Just because there’s a global pandemic doesn’t mean that the great game of international politics takes a break. In fact, just like the rest of society, international powers are adapting to—and in some cases exploiting—the Coronavirus. The two most aggressive players are Russia and China, and while they have different international objectives, they are both aggressively pursuing their goals.
In Russia’s case, the government of President Vladimir Putin continues to use disinformation to create a wedge between members of NATO, the EU, and in America’s trans-Atlantic relationships. His ultimate goal is to weaken organizations that exclude Russia, and undermine the political cohesion of Russia’s Western rivals in order to achieve a freer hand at home and internationally.
This last point is important: a lot of Russia’s online influence campaigns have played both sides of issues in the United States, whether its immigration, gay-rights, or vaccines. Russian leaders don’t care if Americans chose any particular policy outcome; they want to watch us tear ourselves apart. They are chaos agents, seeking to undermine America’s political cohesion by amplifying divisive messages. They did this in social media posts celebrating parents who “crossed a border” so their children could “cross a stage”—meaning graduate from an American high school. To some, such posts look like a welcome pro-immigration post. To many others, it looks like a celebration of law-breaking. That dichotomy, that cognitive dissonance, that binary choice is exactly what the Russians seek to exploit and even amplify. They did so during the Ebola crisis, they continue to do so around vaccines. They will certainly do so in the midst of this pandemic.
Russia also uses the fear associated with new diseases to attack the goodness of the United States. Consider the case of HIV/AIDS. In 1983, three Soviet intelligence officers placed a story in a small, English language newspaper in India alleging that the virus that causes AIDS was engineered in the United States to target blacks and the homosexual community. This was an analog era. A story placed anywhere would take time before it went global. By 1987, however, the story had been published in 80 countries and in 30 languages with real consequences for U.S. policy, especially when the country moved to try to stem the spread of the virus in sub-Saharan Africa. But that lie also made it into American minds, too. A study from the University of Oregon found that as late as 2005, 20% of African-Americans believed HIV was created in a government lab.
Russian disinformation around the H1N1 flu—the so-called “Swine Flu” in 2009 and Ebola in 2013-2014 also alleged the viruses in those outbreaks originated in U.S. government labs.
Finally, we need to remember that the Coronavirus is taking place in an election year. In October of 2019—long before any of us were talking about quarantines and novel viruses, the FBI and DHS warned that Russian influence campaigns in 2020 would be focused on voter-suppression—similar to some of their tactics in 2016. It’s not hard to imagine a fall disinformation campaign intended to target certain groups of Americans to keep them from voting in key districts or states. We may have seen a fore-taste of that already. On March 15, 2020—just a month ago, rumors began swirling about a nation-wide lockdown soon to be announced by the president. The rumors were groundless, but they inspired the National Security Council to put out a Tweet that night forcefully denying the rumor. What was insidious about this was that the rumor wasn’t just spread on social media platforms, but also via text messages on our phones. We’ve seen similar disinformation campaigns on so-called peer-to-peer platforms in other parts of the world, but not in the United States.
Disinformation spreads the same way a virus spreads—from person to person, contact to contact, social-media-account to social-media-account, hence the phrase “going viral.” All of us can help control the spread of disinformation by being discerning users of social media. Don’t retweet, share, or send anything that seems sensational; that isn’t from a credible source; or that seems like a massive scoop from some no-name-outlet.
We’ve heard a lot of late that our individual and collective behavior is key to stopping the spread of COVID-19. The same is true of disinformation.