COVID-19 Disinformation


[1]COVID-19 or coronavirus disease 2019, is an infectious viral pandemic currently spreading across the world at an alarming rate.[2] It is currently affecting over 16,000 individuals in the United States[3] and over 150,000 world-wide[4] with those numbers expected to continue to rise. With coronavirus strains going relatively unheard of before COVID-19’s appearance in Wuhan, China in December of 2019, misinformation about the virus is spreading quickly. Hackers and other groups are taking advantage of the panic and confusion resulting from the lack of information about the virus for personal gain or to inject malware into systems. Phishing and social engineering in particular are used to manipulate those especially vulnerable. There are also some cases where governments and other organizations within the United States and other countries such as China and Russia are reportedly spreading political propaganda in reference to where the virus may have come from.[5]

Many attackers are posing as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in order to collect information that is considered sensitive, such as email addresses and passwords, or encourage victims to send credit card information under the ruse of a donation.[6] In one case, attackers used the CDC as a coat of paint in order to get users to log into their Microsoft Outlook accounts. In reality, by logging in through the provided link, information typed by the user is sent to the attackers.[7] Similar attacks that collect user information using email attachments are also common but reportedly work not only for Outlook accounts but other email services as well. While these phishing attacks have been just as common before COVID-19’s spread, because of the outbreak and the lack of information, users are more likely to click on a malicious link to gain seemingly legitimate information before verifying where that email may have originated.

Outside the United States, Iranian, Russian, and Chinese media are pushing a variety of different conspiracy theories, most revolving around COVID-19 being a bioweapon deployed by the United States for different political reasons.[8] Iranian media outlet PressTV is pushing the U.S bioweapon conspiracy the hardest but is also pushing that “US or Israel have exploited the global coronavirus epidemic to create and spread a deadlier strain of the virus”.[9] The Iranians are also solidifying the idea that the the Trump administration is using COVID-19 as a way to gain political leverage against China and to spread xenophobia against Chinese-Americans[10] among other claims.[11] Russian media outlet Russia Today is making similar claims to Iran but are also creating panic about the United States stock markets with click-bait style headlines.[12] Additionally China’s Global Times, while giving the most general information accurate information about the virus in comparison to Iran and Russia, are still taking time to focus on how COVID-19 is the fault of western countries and the need for the west to take responsibility.[13] Even within the United States, Infowars’ Alex Jones is making headlines by claiming that COVID-19 is the result of Chinese vaccine testing gone wrong and that his toothpaste is able to prevent the virus.[14] Whether the information is released for political reasons or for the sake of going as viral as the virus itself, it is important that those reading news on the pedemic are fact checking their sources.

Some governments are taking the spread of misinformation just as serious as the pandemic itself. Britain set up a counter-disinformation team to monitor and stop the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus. Digital and Culture Minister Oliver Dowden said in a statement that “defending the country from misinformation and digital interference is a top priority”.[15] Additionally Turkish law enforcement are focusing on investing those who spread misinformation and hoaxes about COVID-19[16] and Indonesia has already arrested six individuals for the spread of misinformation relating to the coronavirus.[17] In response to Alex Jones's silver infused “coronavirus stopgate” toothpaste, the New York Attorney General is threatening to take legal action if he continues its sale.[18]

Continuing to arrest those who do spread direct disinformation will help to deter others from following in those footsteps, however, it is incredibly difficult to track down those taking advantage of the pandemic to increase their phishing yield. While the CDC has not addressed the issue, the WHO has made a statement about phishing and pressed that the only one place where they take monetary funds is their website and that they would never ask for personal information such as passwords.[19] The WHO or CDC is where readers should be fact checking for the latest information about COVID-19. If an article does not cite either organization, it may be important to call that article into question and fact check further.

