The current Coronavirus crisis represents an enormous opportunity for various extremists to influence, recruit and further destabilize the political system with the help of the contagiousness of Fake News and conspiracy theories circulating on social media.
This use case focuses on evaluating and discovering Fake News and conspiracy theories surrounding and utilizing COVID-19 and their usage by extremist groups. Moreover, it offers an overview of the most prevalent Fake News and conspiracy theories, examines their origins and influencers and offers recommendations for governments concerning countering Fake News, conspiracy theories and hostile narratives that aim to further polarize and radicalize the already economically deprived and scared citizens.
Political, technological, economic and social transformation changed the way we exchange information. In times of a pandemic, misinformation campaigns are not only harmful to electoral process, fact-based journalism and potential citizens’ decisions based on inaccurate information, but now also to people’s lives (Source: UN News).
“There seems to be barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from the origin of the coronavirus, through to unproven prevention and ‘cures’, and encompassing responses by governments, companies, celebrities and others,” said Guy Berger is the Director for Policies and Strategies regarding Communication and Information at UNESCO (Source: UN News).
Since the spread of Coronavirus, Fake News did not take long time to appear in various channels ranging from social media to misinformation on local news (Source: Politico).
What is more, not all of misinformation have bad intentions – many Fake News spreading on private messaging applications like WhatsApp, were forwarded by fearful and anxious individuals that spread misleading or inaccurate information on medical advice or lockdown rules (Source: Politico).
As a response, Facebook said that it is committed to tackle viral messages, for instance by reducing the number of people you can forward your message to, which was specifically applied to WhatsApp (Source: Politico). When it comes to the examples of Fake News circulating on WhatsApp, the one prevalent in German speaking countries was an audio recording of a woman claiming that a friend of hers, who is a doctor at the university hospital of Vienna, informed her that most of the patients with severe symptoms of COVID-19 had taken the painkiller ibuprofen before being admitted to the hospital. Moreover, this Fake News circulated in various languages. The spokesperson for the Medical University of Vienna declined such an information. In Belgium, WhatsApp users could have received a message with fake audio information from a woman who claimed that the hospital she works in had triggered the maximum pandemic plan. Similar recordings warned WhatsApp users of a “complete lockdown” of the country. (Source: Politico).
People in Poland received messages with false information that the government is cutting off transportation to its capital, Warsaw, while French users were forwarding a message consisting of an audio of a woman claiming that the whole country will soon be under full quarantine. In Portugal, a fake message suggesting that the government is underreporting the true numbers of infected people (Source: Politico) circulated.
In Italy, Statista published that in the timeframe between January and March 2020, 4.8 % of all online news and posts related to COVID-19 were false or inaccurate. Fake News reached its peak in the early stage of the pandemic, at the end of January 2020, with 7.3 % of all online news being false or inaccurate (Source: Statista).
Concerning government actions against the spread of Fake News about Coronavirus, some governments decided to punish those who deliberately share them. In Singapore, 40-year-old taxi driver has been charged over false claims he made in a Facebook group. He allegedly shared online that he received an information that supermarkets would only be opened for 2 days in a week and urged other users to stock up with resources for the next month. If convicted, he could be imprisoned for up to 3 years and face a maximum fine of 10,000 dollars (Source: The Straits Times). Another case in the UK involves a man posting a false information on Facebook. He claimed that he had tested positive for Coronavirus and that the doctors had told him that the virus is now airborne, meaning it can spread even more rapidly than from person to person. 23-year-old Facebook user who got arrested claimed he wanted to conduct a social experiment. Now he faces charges of false alarm, needed to pay bail bond of 1,000 dollars and lost his job (Source: BBC).
A Battle of Governments’ Narratives about COVID-19
According to an unpublished study by the U.S. State Department, approximately 2 million tweets pushing conspiracy theories about COVID-19 circulated on social media over the course of 3 weeks when the outbreak began to spread outside China. Those tweets represent 7 % of the all studied tweets and the report warns that some of the misinformation efforts exhibited an “evidence of inauthentic and coordinated activity.”, which could have been done by governments or other groups with a political aim in mind (Source: The Washington Post).
Another U.S. Report published by State Department’s Global Engagement Center claims that China, Iran and Russia are utilizing the Coronavirus crisis in order to launch a propaganda and disinformation campaigns against the USA. Some of these narratives include stories about COVID-19 being an American bioweapon or that the U.S. troops had spread it, or that the virus did not come from China and the response by Chinese government was effective and successful, while the American was negligent and that the USA’s sanctions are killing people in Iran (Source: Politico).
On the other hand, Donald Trump has been persistently claiming that he has seen an evidence that COVID-19 originated in a laboratory in Chinese Wuhan, which directly contradicts the public statement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (Source: CNN).
Translation: Donald Trump continues to fuel the thesis that the Coronavirus could come from a laboratory in China. The US President threatens the country with punitive tariffs and criticizes the WHO as a PR agency for China.
Translation: Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assure that the Coronavirus was created in a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
Extremism and Coronavirus-related Fake News and Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories and Fake News, originating from all spheres of extremism, are flourishing and mutating online at an increasing pace. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, not only aspects of daily life have been affected, but also a transformation of extremist groups can be monitored. By using Fake News, extremist organizations have managed to integrate themselves into the opinion making, eroding the people´s trust into the government and its strict pandemic countermeasures (analysis provided by LADON CORP.).
Islamic Extremism and the utilization of COVID-19
Smaller jihadi groups and offshoots of IS or Al-Qaeda have considered COVID-19 a divine punishment, more sophisticated groups see it as a chance to assert their dominance.
