Yasmine Ashwal, Vendela Frank, Behavior/Leadership Team
COVID-19, the deadly virus which has caused the ongoing global pandemic, continues to take its toll on international safety in both direct and indirect ways. Directly, it infects and kills; indirectly, it has fueled worldwide debate, civil unrest, and societal dissolution. The way people consume their news through social media’s selective exposure algorithms has enabled a concerning spike in misinformation, which has led to a rise in polarization that is threatening democracy (particularly in the US). Foreign adversaries, terrorist organizations, and harmful conspiracy groups have and will continue to take advantage of the virus to support their own nefarious goals. As the world eagerly awaits a cure, an already divided society quarrels over vaccine legitimacy and prioritization. Many see the United States election as the “climax” of the threat as each candidate has dedicated supporters that may be pushed to take extreme measures depending on the outcome. It is assessed that these aforementioned global conditions are almost certain to foster further terrorism, deepen the omnipresent civil unrest, and threaten security worldwide. Despite efforts to contain the virus, it has already sparked such strong feelings in people that it will continue to both, directly and indirectly, generate a loss of life. It is crucial that behavioral indicators of potential threats be monitored and analyzed vigilantly in order to detect, deter, and defeat terrorism.
It is no secret that ever since the early days of COVID-19, society has developed widely different opinions on the cause, severity, and management of the virus. Some particularly harmful myths include the support of unorthodox treatments (such as hydroxychloroquine), the notion that the virus is similar to the common flu (making masks unnecessary), and the condemnation of certain groups for transmission increase (Chinese Americans, BLM, and testing centers have all been blamed for spreading the virus). Unsurprisingly, many of these beliefs are inaccurate -- from a behavioral standpoint, it is important to investigate why these variations exist in the first place and how they are spread. A large part of why “fake news” has become so prevalent is because of social media algorithms (particularly with respect to Facebook); these platforms show the user content that they are the most likely to engage with, agree with, and share, as this is most profitable to third party advertisers. Unfortunately, research has shown that users are more likely to consume information that has shock-value and confirms their existing beliefs. This selective exposure leads to the formation of echo chambers in which false information can be disseminated swiftly. Human psychology primes us for confirmation bias and this can have harmful outcomes, particularly when a deadly virus is involved.
To understand the severity of COVID-19 disinformation, it is imperative to understand where it comes from. A Cornell study analyzing virus disinformation sources (7 million-plus global sources of print, broadcast, and online news) between January and May of this year found that media mentions of US President Donald Trump within the context of COVID-19 misinformation made up by far the largest share of the ‘infodemic’, comprising 37.9% of the overall misinformation conversation; the study concludes that the President was “likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation ‘infodemic’”. It is important to note, however, that the source is not fully responsible for the spread, as this is mostly the fault of the media itself. Why the White House would spread disinformation is a topic of its own, but the more important part to analyze is what this does to society and whether or not it constitutes a threat. Disinformation spread politicizes coronavirus into something people can take drastically different stances on, and polarity tends to result in civil unrest. Lockdown fatigue, devolving economies, and general mental health decline caused by the virus has caused societal frustrations around the world, and has, in some cases, already led to violence and death. Alarmingly, the White House is not the only source of disinformation. Societal turmoil is advantageous to adversaries such as Russia and China as it places the very idea of democracy in a weakened state; thus, these countries readily contribute to this. Increased polarity and civil unrest put democratically-run countries at a disadvantage to defend themselves against foreign attacks. For instance, Russian military intelligence senior officials anonymously reported that Russia had published about 150 articles about the US pandemic response, including narratives that Russia had given substantial aid to the US to control the pandemic. Some experts believe that the Kremlin will also use Trump’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis to blame the left for purposefully infecting him, or create a narrative that the diagnosis was entirely made-up, or both. As the virus does not seem to be dissipating anytime soon, it is very likely that polarizing opinions on COVID-19 will lead to more violence and unrest, constituting a serious and critical threat.
Timeline of President Trump’s Comments Regarding COVID-19
This has already led to dangerous consequences. In an FBI affidavit released on October 8th, 2020, it was revealed that national and local law enforcement had foiled a domestic terror plot to kidnap and kill democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan as well as attack the state capitol building. Whitmer, known for her tough quarantine requirements and mask mandates, has been under scrutiny from both Trump and members of the far-right for allegedly imposing on citizen’s freedoms; interestingly, the kidnapping attempt was conducted by the boogaloo-supporting far-right group “Wolverine Watchmen”, who are both anti-government and extremists. It is apparent that Whitmer’s endeavors to quell the virus were seen by militia groups as government infringement on civil liberties. As online misinformation propaganda response to COVID-19 has now resulted in threats of terror, it is more vital than ever to take measures to tackle the infodemic. In May 2020, WHO Member States passed Resolution WHA73.1, which calls on Member States and international organizations to provide reliable and science-based COVID-19 content, take action to counter misinformation and disinformation, and prevent harmful cyber activity. This is an applaudable start, but will likely be ineffective if it is not taken seriously as a global effort. Therefore, governments, social media platforms, and healthcare providers alike must all work to popularize evidence-based pandemic information.
As of 2019, terrorism rates fell for the fourth year in a row, however, the current pandemic can considerably affect these rates in 2020. The fall in terrorism over the past four years can be generally attributed to the military’s success in combatting the Islamic State. While it appears as though the rates of international terrorism are low, we must be cautious to assume that this will continue as the virus progresses. After the September 11, 2001 attack committed by al-Qaeda, the world experienced a period of quiet and thwarted attacks by the group until they carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack. Similarly, we must remain vigilant and continue to monitor the Islamic State and deter any possible future attacks. Prior to the pandemic, terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS kept their violence somewhat localized to the Middle East, and with the travel restrictions and security measures due to COVID-19, it is probable that these groups will remain a large threat in the Middle East. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the US or any other nation should take a pause from monitoring these groups as these organizations are likely to take advantage of the fact that the government's main focus currently is the pandemic.
