At a glance.
- "Discourse power" during the pandemic.
- A decline in COVID-19 disinformation is no grounds for relaxed vigilance, EEAS Special Report says.
- Plagiarism and message amplification.
- Misinformation finds its new channels.
- More misinformation: 5G as a biomedical infection vector.
"Discourse power" during the pandemic.
Chinese doctrine has, under the Communist Party's current leadership, emphasized the importance of "discourse power," roughly speaking positive propaganda, and an insistence on that propaganda's receiving an international hearing. An essay in Foreign Affairs describes how Beijing has sought to apply discourse power during the COVID-19 pandemic. It sees China as pursuing traditional influence by, for example, posing as a reliable partner and a valued source of friendship and humanitarian aid during a difficult time.
But it also argues that Chinese influence operations have been "more aggressive" than usual, and that Beijing has "even experiment[ed] with tactics drawn from Russia’s more nihilistic information operations playbook." "Negative" might be better than "nihilistic," however, because even as they go negative, Chinese operators have been more interested in persuasion than in generating confusion and doubt, which have been the typical goals of Russian influence operations (and those might fairly be described as nihilistic).
Brookings says that China's not only adopted portions of Russia's disinformation playbook, but it's also been able to make use of the propaganda infrastructure Russia has in place, including outlets like RT and Sputnik. There's a confluence of interest: if Chinese disinformation discredits countries that are Russian adversaries as well, so much the better from the Russian point of view.
A decline in COVID-19 disinformation? Still, no reason to relax vigilance, says the EU.
Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty reports that the European External Action Service (EEAS) has said it's observed a decline in disinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. But that's no reason, the EEAS says, to relax vigilance. The Special Report's key findings include:
- "While misinformation and disinformation relating to issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have continued to spread across the globe, the volume has – according to our findings – shown at least a temporary decrease during the period observed, alongside a general downward trend on COVID-19 related web searches."
- "There is a crystallizing and clustering around specific topics and narratives: alleged links between COVID-19 and 5G networks; COVID-19 restrictions as pretext establishing global domination of secretive elites; and attacks on individuals engaged in the development of vaccines, especially Bill Gates."
- "External actors, notably pro-Kremlin sources, are still involved in spreading disinformation, including by amplifying existing conspiracy theories, which link the COVID-19 pandemic to biological warfare, 5G technology and fuel anti-vaccination sentiment."
- "The efforts of state actors like China to deflect blame, to use the pandemic to promote their own governmental system and enhance their image abroad continue. The claim that there are clandestine US biological laboratories on the territory of “former Soviet republics” has been spread both by pro-Kremlin outlets as well as Chinese officials and state media."
This trend may represent a sharpening of message more than it does a diminution of effort. The EEAS calls upon social media companies to continue and sharpen their efforts to exclude misinformation and disinformation. Those efforts at fact-checking continue to face difficulties as the companies try to scale their content-moderation systems. These continue to be labor-intensive, with automated assistants tending to miss malicious content and turn up false positives. One recent example was Google's suspension, now lifted, of a popular Android podcast. The grounds for the suspension were, according to the Verge, the podcast's cataloging of COVID-19 content. When the Verge got in touch with a human at Google (Google SVP of Platforms and Ecosystems Hiroshi Lockheimer), Google acknowledged that the suspension had been an error, and that the company would work to restore the podcast.
The ease of monetizing plagiarized content.
CNBC did a bit of investigative reporting on the ease with which a plagiarist could simply copy and paste stories from media outlets, bloggers, and other content producers, post them to their own site, sit back, and collect the advertising revenue. CNBC's story is about the ease with which you can make a quick buck from plagiarism, but the story also illustrates the difficulty of distinguishing good content from bad. Whether plagiarized or simply bogus and misleading, content is fodder for amplification. The implications for disinformation are obvious.
COVID-19 misinformation finds alternative outlets.
Increased fact-checking and content moderation by social media providers may have pushed misinformation into other channels where it can circulate without much hindrance. The Washington Post takes the documentary Plandemic as its example. The documentary, whose long trailer has been pushed from YouTube and other social media, has been circulated using such apps as Google Drive. Short comments on the trailer, written to avoid language that would trip content moderation alerts, appear on Major social media platforms, and these in turn direct visitors to the sites where the trailer is available.
Plandemic, which retails a complex and implausible conspiracy theory about the alleged corporate and government interests that the film makers claim are behind the pandemic, has provided a popular example of COVID-19 misinformation. It's often cited as an example of the dangerous potential of misinformation. Its recent distribution also affords an example of the difficulty of controlling such misinformation's spread.
Other COVID-19 misinformation: 5G as an infection vector.
That surprisingly durable bit of nonsense about the role cell towers and 5G infrastructure play in the spread of the COVID-19 virus is among the misinformation that continues to gain currency through various channels. Business Insider reports that the US Department of Homeland Security has warned local law enforcement authorities to be alert for vandalism against telecom infrastructure. The vandals are believed to be inspired by the influencer-driven memes surrounding 5G.