Especially in regions where the financial resources of local governments are limited and already heavily burdened, security and healthcare cannot be provided anymore to those in need. This has created an opportunity for extremists. In West- and Sub-Saharan Africa they “bridge this gap”, providing basic services, security and rudimentary healthcare to the local population (analysis provided by LADON CORP.).
As Coronavirus has continued to rise the death toll in Europe, a provocative news story broke and went viral. The story consisted of an ISIS propaganda infographic instructing its members to avoid travels to Europe. Critics of publishing this message coming from foreign-language newsletter suggest that this is what ISIS aimed to achieve – to gain attraction and amplify its message (Source: The Intercept). Even though the group has recommended its members to not travel to western countries to launch terrorist attacks, it suggested that those who are already there should act (Source: The Guardian).
With the world’s attention directed towards fighting the pandemic, ISIS managed to launch attacks in Philippines, Maldives and Mozambique, while the latter two have never experienced ISIS attacks in the past. Moreover, the German police arrested 4 suspected ISIS members who they believe had been planning to attack American military facilities in Germany (Source: TIME).
Regardless of the current pandemic, ISIS continues to pose a threat to national governments. What is more, the weakened capacities of law enforcement or security organizations represent an opportunity for the weakened, but still active terrorist organization responsible for a high number of attacks in Europe and on other continents (Source: TIME).
The infographic warning ISIS-fighters against travelling to Europe is shown on the right. It was published in Al-Naba’ newsletter, which is a part of the terrorist group’s regularly published media output including photos, videos, texts and speeches by its leaders. The COVID-19 recommendations were published in the 19th March edition (Source: Crisis Group).
The infographic depicts a list of “Shari’I directives to deal with epidemics” (Source: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi).
The main points can be translated as (translation by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi):
- The obligation of faith that illnesses do not strike by themselves but by the command and decree of God
- The counsel to put trust in God and seek refuge in Him from illnesses
- The obligation of taking up the causes of protection from illnesses and avoiding them
- The counsel that the healthy should not enter the land of the epidemic and the afflicted [/infected] should not exit from it
- The counsel to cover the mouth when yawning and sneezing
- The counsel to cover the vessels and tie the waterskin
- The counsel to wash the hands before dipping them into vessels
An ISIS statement about COVID-19 in China published in the issue 220 of al-Naba’ newsletter, weekly news section, can be seen on the right (Source and translation by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi):
The victims of ‘Corona’ is [sic!] on the increase and the disbelieving Chinese government is refuted in its claims to find a treatment for it.
China announced a rise in the number of its people killed as a result of infection with the Coronavirus to 563, while the number of those infected with the illness has reached approximately 30,000 Chinese [sic!]. At the same time some of the expectations suggest that the true numbers of dead and infections with the illness are multiple times higher than what the disbelieving government of China has announced.
And the Chinese government is still imposing a quarantine on two towns in which the illness has spread with intensity, while imposing precautionary measures in other areas in fear of its spread in them as well, while the governments continue to evacuate their citizens from China and Hong Kong, and monitor the passengers coming from China in case they are infected with the deadly illness.
Meanwhile the disbelieving Chinese government has begun to claim the healing of some of those infected with the illness and their leaving its hospitals to reassure the people, and to minimize the catastrophic impacts of the illness on all aspects of life in China, and among them the economy that has lost hundreds of billions of dollars as losses during the past days. The ‘WHO’ has denied that there is an effective drug for the illness, in refuting the Chinese claims in this regard.
The Pie Graph below depicts the 10 most mentioned countries in traditional and social media in the context of ISIS and Coronavirus since the 1st of February.
- Fake News in times of Coronavirus
- A battle of governments’ narratives about COVID-19
- Extremism and Coronavirus-related Fake News and conspiracy theories
- Islamic extremism and the utilization of COVID-19
- Far-right groups and COVID-19 Fake News and conspiracy theories
- 5G and COVID-19 conspiracy theory on social media as an example of disinformation
- Bill Gates, COVID-19 and forced vaccination with microchips
- Examples of other Coronavirus-related Fake News circulating on social media
- Countries, people, organizations and locations associated with Coronavirus-related Fake News
- Far-right content is spreading outside of extremist networks and influences the daily social media users through fueling Fake News, conspiracy theories, anti-government attitudes and calls for action.
- Given the ease with which extremist content get transformed and picked up by social media platforms or even mainstream media and influence already economically deprived and scared citizens who are currently an easier target, governments should carefully monitor and combat dangerous narratives, as these can lead to further radicalization and destabilization of the political system.
- By analysing the data, we see an alarming trend of rapprochements of groups and organisations that are originally of different nature. In these “Black Swan” scenarios, it is still highly unlikely that groups at the very extreme ends of the political and ideological spectrum will join their forces. However, observations indicate an emergence of more pragmatic sub-groups and leaders, that are in fact willing to “bend” their ideologies. This could at least result in a knowledge-transfer with respect to propaganda and asymmetric warfare against common enemies or somewhat of a distribution and coordinated segmentation of operational territories offline and online (analysis provided by LADON CORP.).
- Governments are well-advised to continue monitoring extremist sentiments of the population exploiting or reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated Fake News. In many countries and societies, a tipping point has been reached and the population is not in full support of governmental restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic anymore. Economic hardship and mass unemployment are highly likely to follow the COVID-19 pandemic and existing extremist threats will be amplified and further dynamized by conspiracy theories and fake news. A failure to address, monitor and counter these online narratives will continue to drive individuals into the arms of extremist recruiters and propagandists (analysis provided by LADON CORP.).