Due to restrictions on public gatherings, many terrorist organizations have been using online platforms to disseminate propaganda and garner support. This is important because many individuals are at home with a great deal of time on their hands, and are finding themselves researching and finding online communities focused on extremism. While groups such as al-Qaeda have been using the internet to appeal to supporters by showing how they are struggling similar to the rest of the world, ISIS has been using their online platforms in a different manner. ISIS has taken to the internet to promote the belief that COVID-19 is a result of God’s wrath for the world not living their lives in accordance with Islamic beliefs. ISIS is also advocating for their followers to take advantage of the governments’ shift in focus and use this as a time to bolster support and recruit new followers. Thus, while the first glance at terrorism rates during the pandemic may not be alarming, it is vital to understand that many of these groups are utilizing COVID-19 to aid in their recruitment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left more than a million people dead globally. While some countries have the infrastructure to provide testing and report positive cases and deaths, other countries do not have these infrastructures and it is possible that there are a higher number of individuals who have been affected by COVID-19 than are currently reported. Countries that are more economically stable are able to provide their citizens with a healthcare system that can combat the virus and do what they can to support their nation. However, there are some countries that do not have that luxury, and those developing countries are more likely to fall victim to terrorism. With the countrywide lockdowns, Nigeria has seen a rise in activism from Boko Haram and their promotion of violence and recruitment of young men. It is becoming more apparent that governments must be on high alert with effective counterterrorism measures in place. While many governments have shifted their resources to aid in the battle against COVID-19, it is vital that intelligence communities across the globe communicate with each other and monitor all possible threats.
Terrorist organizations are not the only groups of people who have been utilizing the internet to disseminate information and gain followers for their movement. Individuals who belong to the anti-vaccine movement, known as anti-vaxxers, have been finding ways to spread doubt about a possible COVID-19 vaccine. The anti-vaccine movement is not new to the US, however, as COVID-19 continues to spread and take the lives of many, anti-vaxxers are becoming increasingly dangerous. Their promotion of doubt and disbelief in vaccines has caused many to be suspicious of any future vaccine. President Donald Trump, along with other government officials, has publicly challenged the effectiveness of a possible vaccine and the potentially devastating effects of the pandemic. In order for COVID-19 to end, it is believed that almost everyone would have either had to be infected and survived or received a vaccine. It is clear that while certain individuals recover from COVID-19, many who have an underlying precondition do not. If anti-vaxxers are able to convince enough people that a future vaccine would not protect against the virus, it would make it exceedingly difficult to curb the spread of the virus and tackle the worldwide pandemic.
Countries around the world are working together in an attempt to produce an effective vaccine as soon as possible, however, the question as to who will receive the vaccine first is one that has been on the minds of many. A number of federal agencies along with private firms have collectively banded together to create Operation Warp Speed, a program to aid in the production and mass distribution of an effective vaccine at an accelerated speed. Operation Warp Speed estimates that the first round of approved vaccines will only produce enough to cover about 3-5% of the US population. This is such a small percentage of the population that it has caused further speculation as to who will access the vaccine first. As more information becomes available, government officials have updated their stance and said that a group referred to as Phase 1a will be the first to receive the vaccine. This group makes up 5% of the population and includes health care workers and first responders. It is important to note that while front line health care professionals and first responders are vital to society’s survival during this pandemic, it is possible that there will be backlash for certain first responders to be the first to receive the vaccine. The government’s decision to provide law enforcement as one of the first groups to receive the vaccine may cause many to retaliate and act violently as recent events have caused hostility between the public and law enforcement. It is important that the intelligence community continue to monitor for any potential threat that a group or individual may pose during the first stage of providing a vaccine to the population.
While Operation Warp Speed may have narrowed down which groups will be the first to receive the vaccine, it is crucial to understand that making vaccines that have a high percentage of effectiveness takes a great deal of time. Many are estimating that the COVID-19 vaccine will be about 50% effective, which means that 50 out of 100 individuals will still be vulnerable to the virus. It is likely that anti-vaxxers will use this to support their theories behind vaccines being ineffective. If anti-vaxxers are successful in gaining support and influencing people to not get a vaccine because of the lack of a 100% effectiveness rate, it will leave others at risk. While the vaccine is estimated to have a 50% effectiveness rate, it is also likely that those still vulnerable will experience a milder case if infected. If we cannot produce a vaccine that is effective in protecting enough people from COVID-19, the virus will continue to spread and people will continue to die. It is important that we create a potent vaccine that is distributed to the greatest number of people possible out of the population to ensure that the violence and spread of misinformation surrounding COVID-19 are decreased.
CTG works to detect, deter, and defeat terrorism by closely monitoring notable developments and making educated predictions on threats based on detailed analysis. As COVID-19 constitutes a critical worldwide threat, especially during a disinformation crisis, the organization will be particularly useful in providing the customer with accurate updates on news related to the pandemic (e.g. the US President’s health, violence, and terrorism in relation to coronavirus, and potential cures). Predicting these events before they happen is imperative in developing crisis response plans, as it is assessed that global unrest will only increase, particularly during the time surrounding the US Presidential Election. Thus, CTG and the Behavior and Leadership Team will examine the psychology behind COVID-19-related societal frustrations; what causes them, why they escalate, and when indicators of threats begin to appear. Specifically, CTG has a Behavior Indicator Database which may be utilized to identify pre-attack behaviors, and with so many possibly deadly consequences all around the world, a standardized method to foresee these threats is crucial so that predictions may be made faultlessly and efficiently.
________________________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
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