Disinformation reports

Who we are

Upon recognition of the threat that false information poses to science, the Federation of American Scientists established the Disinformation Research Group (FAS DRG). FAS DRG is composed of scientists, communications experts, data-scientists, and technologists with the intended purpose of detecting, understanding, and effectively exposing disinformation and false narratives surrounding COVID-19. FAS DRG uses multiple methods, technologies, and resources to execute the mission.

What we do

FAS DRG detects disinformation through media monitoring and uses additional testing and analysis to better understand the spread of false information. The key outputs of this work is the exposure and countering of identified disinformation and misinformation through multiple reports. Reports have addressed the following trends in disinformation.

What is disinformation?

Disinformation is defined as any communication (either overt or covert) containing intentionally false and misleading material, often combined selectively with true information, which seeks to mislead and manipulate either elites or a mass audience. Notwithstanding structural or underlying causes such as hyper-polarization of political systems and freedom-of-speech protections, the volume and velocity of the current disinformation tsunami surrounding COVID-19 is unprecedented compared to any other time in human history. This phenomenon is occurring through the harnessing of social media platforms and search engine optimization technologies that allow individuals and organizations to effectively micro-target audiences using sophisticated techniques derived from the fields of advertisement marketing and behavioral analytics. Using built-in microtargeting functions on social media, advertisers and malign operators use such platform technologies to effectively match the messages they are pushing with receptive audiences. By capturing micro-demographics and user preferences of susceptible audiences, advertisers and malign actors customize their messages based on built-in biases of audience members. Audience members with shared characteristics are then allowed to interact with one another, responding to ads and messages, thereby creating echo-chambers that enable disinformation to cascade. The rise of such technologies has resulted into the era of micro-segmentation, whereby audiences can select what they believe to be true rather than a single unified version of reality or consensus from science. Rather than accepting an answer they do not like; audiences are now peddled manipulated versions of reality with the intent to appeal to their biases, thereby increasing the number of clicks and time on a site. This ultimately increases revenue when platforms transform their users into custom audiences sought out by advertisers. These versions of reality are reinforced through both organic and inorganically manipulated echo chambers, resulting in the viral spread of disinformation.

9/23/20: Vaccine news stories hosting malware disseminated across Spanish-language Twitter

Read the full report here. Key highlights:

  • News websites publishing stories on a pause in the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine trials hosted malware files. At the center of the network was the Spanish-language Sputnik News link mundo.sputniknews.com.
  • The news of a possible adverse reaction to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine resulted in a spike of social media activity. The vaccine is one of the most high profile in development, making any significant news story about it a hot topic on social media. Because it was all but guaranteed that discussion about the vaccine online would explode, hiding malware in articles about the day’s hottest topic brings significant vulnerability to unwitting readers.
  • Analysis detected malware associated with popular news sites covering Oxford-AstraZeneca related stories. This discovery was made by scanning 15,820 URLs covering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.  The scans returned 53 sites hosting malware within the AstraZeneca conversation. The placement of malware in these sites may provide opportunities for perpetrators to manipulate additional web traffic to unwitting users in order to  inorganically amplify stories that could cast doubt on the efficacy of particular vaccines.
  • Notably, Russian state-sponsored media, Sputnik News, was identified as a large component of this network.

09/02/20: Global enthusiasm and American trepidation in Russian diplomatic vaccine efforts

Read the full report here. Key highlights:

  • The announcement of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, also referred to as Sputnik V, has received marginal reception in the United States. Within U.S. domestic social media conversation, Sputnik V is generally perceived as unreliable. These concerns could potentially add to preexisting skepticism towards vaccine efforts in the U.S. more generally.
  • In contrast to low interest in the U.S. social media ecosystem, international social media conversation includes high volumes of Sputnik V content, particularly in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey, and India. Since August 11, Russia has announced partnerships with 16 nations ranging from testing assistance, production support, and securing initial releases of the vaccine. Of particular note, Indian and Russian officials are in negotiations to secure mass production of the Sputnik V vaccine in India. A list of current agreements can be found below.
  • The FAS Counter-Disinformation Research Team detected significant Sputnik V content across 10 languages from August 17 to 25. This analysis focuses on developments within the spanish language vaccine conversion and finds a significant narrative shift away from the UK’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine efforts to focus on the Russian Sputnik V program. The narrative emerging in Mexico and Venezuela is supportive for Russian efforts, highlighted in public statements from Mexican President Lopez Obrador offering praise to Russia’s vaccine development and volunteering to be the first Mexican to take the vaccine.

08/24/20: #Plandemic to #Scamdemic

Read the full report here. Key highlights:

  • Trending disinformation on an old publication taken out of context from 2005 is accelerating theories and disinformation surrounding the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19. Though numerous health organizations have debunked the utility of the drug for treating COVID-19, bad actors have capitalized on that study and have stepped up attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci.
  • The #Plandemic has evolved into the #Scamdemic, as media personalities and anonymous individuals alike are making false claims about how coronavirus testing is not only unreliable, but that the disease itself is a hoax. Tweets featuring #Scamdemic echo previously debunked claims about US testing rates, and show the continued efforts to bring disinformation to trend online.
  • The announcement of a Russian vaccine, called Sputnik V, was met with baseless claims that the US has purchased 100,000,000 doses of the rushed vaccine from Russia. Though no single tweet has reached virality, the idea is quickly spreading around Twitter networks with the potential to grow as more and more users discuss the Russian vaccine roll out.

