(A Twitter logo is seen on a computer screen in this photo illustration in Warsaw, Poland on March 5, 2019. Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images.)
This morning, NBC News reported that Russian and Chinese state media have been spreading conspiracy theories that the novel coronavirus started in an American laboratory and are attempting to push the message out to audiences in the Middle East. Both Russia and China have extensive state media channels that broadcast in Arabic to millions of homes across the Middle East. The NBC News verification unit monitors the output of these channels, and has found several instances of both governments attempting to spread deliberate disinformation during the pandemic. One conspiracy these channels seem to return to over and over is the theory that the COVID-19 novel coronavirus is an American biological weapon.
One clip from Russia Today Arabic (see below) has gone viral in the Middle East. The video has a “biological weapons expert” describe how the coronavirus was created in a ring of U.S. labs in Asia and that there was a “planned operation to spread it to China.” There is no ring of labs like this man is referring to and there is no evidence that the novel coronavirus came from a lab at all. Regardless, Russian media continues to push this narrative, which continues to spread across the Middle East.
Chinese state media is using similar tactics to the Russians — those claims focus on a U.S. military lab in Maryland at Ft. Detrick. That conspiracy theory involves the closure of the base just before the outbreak and the mysterious nature to the shut-down, implying that the base is responsible for creating the novel coronavirus.
Ft. Derrick temporarily closed last year over safety concerns but has since re-opened and there’s no evidence of any kind that the closure was linked to the coronavirus. The point of both China and Russia focusing their efforts on the Middle East and working through Arabic channels is to win over the region in the disinformation war — both Russia and China are looking to fuel anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. By conducting these broadcasts in Arabic, it helps to complete the illusion that these conspiracy theories are authentic while directing the natural anger of millions of Arabic people, who have lost their lives to the pandemic, at a mutual enemy — the United States.
(Above: another clip from Russia Today TV from March where Iranian Researcher and Former Diplomat Amir Mousavi discusses how coronavirus was created in a lab with no evidence to back up his claims.)
On Wednesday, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University concluded that nearly half of the Twitter accounts spreading messages on the social media platform about the coronavirus pandemic are likely bots. Researchers went through through more than 200 million tweets that focused on discussing the novel coronavirus since January and found that about 45% were sent by accounts that behave more like computerized robots than humans.
The researchers also identified more than 100 false narratives about COVID-19 that are being propagated on Twitter by accounts controlled by these robot-like accounts. The misinformation being disseminated by bot accounts includes conspiracy theories about hospitals being filled with mannequins instead of patients and how 5G wireless towers are helping to spread the novel coronavirus. These notions may seem silly and obviously bogus, but officials in England believe that dozens of wireless towers there have recently been set on fire in acts fueled by these false theories linking the rollout of 5G technology to the coronavirus.
Although it’s too early to say exactly who these tactics are aimed at, Kathleen Carley, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who is conducting a study into bot-generated coronavirus activity on Twitter, has confirmed that the tweets appeared to be aimed at sowing division in America — the question of who is doing it exactly is another matter. Carley says, "We do know that it looks like it's a propaganda machine, and it definitely matches the Russian and Chinese playbooks, but it would take a tremendous amount of resources to substantiate that.”
These mis-information campaigns are not exclusive to China and Russia. The United States has made several direct attempts to implicate China in terms of responsibility for creating the pandemic. The conspiracy theory that the virus was created in a lab in Wuhan, China has been a theory that Trump and his team are desperate to keep fueling in the ongoing attempt to blame China and deflect from the White House’s mishandling of the pandemic. According to the New York Times, U.S. spy agencies are under pressure from the Trump administration to unearth evidence that COVID-19 originated in the Chinese biolab.
(Photo of Twitter and Facebook logos, via Getty Images.)
To help cut through the medical disinformation, BuzzFeed has begun to keep a running list of the most prominent people who have pushed demonstrably false claims about the outbreak, including details about their backgrounds that inevitably are influencing their agendas. The outlet is also highlighting reliable experts whose words have been taken out of context to deliberately distort their messages.
Getting reliable information with regard to the novel coronavirus is extremely difficult because everyone’s data, even the CDC’s, is being questioned. The Trump administration has made a point to create distrust among the American public with previously reliable sources to better sell their own narrative of mis-information.
In this age of monolithic disinformation it is in your best interest to use to a method of digesting news by first closely examining where it is coming from and next, if it can be trusted. Stick directly to a first-hand source as best as you can and if you can’t, make sure you are depending on a source you can trust. This seems like a fairly basic instruction, but given these latest details on the actions of some large governments in the world, including ours, trying to purposely sow disinformation, it never hurts to tighten up your vigilance.
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