COVID Conspiracy: Analysis of foreign disinformation driving US vaccine resistance

Disinformation is based on a lie — plain and simple.

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center, or NCSC, says disinformation is “false or inaccurate information that is spread deliberately, most often by adversaries.”

While adversaries really are the genesis of most disinformation, when it comes to the unprecedented explosion of COVID-19 vaccine disinformation, you are more likely to get it from your best friend, spouse, parents or even a trusted co-worker.

The reason, according to NCSC logic, is that disinformation “includes technically factual information purposely presented in a misleading way and may include amplification by a bot or other inauthentic account.”

These counterfeit entities turn information into weapons. It is not a new concept, but some the tools used to do it are.

There are six major, social media platforms. Three of them claim more than 2 billion daily users. Almost 60% of the world’s population use them. Therefore, it’s easy to see how those “inauthentic accounts” can manipulate the truth.

One week after the U.S. presidential election in 2016, I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, to moderate a panel discussion for NATO’s Allied Command Transformation. Russia’s hybrid warfare program was the source of significant conversation in both official and sideline dialogues. A key component of Russia’s hybrid approach to war is disinformation.

After a thorough investigation, of alleged Kremlin interference in the 2016 election, the U.S. intelligence community and Special counsel Robert Mueller, determined that Russian intelligence, at the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, used disinformation to interfere in the election.

It took three years for that investigation to conclude and the results to be publicized.

During that critical time frame, Americans were fire-hosed, through social media, with lies about each other, elected leaders, religion, race, police, football, food and anything else that Americans disagree about.

Subsequent U.S. government and Congressional investigations determined that the Kremlin played a key role in all of that, as well.

To make matters worse, the blueprint Russia used to exploit and amplify divisions between Americans in 2016, was subsequently trafficked all over the world.

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Every U.S. enemy was taught how to attack American democracy and, in some cases, try to kill Americans using disinformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the proof.

Despite more than 700,000 American deaths due to the coronavirus, millions of Americans still refuse to be vaccinated.

The most frustrating part about what’s happening in the U.S. now, according to numerous sources, is the difficulty persuading those spreading blatantly false COVID-19 disinformation to accept the truth.

Dr. Christopher Paul, senior social scientist with the Rand Corporation, was asked on WTOP recently to explain how divisions between Americans triggered by disinformation became so profound.

“It’s complicated. We as humans have certain vulnerabilities in human nature, certain aspects of human psychology that make us vulnerable to being manipulated,” Paul said.

The current media environment is a key enabler of that disinformation.

“If you couple the changing media landscape, where media and social media allow you to get into your own echo chamber and hear only things that agree with your position; and mobilize what we call in psychology, ‘confirmation bias,’ it allows these wedges, these separations to grow and fester,” Paul said.

He said tribalism, “our tendency to give extra credibility to those we perceive as like us,” is another layer of the problem.

How do we reach those who refuse to believe proven and well-documented facts about COVID-19 vaccines?

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told me that there are three important tools that can create a path to reach vaccine resisters.

The first step is “to realize that there is a rather broad spectrum of reasons why people are hesitant,” he said.

Carefully listening to their explanations, he suggests, sends the message that their concerns “are respected.” The next step is to answer what he calls “valid questions.”

For example, questions such as, “How did you develop this vaccine so quickly, in 11 months?”

Fauci said that can be answered by saying, “It isn’t that we did it in 11 months. We got to where we are by two decades of really, very elegant basic and clinical research.”

The most important part of the equation is finding “trusted messengers” to share the truth, Fauci said.

As COVID-19 vaccine disinformation continues to spread, Fauci said another activity is currently happening in the U.S.:  Americans are making life or death decisions, like refusing vaccines, “based purely on ideology.”

His observation underlines how hard pushing back against disinformation is now and could be in the near term.

Listen to Green’s investigation of the Russian-intelligence linked disinformation campaign designed to stoke fear and distrust in the COVID-19 vaccines inside the U.S. Read his investigative report.

PART 1: Millions of Americans aren't getting vaccinated against COVID-19, WTOP's J.J. Green reveals a secret plot by a foreign entity to spread lies about the vaccines.
PART 2: A fake company busted spreading disinformation about COVID vaccines.
PART 3: Disinformation spilled out of the internet and landed in our own community.
PART 4: Prominent people have refused to get the vaccines — and disinformation may have played a key role.
PART 5: Fighting disinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines is a complex venture that will likely require patience and creativity.
J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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