07/23/20: Masks, microchips, Michigan, and misinformation

Read the full report here. Key highlights:

  • Twitter and other social media platforms have increased their monitoring and surveillance of conspiracy theories and disinformation, resulting in an observable suspension of accounts and deletion of tweets spreading disinformation.
  • According to a recent poll released by Axios-Ipsos, nearly a third of Americans believe that the number of deaths resulting from COVID-19 are less than what is officially reported. These poll results, which were released on July 18, are consistent with other disinformation campaigns such as the ongoing efforts to discredit public health experts, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, regarding COVID-19 guidance and recommendations.
  • Conspiracies regarding government surveillance via microchips in vaccines and through contact tracers are ongoing.
  • The majority of tweets about COVID-19 are retweets or quotes. Original tweets or replies about the virus make up only 18% of total tweets. This indicates that the majority of tweets are not original ideas but are instead regurgitated statements contributing to echo chambers.
  • In Michigan, local medical experts are combating the view that government officials are inflating mortality numbers for the purpose pressuring mandatory mask usage. Similar trends have emerged in Wisconsin, where disinformation campaigns have been labelling contact tracers and contact tracing activities as a form of government surveillance.
  • Our social media analysis indicates the overall sentiment of the conversation regarding “masks” were 59% negative and 44% negative for “contact tracing.” This suggests the compliance on mask usage and contact tracing will continue to face an uphill battle as many social media conversations are negative instead of viewing the initiatives as positive actions that will save lives.

07/16/20: 5G, Fauci, and a Forbes interview

Read the full report here. Key highlights:

  • Apprehension and fear among Americans regarding the prospective COVID-19 vaccine persists. One of the most prolific sources of disinformation on this issue was last week’s pronouncement by Kanye West, during and interview with Forbes, referring to vaccines as “the mark of the beast” and claims that a COVID-19 vaccine was an attempt to “put chips inside of us.”
  • Numerous disinformation campaigns have emerged against the World Health Organization, Big Pharma, and billionaire Bill Gates under false narratives that the virus was created for the purpose of making profits vis-a-vis the development and distribution of a vaccine. These claims are particularly prominent within the anti-vaxxer community on Facebook and YouTube and have been further amplified by figureheads on Twitter such as Tracy Beanz (219.2K followers).
  • Donald Trump tweeted, with a giant reach of 83M Twitter users, claiming that U.S. COVID-19 mortality rates are among the lowest in the world. Contrary to this claim, U.S. mortality rates are estimated to be the 9th highest worldwide. The U.S. is also 2nd in mortality rates among the highest affected nations.
  • Videos claiming standard masks have 5G wires embedded in them received up to 1.3 million views on Twitter and other social media platforms.
  • Public criticisms of Dr. Anthony Fauci from the White House resulted in overall negative sentiment toward the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director.

7/02/20: Testing increases, deadly masks, lab-engineering and other myths

Read the full report here. Key highlights:

  • Based on our analysis of social media activity on Twitter between June 25 and July 2, the tweet with widest reach that used the word virus was President Trump’s claim that “cases up only because of our big number testing.” The tweet reached 82.4 million users.
  • The claim is false. Although more testing in communities does uncover more cases, a major driver of the increase is increased circulation and spread of the virus — particularly among younger populations. In fact we are currently experiencing higher positivity rates, or the percentage of tests being identified as positive, which is an indicator of greater spread.
  • Aggressive rhetoric against public health guidance for mask use also escalated in the last week. For instance, a group in Florida with an unusually high social media reach claimed that masks can “kill,” echoing other messages by a number of other conspiracy theory websites.
  • Theories regarding the origin of COVID-19 (namely, claims that the virus was man made) continue to dominate headlines, such as this tweet, which reached 75.2K users since its publication on June 29. Although the issue continues to be examined by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), conspiracy sites continue to promote that notion that COVID-19 originated from a laboratory.
  • Minority communities are being targeted by disinformation campaigns, particularly on the subject of vaccines. Suggestions that vaccines are unsafe and that African American communities are being used as experiments are exacerbated by existing challenges, including speculation and mistrust among African Americans regarding medical research involving experimental drug trials.
  • The Pew Research Center found that 28% of American adults surveyed felt confident in their ability to fact-check COVID-19 related news. Comparing misinformation surrounding COVID-19 to that disseminated during the 2016 election, the following analysis argues that misinformation regarding COVID-19 is more easily digested due to its nature as an emerging and complex infectious disease. This creates “a vacuum that is all too easily filled by conspiracy theories and misinformation,” leaving Americans especially prone to what has been termed “a pandemic of misinformation.”