14 May 2020

How disinformation flourishes during health crises

How do disinformation and misinformation spread during health-related crises? A study conducted by FOI identifies numerous examples, ranging from social media posts undermining official information, to fraud and political influence campaigns.

A man sittning in front of computer screens.

Image: FOI and Shutterstock.

The FOI study, “Information pollution during health-related crises,” highlights the public’s vulnerability to deliberate attempts at disinformation/misinformation* during health crises like the current COVID-19 situation.

“The public often feels especially vulnerable during health-related crises. In our uncertainty, we tend to search – often unconsciously - for information which supports that which we already believe, falling prey to a logical fallacy called confirmation bias. Of course, the general public’s understanding of the situation may also worsen when the signal-to-noise ratio is degraded: official information may be difficult to find amidst a sea of pandemic-related commercial messages and attempted fraud,” explains the project’s leader and initiator of the report, Sabrine Wennberg, an analyst in FOI’s Defence Analysis Division.

At the beginning of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Sabrine and her FOI working group (Kajsa Colde, Elise Östevik, Marc Bruce, and Albin Falck) conducted an investigation on the topic of disinformation and misinformation during this current crisis. The group studied traditional channels – such as text messages, e-mail, and telephone – as well as social media.

Disinformation/Misinformation: Motives and Methods

“We began with an overview of the scientific literature on the subject. Inspired by what we found there, we identified three different models that we adopted for structuring the information on the basis of the intent of the actors,” says Kajsa Colde.

The three models summarize how disinformation and misinformation is disseminated for:

  1. Commercial purposes,
  2. Political purposes,
  3. Attempts to trick traditional media for amusement’s sake.

“After reviewing a variety of search results, we selected 11 cases that were reported in the media between 23–31 March 2020. Out of the 11 cases, most were commercially driven. The cases included different kinds of actors, including not only imposters who pose as government authorities but also social media influencers who are more or less consciously aware of the dubious veracity of the information they chose to disseminate,” says Sabrine Wennberg.

Such instances could for example involve influencers advertising a product that they claim to be helpful in preventing infection by the virus – even when scientific evidence may be lacking or contrary. These influencers can often reach a large group of followers who may blindly trust the person’s statements without fact checking them. The researchers found examples of cases where commercial interests recommended measures that may actually be harmful, such as drinking colloidal silver – silver particles suspended in liquid.

The report also discusses attempts, originating both domestically and externally, targeting political processes within Sweden.

“For example, we have seen an attempt by an authoritarian state intending to create a distorted image of Sweden’s handling of the corona crisis. We also found that disinformation about the coronavirus has been shared in extreme right-wing online forums,” says Sabrine Wennberg.

* Disinformation is defined as “deceptive information that has a deliberate intent,” while misinformation is “deceptive information without a deliberate intent.”

  • A SMS text that claims to have been sent from, Karolinska Institutet (KI), that attempts to trick people into donating money to coronavirus-related research. KI is Sweden’s single largest centre of medical academic research.

  • Telephone calls from imposters who claim to be from the Public Health Agency of Sweden, saying that the recipient of the call had been found to likely be infected with COVID 19 through contact tracing. The callers were seeking access to the victim’s bank identification solution, (BankID).

  • E-mails wherein a perpetrator attempts to obtain personal information by alleging that there is a cure that scientists are unwilling to share with the public.

  • The spread of false information through Snapchat regarding the coronavirus and falsely identifying individuals in southern Sweden as spreaders of the virus.

  • Swedish influencers spreading inaccurate information about the coronavirus on Instagram.

  • Facebook users being encouraged to drink harmful fluids to protect themselves against the coronavirus.

  • Information on Facebook that claims a connection between the coronavirus and 5G networks.

  • Twitter messages with extreme right wing and Nazi conspiracies regarding the origin of the coronavirus.