for our attention. To avoid information overload and possible burnout, it’s essential to zero in on the important parts and sort them into categories that make sense. But how do we know which parts are important?

The human brain uses many shortcuts to understand the complex world around us. With social proof, we use the approval of others as a shortcut. We evaluate the significance and quality of a piece of information based on how many other people like it.

Social proof is part of the psychology of persuasion, used to great effect by marketers and PR specialists. We rely on it all the time when making consumer decisions. On Amazon, for example, customer reviews are a shortcut to guide us when choosing between a large number of possible products to purchase. A quick glance at the reviews allows us to avoid wasting time and energy conducting our own research on various products.

We also rely on social proof when judging the importance of a message on social media. Almost instinctively, we tend to evaluate a post with many likes or shares more favourably. We assume a lot of other people have already approved of it, so we’re happy to jump on the bandwagon.

But relying too heavily on these shortcuts may leave us vulnerable to the risk of them being manipulated.

How Social Proof is Gamed Online

Social engagement

It’s easy to convey social proof on social media. Liking, favouriting or upvoting is the quickest and most basic form of online social proof. When we see a post with lots of likes, we instinctually view that information as important. The act of online sharing also taps into social proof. If other people believe a post is worth sharing, then it must be of value. We may decide to share it too. This is bad news for disinformation.

Hackers break into Sony Music account and tweet falsely about death of Britney Spears

But online likes and shares are also pretty easy to game. On Twitter, for example, a few lines of code can produce a bot that can automatically favourite a tweet containing a particular keyword (which can be anything). A large network of automated accounts can then mass favourite (or mass retweet) any tweet, giving it a false appearance of significance, via artificial social proof.

Another way to convey social proof is via the user profile itself. Twitter is the most obvious example of this. We perceive users with more followers as being more important than those with fewer followers. The followers provide social proof, like an exclusive club.

On the other hand, if an account has a lot of friends (accounts it has followed) but few followers, the social proof effect is diminished. Again, automated accounts can be used to game this. By mass following an account and then following each other back, they maintain the illusion of that account being popular.

Amazon reviews

Gaming social proof online isn’t only confined to social media. It happens across the web, in areas such as online shopping. Take Amazon. It has hundreds of options for anything we want to buy. So how do we know which ones are worth buying? We rely on the ratings and reviews from other buyers.

Ratings and reviews are a form of social proof for products, acting as an essential shortcut for navigating through the mass of available options. You can even filter search results by the number of rating stars each product has gained. Ratings directly affect the seller’s bottom line. For Amazon’s third-party sellers, ratings can make or break their business.

This random product has great ratings. It looks enticing, but how many are actually genuine?

This is prime territory for gaming. And Amazon’s fake review economy is massive and growing.

Trending topics

Trending topics are another major area where social proof holds sway. The trending topics list shows whatever keywords or hashtags are being most widely tweeted at any point in time. Whenever big news breaks – such as a terrorist attack, plane crash or celebrity death – it usually appears immediately in Twitter’s trending topics, often before the mainstream media can produce coverage.

There’s a strong incentive to game trending topics. For individual tweeters, tweeting using a keyword or hashtag from the trending list makes their tweet more visible. It’s common to see Twitter accounts for brands performing ‘hashtag-jacking’ (or ‘trendjacking’), where the trending hashtag is shoehorned into the tweet to get it in front of a larger audience. Hashtag-jacking can be done skilfully, if the hashtag is relevant to the brand, but it tends to be the domain of spammers.

This is gaming trending topics on a relatively small scale. But things get more insidious when bot armies are involved. Here, a large number of artificial accounts, perhaps controlled by just one person (the ‘bot herder’), tweet coordinated messages around the same hashtag. Done properly, this can push the hashtag into the trending topics list, where human users will engage with it, giving it further mileage. It’s an effective way to mainline disinformation. The holy grail is to get the false story picked up in the mainstream media. With so many journalists using Twitter to find potential stories, this is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Google search results

Lastly, we’ll take a quick look at the effects of social proof in Google search results. When searching for something, most internet users don’t click beyond beyond the first page of Google. So the higher your link shows up, the more likely it is to be influential. SEO experts make a lot of money out of getting client links onto the first page of Google results. What’s more, links that show up higher are considered more trustworthy.

Google’s PageRank algorithms work in mysterious ways. The company is constantly adapting to make them harder to manipulate. But it’s still possible to game Google search. For example, reputation management companies create a slew of positive content to help clients push negative articles off the first page of Google.

This happens in politics too. In the run-up to the UK’s general election of 2019, people speculated that Boris Johnson’s campaign team may have gamed Google by seeding bizarre stories about him to make negative coverage less prominent in searches. In 2016, extremist websites manipulated Google search to make their hate filled propaganda, such as Holocaust denial, rank highly in search. Although Google later fixed this, savvy disinformation purveyors can still find ways to leverage its power to deceive vast chunks of the population.

Key takeaways

Social proof matters because it’s both a cornerstone of how we navigate the online environment and a prime target for manipulation. It’s not just confined to social media but used all over the internet, from Amazon reviews to Twitter trends. Even Google search results, which many people trust more than social media, can be gamed.