Superspreaders of Malign and Subersive COVID-19 Information in U.S.: Russian and Chinese Efforts

RAND has released Superspreaders of Malign and Subversive Information on COVID-19: Russian and Chinese Efforts Targeting the United States. This report describes COVID-19 information manipulation by Russia and China targeting U.S. audiences for the first half of 2020. Although the two countries differ in their principal goals; Russia aiming to destabilize the United States, and China aiming to protect its international reputation, both focus on conspiracy theories and the inefficacy of U.S. systems. “Conspiracy theories are a prominent type of disinformation involving attempts to explain the ultimate cause of events with false claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors.” Both counties falsely accused the U.S. of creating and intentionally spreading the virus. By May 2020, focus had evolved from conspiracy theories to critiques of COVID-19 U.S. response failures.

Social media (including trolls and bots) and YouTube was used to reach a variety of audiences across the political spectrum. RAND highlights several strategies to examine the subversive dissemination to U.S. audiences. Existing databases documenting Russian and Chinese efforts were searched, focusing on cataloged information to be considered inaccurate or malign. Researchers also analyzed COVID-19 related information on English-language media channels linked to Russia and China. The information found was verified against common fact-checking websites such as factcheck.org and snopes.com. In addition, the psychological effects of Russia and China-linked messaging were studied, focusing on confirmation bias and the motivation to seek attitude-consistent information.

“As the volume of disinformation increases and as disinformation spreads faster and further, it can create uncertainty, distrust, and confusion as it drowns out factual and objective information. Agents—notably such foreign actors as Russia and China and their proxies—fuel and contribute to the explosion in disinformation that we have observed over the past decade.”

This report emphasizes the importance of considering how these two countries’ disinformation efforts could shape activities in the future, and the research which may help counter them.


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