Blame Games and Deluding Claims: disinformation and conspiracy in a time of global panic - Agenfor International

Blame Games and Deluding Claims: disinformation and conspiracy in a time of global panic

DOSSIER

Covid-19 and Disinformation

(Above left:  a forged  letter from the Italian Government declaring a wage decrease for civil servants. Above right: Fake notice from the Italian Ministry of Interior, posted on a residential building, demanding that all visitors to the building who cannot prove residence there return to their registered residences.)

On the 24th March 2020, a letter was circulated throughout Italy, in which Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his Government appeared to announce the reduction of the monthly salary of civil servants to 600 EUR for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis (pictured above, left). The letter, circulated online and via WhatsApp, and convincingly formatted as the Gazzetta Ufficiale (the official journal of record of the Italian government) was soon debunked as a fake, however it had not taken long for the letter to reach recipients throughout the country.

This particular example may not appear immediately harmful, however it highlights the rife environment that the Covid-19 crisis provides for mis- and disinformation. Already in early February, the World Health Organisation described how the (then) epidemic had been met by an “infodemic”[1], whereby the immense scale of information available on the topic made it almost impossible to distinguish the reliable from the unreliable (information from mis- and disinformation).

One form of false information has become particularly prevalent amidst the current crisis — conspiracy theories. While conspiracy theories do not always fall within the frame of disinformation (which describes information that is deliberately false or misleading[2]), the two phenomena very often come hand-in-hand. The sources of disinformation conspiracy theories can range from lone actors to large organisations and even governments. One such source has gained recent attention for allegedly promoting corona-related conspiracy theories — the Russian news agency Sputnik. EUvsDisinfo, established in 2015 to respond to the Russian Federation’s disinformation campaigns, highlighted several conspiracy theories presented in a Sputnik article on the news agency’s Latvian site. The spirit of the Sputnik article is epitomised in the article’s own line “Of course, the application of the old Roman rule of “seek out to whom it profitable”, is almost always faultless.” (“Конечно, применение старого римского правила “ищи, кому выгодно” – безотказно почти всегда.”). Among those listed as potential profiteers are the Italian government, seeking to relieve its economy of the financial strain of an aging population, The Communist Party of China, as an attempt to mute protests in Hong Kong, and European States to collaboratively prohibit the entry of refugees via Turkey, to name a few.

The Conspiracy Theory Handbook[3], published online earlier this month sheds some light on the issue of conspiracy theories and how to counter them. Importantly, the handbook cautions against dismissing all conspiracy, explaining that it can be part of a rational, critical approach to the information we receive. Indeed, the caution is warranted as the absence of such an approach would expedite the spread of all forms of disinformation. However, where conspiracy is not based on factual evidence, but rather on hyperscepticism and ungrounded mistrust in reliable and available evidence, irrational conspiracy theories emerge, which can harm both the individual holding that theory and, where widely circulated, much larger parts of society. So why are disinformation conspiracy theories flourishing in the corona chaos?

 

 

In response to Covid-19, societies internationally have been forced to readjust the way they live their daily lives. Many previous securities, such as employment, healthcare, childcare, and even social contact, became uncertain almost overnight. It is unsurprising, therefore, that many began seeking explanations and ways to deal with the threats and disruptions that they face. This, in the midst of a cloud of Corona confusion, can heighten recipience and vulnerability to disinformation and, as Lewandowsky and Cook explain in the Handbook, to adopting conspiracy theories. The authors suggest that an apparent disparity in the scale of an event and its cause can be a key contributing factor in the adoption and circulation of conspiracy theories[4]. If this is the case, it is unsurprising that learning that international “lockdown”, economic disaster and over 21,000 deaths[5] can result from a virus that originated thousands of kilometres away may be enough to stimulate such theories and to render large parts of the population ideal targets for disinformation.

It is clear that beyond the immediate threat that Covid-19 poses to our health, an equally as sinister and fast-spreading threat is posed by the disinformation that accompanies it. This has amplified the need for countering disinformation to be made a European priority. While a number of mechanisms exist at a Member State, European and international level to combat disinformation, to find a counterforce that matches the scope of the threat, closer collaboration and aligned efforts are essential. Agenfor International seeks to instigate such a response through its proposed DISINT platform, which would offer a core service platform to serve the alliance of communities of practice on disinformation. Other relevant initiatives in which Agenfor is involved include the EU-funded MIRROR project and a Libya-based project supporting national and regional fact-checking and counter-disinformation measures.

To reduce disinformation and conspiracy theories, Agenfor International calls for a four-step “corona” approach:

  1. Minimise the spread: when you read a piece of information, especially on social media and other online platforms, consider its veracity before believing or sharing this information.
  2. Inoculation: raise public awareness of the threat of disinformation and conspiracy theories, encouraging rationally critical thinking before reading around a topic.
  3. Testing: increase fact-checking activities to debunk and prohibit the further circulation of false information, informing people of where they can check facts and report suspicious material.
  4. Lockdown: Investigate and prohibit the work of actors and organisations spreading disinformation, including blocking social media pages and accounts, proven to be spreading fake news.

With the high level of uncertainty concerning how the Covid-19 crisis will unfold in the coming days and months, it is difficult to begin to make provisions for the potential effects in diverse spheres of society. However, several indicators of the challenges that Europe and its Member States may face have begun to emerge. EU countries risk encountering serious financial and security challenges if the lockdown measures continue, brought to light by the recent prison riots in Italy and government warnings that law enforcement agencies are overstretched.

Extended quarantine measures threaten social security throughout the Union and internationally, as unemployment rises and government funds thin. And the healthcare emergency worsens as resources become increasingly strained. In the face of these long- and short-term challenges, unity, cohesion, and clear information in Europe are needed more than ever. Supporting and promoting this is the responsibility of each citizen and each Member State.

[1] Leman, P. J., & Cinnirella, M. (2007). A major event has a major cause: Evidence for the role of heuristics in reasoning about conspiracy theories. Social Psychological Review, 9, 18–28.

[2] Figures according to Reuters, update at 26.03.2020, 6:40 “Factbox: Latest on the spread of the coronavirus around the world” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-latest-factbox/factbox-latest-on-the-spread-of-the-coronavirus-around-the-world-idUSKBN21D0HT

[3] Jack, C. (2017) Lexicon of Lies: Terms for Problematic Information. New York: Data & Society Research Institute.

[4] Lewandowsky, S., & Cook, J. (2020). The Conspiracy Theory Handbook. Available at http://sks.to/conspiracy

[5] World Health Organisation: Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV): Situation Report – 13.  2.02.2020

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