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COVID-19 Disinformation Is a Growing, Dangerous Problem

Disinformation of all different stripes is still a persistent problem when it comes to the COVID-19 crisis. Increased reliance on social media and spiking Internet use have helped fuel these campaigns.

Attendees at a Reopen Missouri rally
Attendees at a Reopen Missouri rally April 21.
The novel coronavirus has saddled governments with the added responsibility of defending their constituents from virus-related disinformation — proving that, in this day and age, public health crises can quickly become informational crises too.   

Despite the fact that experts have warned that re-opening the economy could cause a catastrophic COVID-19 "second wave," a series of "Re-open" protests recently erupted in communities across the country. Spurred by the notion that an economic downturn poses a greater threat than the virus itself, the movement is encouraging Americans to demand that state governments ease travel and work restrictions. 

Recent news investigations have shown that much of this movement is being supported less by everyday Americans and more by activists aligned with conservative libertarian organizations and wealthy special interest groups. 

A new report breaks down how this works — showing that many of the recent protests are part of an "astroturfing" (fake grass-roots) campaign manufactured by a single firearms lobbyist in Iowa. Aaron Dorr, who runs an advocacy consulting business with a focus on gun rights, is responsible for having ginned up many of these, the report, conducted by DNS research company DomainTools, shows.

"This is actually super common," said Chad Anderson, senior security researcher for DomainTools, referring to astroturfing. "Normally we wouldn't go digging this far [into a campaign] but the fact that it affects public health and [that it] has taken on speed because of Fox News [coverage] ... means it's endangering people. So that's why it seemed important." 

The group allegedly used One Click Politics — a vendor specializing in lobbying and online campaigns — to launch regional protest sites all over the country. DomainTools analyzed the page content, design and registration of many of these sites, finding traces of Dorr in much of the protest movement.

Much of COVID-19 disinformation has been of this stripe: groups seeking to take advantage of people's panic and frustrations. A lot of these campaigns seem to be financially motivated — like when ransomware hackers use fake health websites to lure in unsuspecting Web users. However, other campaigns are less motivated by money than by the opportunity to influence people's political views.   

Data R&D company Graphika released a report this month showing that a longstanding disinformation vector for the Iranian government had recently launched an anti-U.S., pro-China campaign, spreading conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus. 

The group, known as IUVM, is considered to be a "persistent actor" in influence operations and has used a "network of deceptive accounts" on websites to spread its anti-U.S. messaging. Large social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have repeatedly had to remove content posted by IUVM for its "pro Iran information operations," the report reads. 

Astroturf campaigns like this have been spotted in the past by DomainTools researchers as well, Anderson said, referring to "state-sponsored" initiatives conducted by other nations for political reasons. 

In the current context, disinformation can be incredibly damaging — much more so than in a non-emergency setting, said Wasim Khaled, CEO of social media analysis firm Blackbird.AI, in a recent interview.

Khaled's firm recently released a report similar to Graphika's, showing how networks of social media accounts could be used to aid coordinated disinformation campaigns. 

"The disinformation we've seen recently seems like it could be more and more damaging than what we've seen in the past," said Khaled. "It's not just about partisan chatter, or even about election integrity; it's about people potentially dying on a regular basis if they believe the wrong things." 

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.
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