Was the Covid-19 Infodemic an ultimate eye-opener?
Pandemic crisis and disinformation
Exactly six years ago, we witnessed the first massive deployment of the means of information warfare as an authentic part of a military conflict. In Ukraine, the Russian aggressor’s military incursion was accompanied by an unprecedentedly strong disinformation campaign, targeting both Ukraine’s domestic population and the world’s politicians, media and opinion leaders. This campaign achieved an amazing cognitive-deception success: in the first years of the Russian aggression the conflict was called “separatist fighting” or even “civil war”. The mere confusion of the dictionary had long term devastating international consequences for Ukraine and switched the image of Russia from The Attacker to The Key Player.
At the time, only a narrow class of experts perceived disinformation campaigns as part of a military effort to subjugate another state. Politicians and the general public perceived information activities as “some kind of a soft field comparable to advertising.” Almost no one could have imagined that local disinformation aimed at the mental state and views of a population known during the Cold War, when disinformation essentially supplemented the Soviets’ notorious “Active Measures,” would become a major weapon in the information age. Their modern effectiveness is already comparable to the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. With one small difference — the world is no longer bipolar, there are no SALT I and SALT II — treaties. Instead, there is a rocketing increase in private disinformation actors, intertwined with states or mafias.
The result is a gradual, invisible disintegration of value landmarks from the normal population, a loss of the ability to distinguish the true from the false, a loss of population cohesion in the “conquered territories” and total confusion of policies. This long-prepared and implemented information attack on democratic elections, behaviour and the views of the population remained almost undetectable to the ordinary citizen and the political representations of the states until the advent of the COVID 19 pandemic. It remained (tragically) hidden in incomprehensible studies by computer science and disinfo experts. We have always realized the effect only with each subsequent election when the political map of the Euro-Atlantic area began to change towards chaos, populism, extremism and a fatal series of destructive political decisions with long-term consequences. Like the famous frogs in the pot, we did not realize how the penetration of the information space with small but dangerous viruses of confusion and manipulation is increasing every day. How the so-called Overton’s window, a kind of permissible range of topics of public discourse, changes step by step towards unthinkable.
Although in the field of cyber warfare no one disputes the evil intention of the attacker, in the field of information warfare we still do not find a way to clearly define the act of information aggression as a necessary pre-condition for retaliation or DOJ action. The consequences are just as dangerous, if not more devastating. We the clueless people…
Is misinformation dangerous due to its direct impact? We hoped otherwise for a long time. We perceived the influence of the elections as a vector of some public sentiment and “some funny idiot trolls”. To this day, you will not find a politician who is fully aware of and familiar with the technological scale of the threat posed by Artificial Intelligence and Big Data in the disruption of reality perception. It is uneducated populist politicians elected through social media campaigns that are becoming the most vulnerable point of our democratic system.
The pandemic has become not only the culmination but a possible turning point in our helpless consideration of the foreign disinformation destruction and domestic cognitive confusion.
When, at the beginning of the new century, esoteric narratives began to emerge attacking the trust in science, we considered them harmless clusters of lunatics. Today, the AntiVaxx movement is a serious security threat.
When various alternative treatments began to be promoted, from supportive (herbs) to potentially dangerous (esoterics), we still thought that this was a marginal stream of victims with reduced cognitive capacity. Our benevolent ignorance has lasted too long. Joe Biden ended the period on Twitter with his now legendary statement: “I can’t believe I have to say this, but please don’t drink bleach.”
The new, dangerous potential of this warfare lies precisely in the incredible technological possibilities of dissemination, amplification and extremely precise targeting of misinformation within all our information networks. Only the huge rejection of face masks, people accepting to drink bleach, unauthorized use of untested drugs, denial of the fact of a pandemic and rejection of quarantine on a mass scale woke us up. Well, some of us.
And it has helped previously ignorant politicians realize the scale of the threat we face. First of them finally understood that Big Data is the new uranium of the 21st century.
Dr. Kate Starbird and her team at the University of Washington have researched the automated spread of misinformation during crises. There are already hundreds of specialists like her in the world. The results of her work have so far been known to a narrow circle of specialists. Their studies show that the same accounts involved in influencing US elections and unleashing racial unrest are involved in spreading narratives that deny the pandemic or disseminating “alternative versions of interpretation” and conspiracy theories. Suddenly, we see that misinformation can have an intense, cumulative, immediate and dangerous impact on human health and human lives.
In this respect, a global pandemic is truly a turning point in our ability to admit the threat.
COVID 19 served to finally open our eyes. It helped to escalate the consequences of misinformation and see the enormous effectiveness in a short time slot and with great intensity. Until the crisis broke out, most states acted as if they assumed that the risk of spreading manipulated content was abstract and had no concrete impact on people’s lives and state governance. Russia was the first attacker and still remains the best in town. During the pandemic, China became involved in this global high-level disinformation game, so we are already moving in a double- toxic environment. And I’m not even talking about actors like Iran, Saudi Arabia or the United Emirates, operating in the United States and Canada.
The most dangerous form of aggression remains the one that the victim is unable to realize. If our civilization is to survive this attack on the ability to evaluate and verify information, we must act quickly and with the highest form of defensive and offensive effectiveness. We can already see the consequences directly and without time distortion. The time to act has come.
The author is a writer, columnist and public speaker. She writes books and articles on the hybrid war and modern information warfare. Read more at www.alvarova.com