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COVID-19: Battling Virus & Disinformation

Assessing the COVID-19 Disinformation Campaigns

ActiveFence monitors the COVID-19 disinformation campaigns and anti-vaccination communities across platforms. This report will provide the knowledge needed to counter disinformation campaigns that have the potential to negatively impact public health. A more in-depth analysis, including examples, is available in the downloadable report below.

Background

2020 will be defined by one word: COVID-19. 2020 was the year that the world stood still. Stay at home orders were given. The evening news became a tally of the lives claimed by the new and rapacious disease sweeping the globe. 2020 was also the year that scientific records were broken, and groundbreaking innovations were made at an unprecedented pace. Yet, as pharmaceutical companies worked to produce a vaccine to this global crisis, a conspiratorial element broke out. It questioned the existence of the virus, and discounted the dead. It sowed distrust in health authorities and the vaccines being produced. These conspiratorial elements were not isolated, they were martialed for political, ideological, and financial motives, and operated in a coordinated fashion.

 


ActiveFence monitors health disinformation campaigns, and anti-vaccination communities, across platforms.

What Were The Narratives?

As the economic damage of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic was felt, counter-narratives about COVID-19 took hold. Daniel Jolley, senior lecturer in psychology at Northumbria University, explains, “When there is something happening — a virus outbreak, rapid political change … it breeds conspiracy theories.” Once a new idea is held, people then gravitate to evidence which confirms their beliefs.

Implausible theories were asserted and absorbed into the public conversation. Ideas that COVID-19 was spread via 5G internet infrastructure, and that the vaccines would implant tracking microchips grew into movements. Bad actors exploited the chaos to spread disinformation that the vaccines would not work and were fraudulently approved. Stories were circulated attacking Pfizer’s reputation, warning that its vaccine was causing many deaths. Other campaigns accused those in power of covering up the dangers to protect corporate interests. As a result of these actions, the pre-existing anti-vaccination movement gained credibility in the eyes of a significant minority

Anti-Vaccination, Anti-Lockdown Protests, London 2020

How Are Disinformation Campaigns Spread?

Disinformation campaigns are launched from multiple, seemingly spontaneous posts referencing ‘alternate authority sources’ that question prevailing narratives. The anti-vaccine disinformation cited websites and social media accounts claiming expertise. These sites published manufactured stories to challenge healthcare professionals and government scientists.

To understand how COVID-19 vaccination disinformation was disseminated so effectively, ActiveFence identified three central, but distinct anti-vaccine web domains. We studied the behaviors and backgrounds of these sites, reviewing how their content was created and distributed. Using our cross platform approach we mapped their activity.

Self-Confirming Networks

Analysis of two of the networks, run by distinct organizations, revealed an operating pattern. Websites specializing in disinformation, and conspiracy theories reference each other as sources, which creates a false confirmation. ActiveFence was able to establish that each website operated within a cluster of linked, distinct domains, each of which shared an owner. A single article produced on one was copied and pasted onto sister sites. The use of these mirror sites allowed for the operators of these websites to gain maximum reach, and normalize their anti-vaccine content.

Access to Mainstream Social Media

While the credibility of the campaign depends on the creation of an ecosystem of misinformation, the success of the articles relies upon the ability to circulate widely on social media. Each of the distinct anti-vaccine websites posted links to their content onto leading social media platforms. One of the analyzed networks had almost 3M followers on one mainstream platform (before it was removed), while another has 450K followers. The importance of this strategy is clear, given the effort that sites took to circumvent platform bans.

An instance of mainstream social media’s importance can be seen when a network that was identified as a serious propagator of spam and disinformation, had its URL blocked by moderators of mainstream platforms in May 2020. While the organizing group could still post to alternative platforms, it spent significant energy to return to mainstream sites. Side-stepping the ban, the organizer created mirror sites that were not based from its network domain, and so were not blocked. From these new sites, the creators of this site posted copied articles and shared links to these onto mainstream platforms.

“When there is something happening — a virus outbreak, rapid political change … it breeds conspiracy theories.”
Daniel Jolley, Northumbria University

Additionally banned sites posted images and ‘broken links’ to their articles on social media platforms, with the instruction to “fix the link”. The user simply needed to remove the “_” in the middle of an URL to access the content. This simple trick prevented the social media platforms from recognizing the post as a link, and so messages were not blocked.

A final campaign was created in the voice of journalists speaking out to allege a conspiracy to create a tyrannical government. This group similarly used social media to great effect. The group targeted Pfizer and its vaccine. Turning Pfizer’s successful creation of a vaccine against them, the group alleged the vaccine was unsafe. They claimed that it had been produced too hastily and without the proper checks needed. To launch this campaign they produced video content for social media, one of which was viewed over 100K times in multiple languages, on a single video sharing platform. Another group video attacking Pfizer recorded 670K views, showing social media’s potency, as this was a significant amplification of the group’s 15K followers on this site.

Still from the group’s anti-Pfizer film – ‘A Trustworthy Vaccine – Pfizer’

Motivations for Disinformation

A number of motives exist for creating and disseminating disinformation. State actors have played a significant role in the disinformation campaigns of recent years, and a number have been linked to the recent COVID-19 disinformation campaigns. Josep Borrell, Vice President of European Commission, explains that some motive comes from foreign actors pursuing domestic and foreign policy objectives. The disinformation not only damages external societies, but also elevates home perspectives on national responses to the crisis. Borrell also suggests that there is a financial correlation between anti-vaccine disinformation being directed at countries where Russia is seeking to sell its own vaccine, Sputnik V.

ActiveFence was able to uncover a clear financial motive from one of our case studies. Analysis of a network of alternative health websites that are a part of one of the operations examined, revealed that they are owned by the same individual who also owns ‘alternative health’ e-commerce retail stores. Links to these online stores that offer alternative COVID-19 medications are advertised on the anti-vaccine articles that the website produced.

Countering the Disinformation

The success of these disinformation campaigns, and the sophisticated nature of their operations is concerning. Discouraging the general public from receiving life-saving vaccinations is dangerous. Encouraging the public to act against public health guidance, can cause an increase in infection rates. The result of these combined actions can cause prolonged economic damage, greater strain on healthcare providers, and ultimately higher death counts.

To defeat these actors it is not enough to simply counter their disinformation, or block each site as it violates a term of service. Responsible authorities and social media networks must be proactive to the threats posed.

Using our intelligence capabilities, ActiveFence maps disinformation networks across multiple platforms, to assist our clients in removing their bad content. It is by understanding the agents of disinformation as they are, rather than the independent sites that they claim to be, that nefarious activity can be stopped. Action is required now before these and similar networks inflict more damage in the future.

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