At a glance.
- Pandemic disinformation from Beijing and Moscow.
- Controlling COVID-19 mis- and disinformation continues to be difficult.
- India prosecutes dissemination of coronavirus misinformation.
- Operation Pinball may foreshadow Russian influence operations against elections.
- COVID-19 disinformation as criminal phishbait.
Beijing continues to be the prime suspect in various disinformation campaigns that surround the pandemic, as the Express reports. China, as has usually been the case, has a particular positive goal in mind: convincing public opinion that the coronavirus is not China's fault. If that means pushing the line that it's someone else's fault, fine. As Foreign Policy puts it, "China will do anything to deflect coronavirus blame."
Russian organs have also been active. Canada's Foreign Minister is the latest to complain, not in so many words, but by clear implication, of Moscow's involvement in pushing bogus information. Digital Journal says that Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said, after a NATO meeting, "Certainly this is not the time for a state actor or non-state actor to spread disinformation, at a time when basically humanity is facing one common challenge which is the virus." Researchers at the University of Calgary weren't reluctant to make an attribution, and they're attributing to Russia the campaign NATO discussed.
Popular delusion intersect state-operated disinformation. Countering them is proving difficult.
The completely unfounded attribution of COVID-19 to 5G infrastructure continues to gain surprising traction, with the UK for some reason seeming particularly susceptible. The Guardian reports that broadband engineers have received threats, and the vandalism of a Birmingham cell tower seems linked to the meme. The British Government has, Computing says, asked social media platforms to take stronger measures against such misinformation about coronavirus conspiracies.
Some popular delusions may be undergoing amplification by botnets, TechRadar reports, and that suggests some state operators may be using the memes for disruptive purposes.
YouTube, Facebook, and WhatsApp are trying various measures to come to grips with the volume of fear, nonsense, and lies in circulation about COVID-19. YouTube is using a relatively soft hand with "borderline content" (that is, content not in formal violation of the platform's guidelines), and is especially concerned about the bogus theory that cell towers are responsible for the virus. Videos peddling this particular meme "could lose advertising revenue," will be removed from search results, and will also see reduced recommendations in Google's algorithm, CNN reports. The Telegraph says that Facebook is meeting with British government officials this week to see what it can do to prevent further threats and vandalism inspired by the cell-tower panic. And WhatsApp, according to Computing, is concentrating on inhibiting the spread of false information by restricting message forwarding to one chat at a time.
In general the social media platforms have had greater success at identifying inauthenticity and, to a lesser extent, on reducing the speed and extent with which memes are disseminated. Direct content moderation has proven tougher. Facebook, for example, in the person of its vice president for global affairs and communication, former British MP Nick Clegg, gave two examples of coronavirus misinformation Facebook would turn away: advice to drink bleach as prophylaxis against infection, and claims that discredited the positive effect of social distancing. Consumer Reports decided to test this by submitting seven paid ads containing these and other patently bogus claims about COVID-19. The result? "Facebook approved them all."
India cautions against (and prosecutes) disinformation.
Reuters reports that the Indian government has asked both Facebook and TikTok to remove users they determine to be spreading misinformation about COVID-19. The authorities are particularly concerned about mis- or disinformation directed at Muslim audiences. According to the Mumbai Mirror, the authorities are serious about prosecuting those who promulgate “fake news” and “hateful posts” in social media. One-hundred-thirty-two cases are open, and thirty-five arrests have been made so far.
Informational tilt: "Operation Pinball."
Recorded Future has identified an ongoing disinformation campaign, "Operation Pinball," probably of Russian origin, that seems to overlap the "Secondary Infektion" campaign the Atlantic Council described earlier this year. Operation Pinball for the most part targets Russophone populations in Eastern Europe and the Near Abroad of former Soviet Republics. Two of its principal objectives appear to be undermining the government of Estonia (with content that exploits fears connected with European migrant crises) and disrupting Georgia's "growing relationship" with NATO. Operation Pinball uses inauthentic websites and social media accounts in what appears to be a "hack-and-leak" campaign. In fact the purportedly leaked documents, while often convincing, down to the images of hard copy letters that piously declare themselves to be “printed on recycled paper,” are entirely bogus.
Recorded Future thinks it likely that other, similar campaigns are under preparation. NBC News notes that six of the bogus documents being distributed by Operation Pinball represent themselves as US Government documents. NBC sees Operation Pinball as a possible harbinger of Russian influence operations that many expect to surface as the US November elections approach.
Criminal phishing with a COVID-19 theme.
Operation Pinball involves deception and influence operations conducted by an intelligence service, but of course not all deceptive social engineering is the work of a nation-state. Criminal gangs also get into this act. Researchers at the email security firm INKY describe some implausible emails on the coronavirus pandemic that pretend to originate from either the White House or US Vice President Pence. INKY outlines two distinct series of emails.
The first said that current measures against the pandemic (which the authors characterize with both orthographic and factual inaccuracy as a “Carnatine”) would continue through August, and that the IRS had pushed “Tax Day” back from April 15th to August 15th. It also urged recipients to download the President’s guidance that would “protect you and your family from pamdemic” (that’s “pamdemic,” not “pandemc”). The second series reiterated the claims of the first, and encouraged recipients to follow a link for more information.
The spelling and usage are of course appalling, but the attackers did use some of the White House’s actual html code. We observe in passing that the dropped articles, spoonerisms, misspellings, and malapropisms are nowhere near as funny as the ShadowBrokers' copy used to be. Maybe the ShadowBrokers spoiled us. Where are those guys these days, anyhow?
The emails do originate from Russia, but they seem pretty clearly to be a criminal as opposed to a state-sponsored campaign. For one thing, the troll farmers of St. Petersburg handle American English much better, without all the Boris-Badenovisms on display in these communications. Nevertheless, someone, somewhere out there, is sadly likely to fall for them. The relevance for disinformation is not so much that criminal activity is necessarily coordinated with, still less directed by, a state intelligence service. In this case the motivation seems opportunistically criminal. But even criminally motivated misinformation increases noise and darkens counsel, contributing to an environment in which state-run disinformation can take root.