These type of attacks are nothing new: The intelligence community and U.S. government officials had already warned well before the pandemic struck that Russia, China, Iran and others would seek to use online influence operations to spread divisions and disinformation and undermine U.S. institutions, censor specific content and more.
With an unprecedented public health crisis coming in the midst of an election cycle, the environment is even more primed for foreign influence operations. At the most basic level, the millions of Americans working from home, staying at home and seeking updates and distractions are a huge target audience for our adversaries. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are registering record traffic, and Twitter usage is up, too.
Disinformation content — about everything from fake lockdowns to conspiracy theories that the virus is a bioweapon — spreads a lot more quickly when more people engage with it, spreading it and amplifying it. Trump also gives foreign actors a freebie whenever he spreads disinformation about vaccines, tests and more. Foreign actors just have to amplify his comments on social media and they accomplish part of their mission set — against us.
People are understandably confused, concerned and divided over all sorts of issues: the government’s response and guidelines; the virus; finger-pointing across party lines over who’s at fault for the slow response; despicable attacks against Asian Americans because of the virus’s origin in China; and much more. These very raw and very real emotions are the kinds of sentiments that foreign influence operations out of Russia have sought to exploit for years, and with divisions and tensions at such a high level, their job is even easier.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought for years to undermine the credibility of American institutions, and that’s much easier now, too. According to the State Department, Russia is “capitalizing on the chaos and the uncertainty that health scares and pandemics engender” to undermine the distribution of accurate information about the virus and amplify inaccurate narratives of its own, as well as the ones Iran and China are pushing out.
The Trump administration is (rightly) coming under fire for its lack of preparedness and responsiveness — whether it’s over masks, ventilators, accurate warnings or accurate information. Various governors and other officials also have made themselves easy targets for labeling as dangerous or incompetent. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said he is “scouring” the globe for medical supplies. The most powerful country in the world is on record saying that we cannot provide for the basic health and security of our people. Putin doesn’t need to create much disinformation to spin the narrative that the United States is no longer a global leader.
The administration has warned about these risks. The National Security Council tweeted a warning about fake messaging. The White House said there is an ongoing effort to spread disinformation and sow panic. The State Department has been engaged in a serious effort to call out disinformation operations by countries such as Russia, China and Iran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been doing this for some time. Although Trump in January touted Chinese “transparency” about the virus, Pompeo has been a broken record regarding China’s attempts to cover up the scale, scope, origin and impact of the virus through disinformation and censorship. He also pointed out that China tried to blame the United States for the virus: a spokesperson at the Chinese Embassy in Washington recently suggested that the U.S. Army should be blamed for the virus. (A state-run newspaper also said Italy might be to blame.) Concurrently, China is using disinformation to paint itself as the world’s knight in shining armor when it comes to leading the global response to the pandemic, and Pompeo has similarly blasted Iran for using disinformation to cover up its “incompetence” and to shift blame. His department published a disinformation fact sheet on Iran last week.
The administration should be able to fight the propaganda war even while it’s dealing with the public health crisis. But Trump didn’t excel at multitasking before the pandemic, and now that a huge portion of the government’s resources is devoted to the coronavirus response, even as many government officials are working from home or in shifts at the office, we won’t be paying enough attention to other threats.
In this environment, and because we have a president who unfortunately aids and abets information warfare operations by spreading disinformation and amplifying divisions, there are no easy fixes. Pompeo’s remarks about China and Iran help. We should hold them accountable using appropriate instruments of U.S. power, including naming and shaming, and possibly with more punitive measures, like sanctions, at the appropriate time.
Unfortunately, Trump’s inaccurate comments don’t come with a disclaimer. Administration officials such as Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, should continue to spread truth, and the administration should urge all Americans to rely on trusted sources for information, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rather than on whichever tweet is going viral at the time.
Just like we can aid in the public health battle by staying home, we can also do our part to contribute to the information warfare defense. First, we can identify verified, credible sources for information, and we can think before we tweet, share and amplify content. Free speech is important all the time, including during a pandemic, but if we help spread lies, that could benefit those who wish to harm us.
In the absence of direct human-to-human interaction, going online is a refuge for many of us right now. But we have to make sure we aren’t making it easier for our adversaries to attack us in the process. While we fight our way through this health crisis, we all need to try to commit to defending the truth.