Coronavirus also an infodemic, and are you a puppet of Vladimir?

Posts in recent weeks, combined with the work of researchers investigating Disinformation (DI) campaigns, make it apparent that many people have become unwitting actors in DI. If you’re paying some attention to the news, you’ve seen newspaper reports in the past week citing government sources stating that Russia disinformation efforts in 2020 are trying to help the candidacies of Senator Bernie Sanders and incumbent President Donald Trump.

That is the least surprising thing you will read in this post. Put yourself in the shoes of any enemy of the United States. If you wanted to sow discord and dissent in the U.S., and you wanted to do it through the election process, which candidates represent the most extreme factions of the two major parties?

What’s more important is HOW this is happening. Shelby Grossman, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory, recently explained details about Russia’s recent disinformation activities in Africa on the web site Center for African Studies (CAS). The CAS is an academic institution, founded by the State Department in 1999 and funded by Congress. One of its purposes is to study security issues related to Africa. (Aside: Russia has vast interests in Africa, both politically and economically. Grossman documents this excellently in her work.)

Here is what Grossman is seeing in her research on social media and political messages stemming from Russian influence in Africa:

A marked upward spike in views and readership. She tracked new pages and posts that appeared in social networks in war-torn Libya, following Facebook’s removal of Russian-based accounts there in 2018. The “new” pages which sprang up were almost entirely based in Libya. And they were popular.

“Almost across the board, the pages had high levels of engagement. The 73 inauthentic pages we analyzed posted 48,000 times, received more than 9.7 million interactions, and were liked by over 1.7 million accounts,” Grossman says. “This suggests that the content the campaigns created resonated with people who, in turn, responded to it.”

Grossman posits that Russia has developed a new DI strategy and tried that strategy out in Africa in 2018-2019. Russia’s same strategy is now in effect in the U.S. It has three strategic parts:

  1. Reliance upon “in country” posts and pages rather than posts created from people based Russia or some other foreign country.
  2. The use of “local actors” to create and disseminate content. 
  3. By posting in the U.S, these social media “warriors” are trying to circumvent the security systems which Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms established in reaction to what happened in 2016. The “local actors” might be Russian agents who are living legally in the U.S., or unwitting agents who are simply being paid to spread stories on social media, or a combination of both.

DI 2.0 AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR U.S. ELECTIONS

What this means is that U.S.-based social media pages and posters will circulate images and stories using social media to continue their efforts to influence public opinion about candidates and issues. Below is a post which appeared just a few days ago all over the country about Sen. Bernie Sanders. It criticizes Sen. Bernie Sanders by saying “the math” of his tax policies doesn’t add up. Look below.

The mathematics in the post is correct. Its explanation of Senator’s tax proposal is not accurate. But that matters not to the DI campaigners, whose goal is to further divide Americans against one another.

I do not have proof (I’m not an information technology expert), but I strongly suspect that the origins of this and other memes came from Russian actors trying to stir up dissent and divisiveness in the U.S. during this election campaign.

More tips you can use

Want to avoid being a puppet of disinformation efforts? Take some time to educate yourself and use some of the good free tools and plug-ins at your disposal.

Facebook added a Page Transparency feature, so anyone can learn more about  Some of the details displayed there include when a page was created, the primary country where the page is managed, the number of people who manage the page in each country. Facebook has added a Confirmed Page Owner process as well. It’s a step whereby a manager claims ownership of a page or has filed the necessary paperwork to run advertisements about social issues, politics or elections. Here’s a link to the page with details: https://www.facebook.com/help/323314944866264

Google has developed a Chrome plug-in called CrowdTangle. It is an easy way to see how often any link has been shared, who shared it and what they said. An extension of Chrome, it will show you specific Facebook posts, Instagram posts, Tweets, and Subreddits that mention the link. It also works for Facebook videos, YouTube videos, articles, and more. Go to www.crowdtangle.com to put it to work for you.

CORONAVIRUS IS ALSO AN INFODEMIC

No, 100,000 plus people have not died in the outbreak of the Coronavirus. The actual death toll is about 2,700. There are about 80,250 cases (stats are as of Feb. 25). And no, the Chinese government is not burning bodies in Wuhan. Members of Poynter Institute’s International Fact Checking Network have noted at least three different groups which are actively involved in spreading misinformation about the Coronavirus, or its formal World Health Organization (WHO) designation of COVID-19 

To counter the lies circulating around Coronavirus, WHO is taking an aggressive stand in communicating with the public and key stakeholders. It is presenting hard facts, doing daily update, and also in dialogue directly with executives at Fortune 500 companies and asking those corporations to share facts with their employees via corporate communication channels. This is an excellent strategy, as research shows employees are highly likely to believe information coming from their employers in such situations.

This image was falsified, and spread tens of thousands of times virally on various social media platforms.

This misinformation about the Coronavirus has become so vast some are even calling it an infodemic. “We need a vaccine against misinformation,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program, at a WHO briefing on the virus earlier this month.

WHO has collaborated with social media platforms to ensure that their website is at the top of internet searches. The organization is updating its website every day with the latest facts, and it also using Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to release factual details.  The WHO and the CDC’s websites about the Coronavirus are linked below:

https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/situation-reports

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

AREA JOURNALISTS – Be Prepared!

I’ve signed up for First Draft’s Live Simulation, and will be at Ohio University for the training on March 2. If you’re a professional journalist working in a newsroom in Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Charleston, or other cities near Athens, Ohio, you should consider making the trip and spending a day preparing yourself and your newsroom for disinformation campaigns which will inevitably target you.

Here’s the link with details and where you can sign up: https://firstdraftnews.org/project/live-simulations/

SOME OTHER SOURCES

https://africacenter.org/spotlight/russian-disinformation-campaigns-target-africa-interview-shelby-grossman/

https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/02/21/805287609/theres-a-flood-of-fake-news-about-coronavirus-and-a-plan-to-stop-it

Published by jkerezy

I'm an associate professor of Media and Journalism Studies (MJS) at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, and have also had a "side job" as a high school speech and debate coach for the past 13 years. I also worked in journalism, public relations and marketing for many years before going into higher education. My professional email address is john.kerezy@tri-c.edu

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