The Counterterrorism Group recommends fact checking information with the WHO, CDC, as well as other local health authorities and following the directions that they set forth. Reminding staff to read through emails and texts that claim to come from either the CDC or WHO carefully and to not directly click on links as well as not downloading any attachments in suspect emails. Keeping cybersecurity infrastructure up to date is a must. Suspicious texts and emails can be reported to the WHO on their website. Disregard any source that claims to have a cure for COVID-19, whether a vaccine or silver laced toothpaste. When a cure or vaccine is discovered it will be reported by the WHO and CDC.

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The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Image, “black laptop computer beside black framed eyeglasses on brown wooden table” by Dimitri Karastelev, licensed under Unsplash

[2]Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19), World Health Organization, March 9, 2020, https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses

[3]Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the U.S., United States Center for Disease Control, March 13, 2020 (updated daily Monday-Friday at 1600 EST), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-in-us.html

[4]Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases Map, Johns Hopkins University, n.d., https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

[5] Iranian, Russian, Chinese Media Push COVID-19 ‘Bioweapon’ Conspiracies, Defense One, March 10, 2020, https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2020/03/iran-and-russian-media-push-bioweapon-conspiracies-amid-covid19-outbreak/163669/

[6]Email scammers are taking advantage of coronavirus fears to impersonate health officials and trick people into giving up personal information, Business Insider, March 9, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-email-scam-covid-19-phishing-false-information-who-cdc-2020-2

[7]Multiple Phishing Attacks Discovered Using the Coronavirus Theme, Trustwave, February 13, 2020, https://www.trustwave.com/en-us/resources/blogs/spiderlabs-blog/multiple-phishing-attacks-discovered-using-the-coronavirus-theme/

[8] Iranian, Russian, Chinese Media Push COVID-19 ‘Bioweapon’ Conspiracies, Defense One, March 10, 2020, https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2020/03/iran-and-russian-media-push-bioweapon-conspiracies-amid-covid19-outbreak/163669/

[9] Zionist elements developed deadlier strain of coronavirus against Iran: Academic, PressTV, March 5, 2020, https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2020/03/05/620217/US-coronavirus-James-Henry-Fetzer

[10] US using coronavirus epidemic to demonize China: Analyst, PressTV, February 13, 2020, https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2020/02/13/618581/US-China-trade-coronavirus

[11] Iranian, Chinese and Russian Overt Media on Coronavirus, Foreign Policy Research Institute, March 9, 2020, https://www.fpri.org/fie/overt-media-on-coronavirus/

[12] US stocks continue downward spiral as coronavirus fears shock markets in WORST WEEK since 2008 meltdown, Russia Today, February 28, 2020, https://www.rt.com/usa/481973-stock-market-worst-week-crisis/

[13] The US owes an apology to the world, Global Times, March 9, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1182028.shtml

[14] Breaking Now: Scientists Confirm Coronavirus Man-made…contains ‘pshuttle-sn’ Sequence Proving Laboratory Origin, InfoWars, February 2, 2020, https://www.infowars.com/sunday-live-big-tech-helping-chicoms-suppress-origins-of-coronavirus-as-it-goes-global/

[15] Britain sets up team to tackle coronavirus disinformation, Reuters, March 8, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-britain-disinforma/britain-sets-up-team-to-tackle-coronavirus-disinformation-idUSKBN20W00S

[16]Turkish cyber police to curb fake news on coronavirus, Daily Sabah, March 8, 2020, https://www.dailysabah.com/turkey/turkish-cyber-police-to-curb-fake-news-on-coronavirus/news

[17]Indonesia arrests six over coronavirus internet hoaxes, The Jakarta Post, March 10, 2020, https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/03/10/indonesia-arrests-six-over-coronoavirus-internet-hoaxes.html

[18]Alex Jones Is Told to Stop Selling Sham Anti-Coronavirus Toothpaste, New York Times, March 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/nyregion/alex-jones-coronavirus-cure.html

[19]Beware of criminals pretending to be WHO, World Health Organization , n.d., https://www.who.int/about/communications/cyber-security

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