Last month, a viral post attributed to Stanford University circulated on social media claiming that if you can hold your breathwithout coughing for more than 10 seconds, you most likely don’t have Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. I initially believed it was credible and forwarded it to friends before I learned it was fake. I have studied influence campaigns for most of my career. How could I have been so foolish?
And then I began to wonder about the impact that pandemic conspiracies like this one, labeled “infodemic” campaigns by the World Health Organization, will have on the American election in November. What sorts of lies, rumors and wild theories about the coronavirus will enshroud the Democratic and Republican campaigns, conventions, debates and Election Day? American voters will be adrift in a fog of disinformation, uncertain whether to believe anything they read or hear. As a result, there is likely to be an even more fractured electorate shaping American society for the next four years, and perhaps well beyond.
Russia, China and activists will use the infodemic as a weapon
Let’s be honest. We are heading into an election marked by a flood of disinformation about voting procedures, science and health care, the economy, foreign policy and the moral fabric of our society. We are likely to see conspiracy theories and false narratives from state actors such as Russia and China, news outlets and advocacy groups, and individuals ranging from partisan activists to white supremacists, and even our friends and neighbors who may inadvertently share conspiracy theories without malicious intent. Already, the infodemic has created misleading content that may have a grain of truth when it comes to testing, prevention and origins of the disease.
Russia is continuing its campaign of sowing distrust in democratic institutions and American science in an effort to deepen the divide in the American electorate. For years, Russian operatives have pushed conspiracy theories that global health outbreaks like Ebola and deadly forms of the flu have been manufactured by American scientists. Now all Russia needs to do is amplify false narratives originating in America by Americans about the coronavirus. Heading into November, we may see Russia use a multifaceted campaign of malign influence about the pandemic to influence the election. The use of Russia’s media outlets, including RT and Sputnik, trolls, bots, blogs, and cultural and business channels, to spread such propaganda are not new. However, in the Covid-19 era, the amplification and combination of them should make all of us nervous.