At a glance.
- China's COVID-19 censorship.
- China's COVID-19 disinformation.
- Approaches to countering disinformation.
- A conspiracy theory put into practice.
- Radicalization and propaganda of the deed.
One of the difficulties of assessing the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that might usefully inform effective disease-control policies has been the challenge of understanding the pandemic’s extent and the course infection takes in its sufferers. Chinese information control practices haven’t helped. The US Intelligence Community last week delivered a classified study to the White House that concluded, according to Bloomberg, that “China’s public reporting on cases and deaths is intentionally incomplete.” This would be a case of censorship, and deception by suppression of truth. The deception seems to have a domestic as well as an international audience.
Others with fewer (or at least different) dogs in this particular fight have reached the conclusions resembling those of the US Intelligence Community. Vice summarizes Beijing’s policy with respect to information about the coronavirus, and it finds a comprehensive program of censorship and disinformation directed at both domestic and international audiences. The execution of that policy, in Vice's account, showed the following features:
- "Silence dissenting voices," especially the medical personnel on the ground in Wuhan.
- "Block information." Suppress "citizen journalists" and rigorously watch, and censor, social media.
- "Spin up state-run media." Use their various channels to distribute stories of heroic national response.
- "Spread disinformation." An early instance was a faked video claiming to show locked-down Italians applauding and shouting "Thank you, China," in appreciation for Chinese medical aid.
- "Promote conspiracy theories." The Foreign Ministry suggested, with appropriate amplification by state media, that the coronavirus was was produced in a US Army biowar lab and brought to China during an athletic competition in October.
- "Write a book." This particular book is A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combating COVID-19 in 2020, which Vice describes as "a compilation of articles from Chinese state media that recount the heroic leadership of President Xi Jinping and the vital role the Communist Party played in combating the virus outbreak." It's so far been translated into English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic, at least.
- "Deploy a Twitter army." Beijing has used the large array of inauthentic accounts previously marshaled against the Hong Kong protests to "control rumors" and push the government's line.
- "Gin up more conspiracy theories." These need not be mutually consistent. One of them, for example, suggested that the virus actually may have had an Italian origin. (Forget that American stuff.)
- "Start donating stuff." A benign form of the propaganda of the deed.
- "No conspiracy theory is too wild." At least one, that a US military athlete is the true patient zero, was picked up from a fringe American site whose owner was interested in clickbait.
Stanford University’s Internet Observatory says that deliberate misdirection and obfuscation have been in progress since January.
The use of social media for amplification is very much in the Russian style, and Beijing seems to have learned from Moscow in other ways, too, as CBS News points out. But the Chinese style in disinformation seems more obviously top-down. To give credit to the St. Petersburg troll farmers, they've been opportunistic, light-handed, and more plausibly deniable. They've also, the New York Times reports, upped their game since 2016. Their productions are now more difficult to recognize.
So do something, already.
Leading Republicans in the US House of Representatives have been asking Secretary of State Pompeo to work to counter Chinese disinformation, the Hill reports. They seem to have two options in mind: first, countermessaging, getting the word out, and, second, getting online platforms to take down disinformation and cancel inauthentic accounts. Of these options, direct content moderation is the tough one. It's labor intensive and expensive, resistant to automation and difficult to scale. Fact-checkers often have difficulty distinguishing truth from lies, especially when they're working under pressure, and civil libertarians are apt to oppose the sorts of restraints on free expression content moderation brings with it.
There are certainly useful technical adjuncts to human fact-checking. Naked Security has an account of a technique being explored by researchers at North Carolina State University that identifies the optimal place in a network to inject true data and expel bad data. But still, of course, you've got to be able to tell the difference.
A point-counterpoint exchange of pieces in the Times of Malta by US and Chinese diplomats show how countermessaging works in practice. The US Chargé d’Affaires in Malta writes that "information must flow freely," and describes not only Chinese suppression of truth, but its false suggestions about the pandemic. His Chinese counterpart doubles down, accuses the Americans of lying about China, and insists that China is only asking legitimate questions. It might have been a US biowar weapon, maybe, so we should be open to scientific inquiry, etc.
James Carville, once President Clinton's principal domestic political adviser, suggests a look to history for a solution: the First World War's Committee on Public Information, the "Creel Committee." He advocates, in an essay published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, that foundation leaders step up: "We need bold foundation leaders to move immediately to stand up a familiar wartime strategy and call upon our most talented communications minds to show the same valor as the doctors and nurses fighting on the front lines. We need to enlist them to create a messaging machine — with a clear chain of command — that can reach the furthest corners of America with coherent messages about what to do and what not to do, conveyed by celebrities and leaders trusted by each of these demographic groups." An editorial in the Giving Review provides a lucid counterargument, to Mr. Carville with appropriate historical context.
A literal train wreck. (A figurative one, too.)
On Tuesday afternoon a railroad engineer deliberately derailed his train in the Port of Los Angeles, aiming more or less for the USNS Mercy, the hospital ship the US Navy has dispatched to Los Angeles to provide emergency medical support. The US Attorney for the Central District of California said that Mr. Eduardo Moreno, 44, of San Pedro, was charged Wednesday "with one count of train wrecking."
Why did he do it? "To wake people up," he explained. Mr. Moreno thought the USNS Mercy was not in fact there for her announced purpose, and that the ship was suspicious, probably there for reasons to do with COVID-19 or an unspecified government takeover of some unspecified thing. “You only get this chance once. The whole world is watching," Mr. Moreno told the California Highway Patrol officer who reached him after the crash. "I had to. People don’t know what’s going on here. Now they will.” No one was injured, and Mr. Moreno is said to have stated that he acted alone. We must add, as the US Attorney for the Central District of California does, that "A criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." Emphasis in the original.
The COVID-19 pandemic has spontaneously generated a lot of conspiracy theories, and Mr. Moreno's case affords an example of how one of those might come to be acted on in real life. The paradigmatic conspiracy theory is "the Martians have landed and the Man is out to get you, sheeple." The theory is often satisfyingly complex, at least in a narrative, allusive way—one hesitates to speculate about the number of wheels within wheels one would have to perceive in order to think that crashing your train was a good idea. People do swap and amplify such theories freely, and they often grow like an improv routine, where each player follows the other's contribution with a "Yes, and...." Add social media's potential for amplification and it's easy to see how such participation becomes self-reinforcing. The Economic Times has a nice discussion of some of the more prominent theories in circulation.
An excursus on railroading, with a further excursus on the propaganda of the deed.
We asked a source in the railroad industry just how one would deliberately go about derailing a train. Apparently it's easier than we thought:
"Very simple: you put the throttle in the eighth notch, hang on, and let kinetic energy do the rest. It sounds like the end-of-track ran up toward the end of the pier, so he just kept barreling through obstructions until friction (and things hitting him) brought his velocity to zero. As long as the engineer is awake and pushing the alerter button, there is nothing to automatically apply the brakes (assuming he doesn't pass a stop signal or violate a speed restriction with a positive train control system active onboard, which probably wasn't the case at a freight terminal area like that) until the air hoses separate at the moment of derailment.
"All kidding aside, it's the thing railroads spend the most time training engineers NOT to do. Stopping a train (and particularly, stopping it where you want it to stop) is the hardest part of running it. Stub-end tracks in terminals are a particular area of emphasis - you may remember a derailment in 2014 in Hoboken, when an NJT engineer who was suffering from sleep apnea drowsed for just a few seconds, missed his mark, and ran the train off the end of the tracks."
So it's eminently doable, and propaganda of the deed will always be attractive to the highly committed. Foreign Policy predicts that one of the pandemic's sequlae will be a resurgence of radicalization.