WASHINGTON — The footage in the WhatsApp text chain message was real: a local Boston TV news report on the January arrest of Harvard professor Charles Lieber, a chemist charged with lying to federal authorities about receiving funding from Wuhan University of Technology in China.
The text that accompanied it was not: “The US has found the man responsible for fabricating and selling the coronavirus to China,” it read in Spanish.
In fact, authorities have found no such connection between Lieber and the virus.
To the alarm of disinformation experts, the pandemic is creating the conditions for conspiracy theorists and foreign agents, seasoned political strategists and amateur crusaders alike to sow confusion about the virus, downplay its severity, and instigate discord over the response to the outbreak.
In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump supporters, Republican operatives, and Russian actors harnessed the power of Internet content to disseminate contagious messages and influence political narratives, not all rooted in truth.
Only this time, the online manipulation campaigns aren’t just about damaging civil discourse or a campaign, researchers said. They could be deadly.
“We are not talking #pizzagate,” said John Voiklis with Knology, a social science think tank, pointing to a debunked conspiracy theory that went viral during the 2016 election and falsely linked prominent Democrats with human trafficking at a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. “We are talking about a real disease that could sicken you and your relatives.”
On the Internet, the falsehoods, misleading statements, and conspiracy theories about coronavirus — its origins and cures, its symptoms and infection rate — run the gamut, as do their creators.
Some of the content falls squarely in the category of “misinformation": inaccuracies stemming from error, such as lists of unproven treatments and videos of pseudoscientists and psychologists speculating on prevention. Other material, like the WhatsApp text chain, provides clear examples of “disinformation,” or misinformation created intentionally to deceive. False content is most shareable, researchers said, when it rings true or twists a grain of truth into a believable conspiracy.
Then there is a grayer area of diffused propaganda that is harder to trace and prove is coordinated. Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center researchers Joan Donovan and Brian Friedberg have termed some of these posts “viral sloganeering” because they’re designed to take over media coverage to spread talking points.
In recent weeks, as supporters of Trump and right wing causes have protested stay-at-home orders, such content has ricocheted across the far right Internet, Freidberg and other researchers said.
“Quarantine is when you restrict movement of sick people. Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people,” reads one popular meme, echoing a quote from Meshawn Maddock, a cofounder of Women for Trump and the Michigan Conservative Coalition, before thousands of people in vehicles protested in Lansing. A few days later, former Florida representative Allen West tweeted a photo with the same lines printed on a paper taped to what appears to be a fence.
“This quote is popping up frequently amidst this crisis,” he said. “If you know the original source, I would love to give credit. It is brilliant!”
The words have since circulated across social media groups and platforms, spreading on Twitter on Monday as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam delayed reopening nonessential businesses for another week. The text can vary, often slapped across hazard symbols, photos of hospital wards, or renderings of the American Revolution. Always, researchers said, the protesters’ idea — resist the government measures to limit the coronavirus outbreak — is the same: to cast doubt on advice from public health experts.
For the most part, the protests have been small, and polls have shown most Americans don’t support them.
There’s debate even in the most extreme right corners of the Web over whether the reopen America campaigns are grass roots or fueled behind the scenes by well-financed organizers. Some Facebook ads promoting the rallies have been tied to a loose network of conservative and libertarian groups with roots in the Tea Party movement, including FreedomWorks, Tea Party Patriots, and Convention of States. Facebook and other social media platforms have been quicker than in the past to take down posts that spread misinformation or disinformation regarding the pandemic.
But organizers and protest attendees — including Trump supporters, pro-gun rights activists, antivaccine advocates, and backers of other right wing causes — argue that the uprising, like the content behind it, is organic.
“This is entirely spontaneous,” said Mark Meckler, president of Convention of States Action, which has funded Facebook ads as part of a larger “Open the States” online initiative to help protesters connect. “I just felt like they needed a home on the Web where they didn’t have to worry about being censored or excluded,” said Meckler, a Tea Party veteran from California.
In Virginia, where the Department of Justice has filed a statement in support of a church suing Northam over his stay-at-home orders, protests have taken place in Richmond.
On Wednesday, the blaring horns started just after lunch downtown. Some protesters sported Trump hats and circled the state Capitol grounds waving American and bright yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, their vehicles decked out in Trump gear, American eagle posters, and handwritten signs.
“Virginia is for Lovers of Freedom,” read one. “Virginia is for workers” said another.
Parked in an alley, Andy Kincaid, 59, a carpenter, was tacking a large Virginia state flag to the back of a black Ram truck before preparing to cruise down Main Street. He showed off his muddy work boots, saying he took the day off to drive from Virginia Beach and protest because Northam was part of the “cabal of communists” bringing the state down.
“I’m tired of it — he’s part of that Soros and Bloomberg thing,” he said, referring to George Soros and Michael Bloomberg, billionaires often the target of far right conspiracy theories. “I’m sure there is a Chinese virus, but we also need to work.”
Disinformation experts see a continuation of online strategies that Republican and conservative operatives — and Trump himself — ramped up in 2016 and have since used to distort or control the narrative on wedge issues such as immigration, criminal justice, or impeachment.
With the 2020 presidential election looming, the online practices could be used to rally Trump’s base, blame China for the pandemic, and try to link presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden to China. Researchers said the tactics also could set the stage for widespread voter suppression, particularly among Black and Latino voters, as people become fatigued, fearful, or distrustful of government institutions amid the pandemic, opting to tune out and stay home rather than cast a ballot.
“Even if a protest is a small number, the images get caught in a life of their own,” said James Der Derian, director of the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia. “They get caught in a feedback loop.”
China and Russia have jumped into the fray with their own online manipulation campaigns centered on blaming the United States for the outbreak and obscuring their failures in responding to the virus, disinformation experts said. They worry the content could play into the hands of ultraconservatives, who researchers say have picked up many of the online manipulation techniques used by Russian actors and widely redistribute communications from Russian sites.
“For now, it seems ultraconservatives are spurring the action,” said Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford in England.
And not all of the misinformation can be easy to classify or counter. A pair of California doctors and vocal Trump supporters, for example, went viral last month for releasing dubious conclusions from their urgent testing sites, drawing fire from public health experts for perpetuating the misconception that the virus is no worse than the seasonal flu.
“The narratives build off of each other," said Andrea Limbago, a computational social scientist who studies disinformation campaigns. “Nothing happens in a vacuum anymore."
Social media platforms only release limited data on suspicious online activity and disinformation, so calculating the scope of the problem and its impact on the 2020 election is difficult, researchers said.
Among the more subtle efforts to influence the 2016 US election, Russia disseminated divisive online propaganda through a network of trolls and bots, the first wave targeting Republicans and conservative audiences, the second centered on progressives. The Oxford Internet Institute found the activities played an important role in shaping debate over public policy and politics in the key swing state of Michigan, which Trump narrowly won, and some analysis has found it likely did help sway the outcome of the race.
Researchers worry that coronavirus disinformation will continue to proliferate, this time created by domestic political operatives across a wider array of encrypted messaging apps and platforms, such as WhatsApp and TickTok. The fear and uncertainty created by the virus could cause people to fall back into old patterns: the comfort of partisan sources that confirm personal biases, regardless of whether they are based in fact.
“We were learning lessons,” Limbago said of the 2016 election. “The crisis could undermine those lessons.”