Covid-19 and disinformation
The manipulation by violent non-state actors
The virus of disinformation is not new and has been causing problems for several years, but the crisis caused by COVID-19 has increased them significantly. Terrorist, violent extremist and organized criminal groups have successfully taken advantage of the pandemic and used social media maliciously in order to expand their activities and weaken trust in governments.
Within the framework of the quarantines, isolations and social distancing imposed by the different governments to prevent infections and which, in turn, contributed to the decline of the economies and the increase in social tensions, terrorists and violent extremist groups and those related to organized crime managed to exploit the vulnerabilities of the social network ecosystem to manipulate people, who are experiencing moments of anxiety, uncertainty and fear. Through social media, these actors disseminate conspiracy and deceptive theories about the virus that are related both to its origin and to its mode of transmission and, even, to possible cures.
The spread of such conspiracy theories and false information related to the virus has different objectives, the main one being to undermine the confidence of governments and, at the same time, to reinforce extremist discourses and recruitment strategies. Although this is the main objective, the discourse to be promoted varies depending on the ideology of the actor who disseminates the information.
In this way, theories have been viralized that maintain, for example, that immigrants and foreigners are responsible for the spread of the virus, under campaigns such as “Stop the Coronavirus – Sport illegal foreigners” and messages that propose the ” extermination” of immigrant populations as a solution to the pandemic or, in other cases, that its origin is due to religious issues. In the first case we can find extreme right groups such as the New Jersey European Heritage Association (NJEHA), the Blanche Europe  and the Telegram accounts of Eco-Fascist Central, Corona Chan News and Corona Waffen, while in the second case a clear example is that of the groups associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Qaida, the which support theories that argue that the virus is a “soldier of Allah” who is punishing non-believers and enemies who have somehow caused harm to Muslims in recent years.
In addition, some terrorist and extremist groups have tried to use the virus as a biological weapon, inciting their followers through the networks to intentionally spread it in certain spaces, such as religious or cultural sites. Some criminal organizations also took advantage of the pandemic to promote a positive image of them, reinforcing their presence and control in the territory and showing themselves as a valid replacement for health institutions, thus acting as responsible political actors. In Mexico, for example, some criminal groups such as the Gulf Cartel or the Sinaloa Cartel have distributed packages with food and sanitizers that had incorporated an image that “promoted” the name of the drug group and have taken charge of viralizing the events through social networks.
Now, how can fake news be detected and combatted in the midst of the crisis? The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) elaborated a report in November 2020 entitled “Stop the Virus of Disinformation: the risk of malicious use of social media during COVID-19 and the technology options to fight it.” The report invites to debate about the role of three violent non-state actors:
- The right-wing extremist groups;
- Groups associated with ISIL and Al-Qaida; and
- Organized criminal groups.
The paper shows us how these groups operate through social networks spreading false information about the virus, what their messages are and the tactics they use and what tools we have available to combat misinformation. On the last point, the report refers to five technological options that we have to prevent, detect and combat fake news:
- Data Science / Big Data Visualitation: allows identifying the spread of disinformation on a large scale and tracing the origin of false narratives, thus being able to detect human and / or robot accounts that viralize the messages
- Artificial Intelligence: through tools and platforms designed to detect fake news. Using algorithms, they filter and validate new news considering different factors such as the source, the author and the partiality with which the news was written.
- Chatbots: these are software programs designed to interact with people, which act on private messaging applications, helping users to differentiate between facts and falsehoods. Users access the chatbot by entering a standard phone number in the messaging application and can learn about the virus, ways to prevent its spread, and related fake news.
- Web-browser extension: is another type of software that allows you to detect and pursue the route of fake news. It aims to monitor and verify the reliability of online news sites and social networks, allowing the extension of the news to be traced through the web until it reaches the source from which it started.
- Digital literacy tools: they make it possible to fight against fake news by allowing users to identify and avoid them through the use of unique formats, such as online games or newsletters.
However, it is important to bear in mind that technological tools alone do not solve the problem of malicious use and abuse of social networks, since, although they are effective for the detection and prosecution of fake news, they do not replace the ability of man to evaluate the veracity of the information online.
To win the battle against misinformation, the right technology options are needed and also the work of people who use social media to be able to make informed decisions about what content is verified and what is not.
The G5 Integritas team of professionals can help you preserve the integrity of your company or organization, identifying reputational risks derived from the spread of false information that could be affecting the image of your business. For more information, we invite you to contact us at [email protected] or by visiting our website www.g5integritaslatam.com