COVID-19 disinformation campaigns coming out of China, Russia and Iran are exposing the nexus between the current global pandemic and foreign information warfare emanating from these extremist nation-states.
A recent webinar led the Leadership Institute on information warfare strategies during the COVID-19 crisis, offered a blueprint on how foreign states locked in on vulnerability points during the 2016 election.
Leadership Institute defines information warfare as the large-scale application of destructive forces against information systems for the purposes of espionage, sabotage and deception. He defines key terminology necessary to map out an understanding of the type of warfare, including:
- computation propaganda
- misinformation vs. disinformation
- hybrid warfare
Disinformation campaigns branch into other objectives — including disruption, extortion and surveillance. The 2016 election cycle brought stories of Russian troll farms stoking race wars and ideological conflicts in the U.S., often with planning both aggressive pro/con protests to stoke confrontational clashes between the extreme actors who seek out agitation opportunities. In 2020, Russia is pushing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories around COVID-19.
Leadership Institute also touched on China’s disinformation tactics that have spanned the entire timeline of the COVID-19 crisis, from damage control after the first reported cases to rewriting the narrative in the aftermath.
.@StateDept has uncovered a large bot network on Twitter aimed at amplifying Chinese disinfo & propaganda during pandemic.
It found that Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts had a surge in new followers from March—many of which were newly created accountshttps://t.co/4YZ8rvLaIy
— Cathy He (@CathyHe_ET) May 10, 2020
Leadership Institute also covered the Islamic Republic’s launch of a state-run media factory designed to look like an independent news agency. The International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM) is an extension of the regime, churning out the common themes of anti-American, pro-China rhetoric.
The convergent points for these disinformation tactics are:
1. In an era of fast-moving news cycles, memes, sound bytes, a steady stream of ticker-tape news and political commentary of 120 characters, Nehring drives home the point that, “If you can make it trend, you can make it true.”
The COVID-19 pandemic binds the attention of the largest possible population group to a central issue. With the attention of an entire world, nefarious foreign actors see this as a ripe opportunity to redirect our attention by deploying propaganda campaigns rooted in disinformation and distortion.
2. Leadership Institute phrases it, “These kinds of crises give them [China, Russia, Iran] breathing room for their other priorities.”
Ryan Mauro, Director of Clarion Project’s Intelligence Network, expands on some of these other opportunities, speaking to Communist China’s influence operations on U.S. college campuses.