Foreign Interference & COVID-19 Disinformation

Last Friday, our Managing Director, Gary Machado, shared a few words on the need to be cautious with attribution in the context of foreign interference and COVID-19 disinformation. This was in response to a tweet by Euronews, which had distorted the words of the EU Commission VP Vera Jourová by writing that the EU had identified pro-Kremlin sources as the “architects” of COVID-19 disinformation. This brought to light a central theme in the discourse surrounding the attribution of disinformation. While research into — and the monitoring of — foreign interference is crucial, we should not overstate its significance in this context. There are many architects of COVID-19 disinformation, and our recent blog-post on COVID-19 narratives and strategies is a testament to this. In a similar vein, DFRLab’s Jakub Kalenský released an op-ed on the EU’s “deficient response” to COVID-19 disinformation. He argues that its response is too heavily focused on pressuring online platforms to take action — a move that doesn’t fully hold disinformation actors accountable. Moreover, Kalenský stresses that the EU’s activities should address disinformation from China as well as domestic actors.

With power comes responsibility

Reuters Institute released a study that analysed fact-checked pieces of English-language COVID-19 disinformation collected by First Draft. It was found that, while politicians, celebrities and other prominent public figures were responsible for producing or spreading 20% of coronavirus disinformation, their posts accounted for a whopping 69% of the total social media engagement. As mentioned last week, celebrities such as Woody HarrelsonAmir Khan, and John Cusack have recently been spreading false claims about 5G’s link to the virus, contributing to acts of vandalism on phone masts in the UK. In this context, we monitored the lifespan and moderation of a single 5G-coronavirus conspiracy video across platforms, providing an insight into how effectively online platforms’ are enforcing their COVID-19 disinformation policies. The video was watched over a million times and propagated by a celebrity before eventually being removed/minimised by the platforms.

Coronavirus Crackdowns

The COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying infodemic continue to bear witness to governmental initiatives across the world that have the potential to dangerously harm freedom of expression. Human rights organisations raised the alarm that authoritarian leaders may capitalise on COVID-19 to seize additional powers. Perhaps most notably, Hungary has recently made it unlawful to intentionally spread false information, with independent journalists now worried that this law may be used to silence criticism against the government. Fresh policies in BoliviaUkraine, and Russia have similarly raised concerns over press freedom. In view of this, the International Press Institute has launched a tracker on press freedom violations linked to the coronavirus outbreak.

Good reads

  • In a BBC Focus piece, Intelligence Trap author David Robson recounts why smart people believe coronavirus myths. According to him, it’s a mixture of information overload, a lack of thinking before sharing, and not fully “employing our intelligence by thinking things through in a deliberative, analytical fashion, rather than going with initial intuitions”.
  • new experiment by Consumer Reports (CR) sheds light on Facebook’s ability to properly screen coronavirus-related ads on its platform. All seven ads containing coronavirus misinformation were approved and scheduled for publication (before being pulled by CR), calling into question Facebook’s enforcement of its ad policy and reliance on automation. In related news, Mozilla Foundation analysed how Twitter is fairing in its battle to stem misinformation on its platform.


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