March 17, 2020

IntelBrief: Disinformation and the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

A medical staffer watches from a tent at one of the emergency structures that were set up to ease procedures at the Brescia hospital, northern Italy, Thursday, March 12, 2020.(AP Photo/Luca Bruno).
  • The public health crisis stemming from the spread of COVID-19 continues to become more serious with widespread school closings, the shuttering of bars and restaurants, and the cancellation of major sporting events
  • While COVID-19 continues to spread, so does disinformation surrounding the virus.
  • This merging of a public health crisis and malicious online activity has amplified the threat posed by COVID-19.
  • Strong leadership that conveys accurate information at the local level regarding the depth and breadth of the threat is the best way to counter the ‘infodemic’ that has now run parallel to the outbreak.




As the world confronts the most serious health pandemic in over a century, a combination of disinformation, cyber-attacks, and a dearth of political leadership amplifies the threat posed by the spread of the latest coronavirus, COVID-19. As of March 16, 2020, COVID-19, first identified in China, has sickened more than 170,000 thousand people worldwide and killed more than 6,600. In the United States, more than 3,800 cases have been identified and over 65 have died. By all accounts the threat will only metastasize in the coming weeks and possibly overburden the U.S. healthcare system, resulting in a national security crisis. While the announcement of a national emergency will help consolidate and augment federal coordination efforts – the lack of expeditious testing will make it impossible to discern the cascading effects it will have throughout all segments of society. Physical and social distancing efforts, such as closing schools, bars, and sporting events made by companies, universities, and state entities, will help stem the spread. The decisiveness of these decisions, particularly at the state and local level, stands in stark contrast to the federal government’s response.

Despite the varying efforts of state, local, federal, and private responses, the spread of disinformation has hampered efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19. Malignant actors have used social and conventional media to intentionally disseminate disinformation regarding the origin of the virus by spreading conspiracy theories, including that the United States Army created the virus to counter the activities of Iran and China, two countries which have suffered significantly from the fallout. Without even a scintilla of evidence, Jerry Falwell, Jr. suggested that North Korea could be responsible for COVID-19 by saying this could be the ‘early Christmas gift’ Kim Jong Un promised President Trump in the form of a bio-weapon. In another instance, a high-ranking Chinese government official claimed that U.S. soldiers brought the virus to China. The idea that COVID-19 is a weaponized state-sponsored effort is the most toxic conspiracy theory currently circulating. Disinformation has also run rampant during the health crisis. In some cases, opportunists have tried to profit from COVID-19 by selling false cures. Alex Jones, the discredited Infowars radio host, has falsely peddled Superblue toothpaste as a cure-all for killing COVID-19. Similarly, televangelist Jim Bakker has attempted to sell a product called Silver Solution as an antidote for COVID-19. Bakker is now being sued by the state of Missouri for his profiteering. Politicians have been on the forefront as well in spreading advice contrary to that offered by health officials – for instance – on a recent Sunday talk show, Devin Nunes, a Congressman from California, contradicted federal health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci by encouraging people to go their local bars. Minimizing the threat posed by COVID-19 by encouraging people to congregate will increase the spread of the virus.

The combination of cyber and disinformation attacks recently affected the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). A foreign actor likely carried out a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack by attempting to overwhelm the HHS servers. The attack coincided with a flurry of disinformation regarding the U.S. government implementing martial law or a country-wide quarantine. This cyber incident may explain why the National Security Council (NSC) was quick to correct the record by noting that rumors of a national quarantine were incorrect. In another episode, cyber hackers have created fake interactive maps illustrating the spread of COVID-19 in an effort to load malware onto unsuspecting users’ computers or smart phones. This tactic is especially pernicious because the Johns Hopkins University map of the outbreak has become a ubiquitous tool to gather legitimate information regarding the scale of the COVID-19 threat. 

The challenge of confronting the COVID-19 threat has been hampered by a series of missteps by the Trump administration. Early on in the crisis, President Trump downplayed the threat by tweeting that everything would be ‘ok’ and that people who were sick could still go to work. It is incumbent that senior U.S. political leaders take a page out of Winston’s Churchill’s playbook. In World War II Churchill leveled with the British people about the enormity of the Nazi challenge. It is now time for the President and other senior administration officials to level with the American public about the severity and scale of the impending COVID-19 challenge. The World Health Organization has called COVID-19 not only a pandemic, but also an ‘infodemic,’ and it remains critical that government officials display moral courage and leadership by refusing to endorse disinformation that could put Americans at risk but instead tell it like it is. Decisive and informed leadership under the strain of a national emergency is critically important given that social media companies are unable to keep pace with the rapid spread of disinformation.


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