Covid-19 is a case-study of one of the great undiagnosed threats of our time. I am not referring to the virus itself – experts have long warned of the dangers of a novel coronavirus causing a global pandemic. In that respect, Covid-19 is not a ‘black swan event’. I am referring, instead, to the increasingly dangerous and untrustworthy information ecosystem in which the pandemic is unfolding. In geopolitics, this ecosystem is emboldening state actors to increasingly pursue malicious disinformation operations. While information warfare has existed since time immemorial, its potency, immediacy and increasing popularity as a weapon of geopolitical influence has reached unprecedented heights. The story of Covid-19 illustrates this perfectly.
Russia: The master
Russia was quick to exploit the virus. This is unsurprising. As the Intelligence and Security Committee in the British House of Commons has concluded, ‘Russia conducts information warfare on a massive scale.’ It is the undoubted master of disinformation with a long history of ‘psychological warfare’ that spans back to the Cold War. In 1984, Yuri Bezmenov, a high-ranking KGB defector, elucidated Soviet techniques in a Canadian TV interview. Rather than ‘spying’ in the traditional sense, he revealed that the KGB (the Soviet military intelligence agency) was more focused on using disinformation to undermine its enemies. In his words:
[It] is a slow process which we call either ideological subversion or ‘active measures’. […] What it basically means is to change the perception of reality […] to such an extent that despite the abundance of information, no-one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their community, and their country.[ii]
This approach is still favoured by the Kremlin today, but tools are more powerful now. Over the last decade, the Kremlin has capitalized on the full range of emerging communication technologies, especially social media, in its attempt to mould the geopolitical sphere to its advantage. Covid-19 represented a good opportunity in this regard. As news of the virus began to emerge, Moscow sought to exploit the increasingly bitter relationship between Beijing and Washington as a means to achieve its long-running strategic objective of undermining the West.
In the early stages of the pandemic’s spread, the Kremlin propagated the myth that the virus was an American ‘biological weapon’ specifically engineered to target Chinese DNA. The accusation of biological warfare against the US is a long-running trope that started in the Cold War when the Soviets claimed that the US inherited ‘fascist technology’ from the Nazis to genetically engineer diseases. (In one viral disinformation campaign from the 1980’s, for instance, the Soviets claimed the CIA had invented the HIV virus to kill Black Americans.) By the time Covid-19 reached American shores, the message had morphed. It was then claimed that Covid-19 was a Chinese–made biological weapon, and that it was linked to the construction of Chinese 5G networks. Russian-sponsored versions of the Covid-19 genesis-myth also included anti-vax conspiracy theories (that the virus was manufactured for monetary gain by US pharmaceutical companies, for example); as well as familiar ‘Bill Gates and/or George Soros created the virus’ type conspiracies. As the EU’s External Action Service concluded in a May 2020 report on global Covid-19 disinformation:
External actors, notably pro-Kremlin sources, are still involved in spreading disinformation, including by amplifying existing conspiracy theories, which link the COVID-19 pandemic to biological warfare, 5G technology and fuel anti-vaccination sentiment.
From a public health perspective, these disinformation operations are compounding an already devastating situation. In the United States, where there are now over 170,000 Covid-19 deaths and 30,000 new cases diagnosed daily, a weekly NBC poll suggests that less than half of the US population (44 per cent) say they will get a Covid-19 vaccine should one be developed. The finding is broadly in line with other polls which suggest that about 50 per cent of Americans would refuse to be vaccinated. Meanwhile in the UK, where one study suggested that 50 per cent of Britons believed the virus to be ‘man-made,’ there have been over 70 arson attacks on network masts and over 180 reported incidents of abuse of key workers implementing 5G projects.
Russia is still the leading proponent of global information warfare. In one study from 2019, researchers from Princeton found that Russia was responsible for 72 per cent of all foreign disinformation operations between 2013-2019. Russia is, therefore, three times as aggressive as all other state actors combined. This is starting to change, however. Others — and most notably China — are starting to emulate Russia’s tactics. When it comes to disinformation, much like it has done in other areas like remote working and digital transformation, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst.