Fighting the COVID-19 Infodemic: Politics & Extremism

Simeon Dukic
Manager, Strong Cities Network

As we respond to the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, governments are mobilising resources to ensure citizens are kept safe and healthy, while protecting their economies and institutions. However, COVID-19 was the not the only thing to spread exponentially across the world – the spiralling ‘infodemic’ of disinformation surrounding the pandemic also threatens our cities and citizens.

At the Strong Cities Network we have been analysing how disinformation around the pandemic is impacting our education systems and extremism, in two articles. You can read the second article here.


Politics

State and non-state groups alike have used the pandemic to capitalise on their goals by spreading fake news through disinformation campaigns. The proliferation of disinformation campaigns after the big data revolution has seen a significant increase with some looking to influence elections, recruit individuals, and spread panic.

One of the goals of this disinformation is to weaken the belief in liberal democracies and multilateral institutions and strengthen the appeal to authoritarian values. Examples include the false report that EU states have prevented Russian humanitarian convoys to use their airspace en route to Italy, and that COVID-19 was a human-created weapon developed by the U.S.

The EU’s image was tarnished in its backyard as well. Serbia’s President during his State of Emergency address stated that “European solidarity does not exist” and is only a “fairy tale.” The void left by the EU according to him will be filled out by Serbia’s only one true friend – China. While the Serbian President received much attention because of his unmoderated rhetoric and kissing the Chinese flag, the authorities in Beijing expanded their influence in other parts of the world as well to improve the country’s image on the international level and score a soft power victory in the support and handling of the virus. Moreover, China’s response to the pandemic is seen as superior since its system is not subject to extensive checks and balances.

Extremism

Equally as disconcerting, disinformation campaigns have been used by extremist groups during the COVID-19 outbreak to undermine confidence in the status quo. While some groups are calling the pandemic a hoax orchestrated by their enemies, others are using it to scapegoat groups within society and sow mistrust and chaos.

Islamist groups have used COVID-19 to stoke violent opposition to political leaders, citing the virus as an act of God and have renewed their call for attacks against their enemies while they are hampered by the pandemic. Far Right groups have similarly used the pandemic to organise protests, spread disinformation and conspiracy theories to undermine confidence in the rule of law.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which leads the SCN, has recently examined how extremist groups are responding to COVID-19. In addition to analysis on how Jihadist and Far-Right extremist narratives coalesce around the global health crisis, ISD has released two reports which examine the weaponisation of disinformation around COVID-19 by various groups, including one briefing on how it is being spread and by whom, and a second on how the Far Right in particular has mobilised around fake news.

International Responses

Many organisations have taken active measures to counter the malign effect of disinformation campaigns. For example, Infotagion is regularly fact-checking the most prevalent stories being shared online, while organisations such as AFP Fact Check, Snopes, FullFact, The Conversation, EUvsDisinfo have all produced fact-checking resources dedicated to fighting coronavirus misinformation. Additionally, governing bodies such as the European Commission have published a short online guide to fight the sharing of fake news.

As a new range of state and non-state actors step up their disinformation campaigns, we should all be more stringent in our own approach to news. Before sharing, we should consider who has written it and why, whether it comes from a veritable source and whether it is too good to be true.

We are all worried about the human toll of this pandemic, about those who are vulnerable or alone and whose health or economic survival is threatened. However, we should also be ready to respond to the risk that these heightened fears combined with a growing desperation to see the crisis under control will be exploited by extremist groups seeking to divide our communities.

We at the Strong Cities Network will be working to support our cities and partners in every way that we can, through the promotion and publication of resources, toolkits and guidance, and by helping to connect cities and experts with global counterparts. We welcome any resources, tools or expertise you know of or which you can offer our members to help tackle the spread of fake news. What is your city doing? Feel free contact us at [email protected].  

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