In July 1983, an anonymous letter appeared in an obscure newspaper in New Delhi claiming that the AIDS virus had been invented at Fort Detrick, in Maryland. The author identified himself as an American scientist and said that the virus was intended to be a biological weapon for the U.S. military. The allegation was picked up and published in a well-known Soviet journal and then reported in newspapers around the world.
The letter was written by the KGB, which was also a financial backer of the Indian newspaper. It was part of Operation Infektion, and its false claims about AIDS still echo around the world.
The Russians have never stopped playing this game. In recent weeks, an internal European Union document has alleged that Russian media are waging a “significant disinformation campaign” to heighten anxiety and dissent in societies affected by the coronavirus, including amplifying Iranian accusations that it is a U.S. biological weapon. And Russia is hardly alone. China is combining propaganda and the techniques of U.S. soft power to try to evade blame for the pandemic and stake its claim to global leadership.
Illness and disease are a perfect laboratory for conspiracy theories, disinformation and propaganda. Disinformation is itself a pathogen that flourishes where there is fear, ignorance and powerlessness. In fact, the World Health Organization calls falsehoods generated by the COVID-19 outbreak an “infodemic.”
If it could be charted, the graph of fake news would likely run parallel to that of the disease itself. In the United States, its rise and spread may be especially contagious: With the president constantly uttering falsehoods and misinformation along with a few actual facts, he gives aid and comfort to the peddlers of conspiracy and prevarication.
Disinformation about disease is as old as illness itself. During the Black Death in the 14th century, stories circulated that Jews deliberately caused the disease by poisoning the wells of Christians. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, rumors abounded that the flu had been created by the German military as a weapon of war. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, a Liberian newspaper published an article saying it was a U.S. biological weapon created to kill Africans. The charges crossed over to pop culture. Hip hop artist Chris Brown tweeted: “I think this Ebola epidemic is a form of population control.”
Social science studies show that when people feel a lack of control over their lives, they are more susceptible to conspiracy theories and more likely to become vectors of disinformation. When it comes to disinformation about the virus, our general scientific illiteracy doesn’t help; neither does a lack of certainty among experts.
Coronavirus disinformation is falling into two categories: Fiction about its origins and falsehoods about cures. NewsGuard, an organization that rates news sources, has identified 140 sites that are publishing false information or hoaxes about the virus, including false claims that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates funded a group that invented the virus and the dangerous assertion that swallowing bleach or colloidal silver will prevent infection.
Governments are manipulating coronavirus news. When I was at the State Department monitoring global disinformation, Chinese propaganda was mostly directed internally, toward the Chinese public. But as China has emerged from its lockdown, Beijing is seeking to convince the world that the pandemic shouldn’t be laid at its doorstep and that China is the most effective global partner for combating the disease.
The Chinese Embassy in South Africa tweeted: “Although the epidemic first broke out in China, it did not necessarily mean that the virus is … ‘made in China.’ ” Beijing’s Russia-like “whole of government approach” includes individual bloggers, government officials and state news outlets all amplifying the claim that China is not to blame. China is also suspected of purposefully underreporting case numbers and deaths.
At the same time, China is positioning itself as the partner of choice in the battle against the virus. In March, a Chinese cargo plane brought more than 30 tons of medical equipment to Italy. You can be sure that Chinese state media will highlight the fact that another shipment landed in New York, carrying 130,000 N95 masks, plus millions of other masks, gowns and gloves, with more promised. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global development program involving nearly 70 countries, is now touting a Health Silk Road initiative to boost public health efforts and offer pandemic aid. This is the kind of thing the U.S. used to do.
President Trump has responded to the propaganda with a shrug. “They do it, and we do it,” he said in a call to “Fox and Friends.” “I make statements that are very strong against China, including the ‘Chinese virus.’ “ “We all do it” is not an answer — or an excuse — for what we should do. Just because our rivals create a false narrative doesn’t justify us creating one.
Disinformation is an asymmetric weapon with no barrier to entry. For far less than the cost of an F-35, nations will seek to get their own version of history into the global information ecosystem. It works because even when bad information is debunked, it can create “belief echoes,” a nagging sense that, well, some of it must be right. This is what psychologists call “the liar’s dividend”— the germ of doubt that remains even after a falsehood has been exposed.
While a coronavirus vaccine will come, there is still no reliable inoculation against disinformation.
Our best response is mitigation: Maintain a social distance from disinformation and practice good information hygiene — don’t traffic in conspiracy theories, and don’t even bother rebutting them as even the refutation creates an echo. Be skeptical of cures; trust data not belief; inspect the provenance of every claim.
Good advice at any time. But the truth is, the disease of disinformation will be around long after COVID-19 is a distant memory.
Richard Stengel served in the State Department from 2013-16. He is the author of “Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It.”