March 16, 2021

IntelBrief: Doubt and Disinformation During the Pandemic

A sign requiring face masks in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • On March 11, President Biden gave a national speech stressing the need to remain vigilant despite great progress made against COVID-19.
  • The U.S. is administering over 2.3 million vaccinations per day, and supplies are growing rapidly, but malign actors are exploiting doubts and anxieties about vaccines.
  • Reports indicate intense disinformation campaigns originating within and outside the U.S., from national politicians to traditional adversaries like Russia.  
  • There is now almost no global issue that is not encased in a cement of manufactured doubt and disunity, exacerbating social divisions and insecurity.

The past year, from March 2020 to 2021, has been one of the deadliest in U.S. history. An ongoing tally by Johns Hopkins University indicates that 535,176 Americans have died in this last year from COVID-19, and another 29.5 million have been infected. The personal, economic, and social costs of the still-ongoing pandemic are almost beyond measure, with communities, cities, and entire countries struggling to comprehend the scale of loss and implications for a post-pandemic life, if and when that arrives. However, despite the over 2.3 million vaccinations per day in the U.S., malign actors are exploiting doubts and anxieties about the vaccines. From the very beginning, the U.S. response has been deliberately kneecapped and intentionally damaged by malign actors, domestic and foreign. Reports indicate intense disinformation campaigns originating within and outside the U.S., from national politicians to traditional adversaries like Russia. Even the most cost-effective and simplest countermeasure to the community spread of the COVID-19 virus – a mask – became inexplicably politicized, sensationalized, and in some places, even demonized.

The initial U.S. response, in which many national politicians promoted the dismissal of science and painted public health officials as conspirators and traitors, cost the country thousands of lives. The portrayal of public health officials as traitors or part of a “globalist” conspiracy also further widened the chasms in American political and social life. So many issues in the U.S., beyond the pale of reasonable policy debate, have become divisive or are used by craven social and political figures to garner fundraising or support. The irrationality of “alternative facts” is the new reality in a growing slice of American life, increasing the risk of malign domestic and international actors exploiting such grievances in the future.

To mark this past year of such massive collective and individual loss and provide an update on the progress of the vaccination program, President Biden gave a speech on March 11, urging Americans to be optimistic about the coming months while also adhering to the public health measures. Rising infection rates and new variants of the virus have already impacted many countries where citizens had believed lockdowns to be a thing of the past. President Biden stressed unity throughout the brief speech and made a point of acknowledging rather than minimizing the catastrophic scale of losses across the country. Yet, such a straightforward and credible reminder of progress made amid the need to remain vigilant in the coming months is still likely to be considered a conspiracy by a rising number of Americans.

With such deliberate efforts at disunity from within the U.S., foreign actors do not have to do much to further exacerbate these tensions and lay the groundwork for greater disunity, distrust, and insecurity. Recently, the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center named four specific Russian media outlets that are disinformation outlets for various Russian intelligence agencies. These outlets had, until recently, a very narrow focus on sowing doubt about not just the efficacy but the safety of the vaccine made by Pfizer, as well as other “Western” vaccines. Countries like China and India have also strengthened their “vaccine” diplomacy by providing vaccines and medical assistance to countries struggling to cope with the pandemic, further outpacing relative U.S. soft power and influence in the global health discourse. However, reentering the World Health Organization and improving the U.S. domestic response may mitigate some of the damage. Other countries have been quick to fill the gaps left by the U.S., and further disunity at home will also serve the purposes of malign actors abroad.

The motivation for these disinformation and misinformation campaigns, in which details are removed from context or scope, or straightforward lies, such as the theory that the vaccines are part of a conspiracy between Bill Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci, are twofold. First, Russia has lied about basic facts and then attacked those who uncovered or broadcast those facts, from the downing of MH-17 in 2014 to war crimes in Syria to the assassination attempts using a nerve agent only Russia possesses and uses. A disinformation campaign about Western vaccines, in the eyes of the Kremlin, works to confuse domestic and foreign audiences. The goal is sowing internal division in Western democracies and a larger weakening of the support for democracy itself. At the same time, the progress made in other states on vaccines and the pandemic response can be leveraged to create further distrust of the U.S. and diminish U.S. influence abroad. The second motivation for a sustained anti-western vaccine campaign is simple economics. The various vaccines now in use are meeting an insatiable demand. This “new arms race” of countries using vaccine aid as a form of soft power and leverage has enormous economic consequence, a reminder that “soft” and “hard” power are often intrinsically interlinked. Sowing doubt about the product of your “competitor” is just as easy if not easier than creating confidence in your own product. Add in a sense of vaccine nationalism, and the situation becomes increasingly anathema to the entire point of it all: getting enough people safely vaccinated in the shortest time period in order to save lives and livelihoods. The pandemic has untold lasting health, socio-economic, and foreign policy implications yet to come, but one of the greatest threats it has posed is to social cohesion and confidence in democracy and collective action. The related disinformation campaigns, both domestic and international, will have lasting impacts on this erosion of public trust.