This interview originally aired on Sitrep on BFBS on 2 April 2020.
[Kate Gerbeau] At a time like this the need for reliable trustworthy information is higher than ever. It is perhaps why ratings for TV news bulletins have gone through the roof. But as the pandemic has spread across the world so have any number of false claims. From hoax cures to claims Covid-19 originated in an American laboratory. Well, Tom Ascott is Digital Communications Manager at the Royal United Services Institute. He’s written about the threat of fake news during a crisis like this, and he’s told Paul Osbourne the stories range from outlandish lies to others that aim to plant a seed of doubt.
[Tom Ascott] A lot of the time it is about planting questions in someones head, these conspiracy theories or the fake news articles don’t have to contain any information in them which is necessarily very outlandish, the information in them can be quite reasonable, but there can be a lot of implications, or the article itself can ask leading questions.
[Paul Osbourne] Presumably the more often that somebody see’s that fake story in different places the more likely they are to think it’s true.
[Tom Ascott] Yes, statements that are repeated over and over again become easier to process for individuals, and that makes them more likely to be believed. Whereas truthful new statements are harder for individuals to process and therefore more difficult for them to believe.
[Paul Osbourne] So what counts as a success for the people who are spreading these fake stories around the coronavirus?
[Tom Ascott] There are multiple strategic levels to disinformation campaigns. At the highest strategic level this can be about, for example, Russia trying to raise its international profile, influencing other nations in its sphere of influence, it can be about posturing. Lower down from that are troll farms, which is where individuals who are employed to create fake news write all day, and for them success is smaller scale. It is about infiltrating, often an organic network, and having their content be re-shared between users.
[Paul Osbourne] So the government has set up a special unit, which it says wants to tackle the spread of fake stories, but realistically what can it actually do, other than just pointing at these things and saying ‘that’s not true’?
[Tom Ascott] Next week they are going to roll out a public awareness campaign, called ‘Don’t Feed the Beast’. The other way the government is tackling this is by working directly with social media platforms to have content taken offline. If they can work with experts to identify false information online, whether that’s misinformation, which is information that is simply wrong, perhaps from self styled experts, or disinformation, which is often malicious information coming from bad actor, that will be much more beneficial than asking the public to try to be more critical online of the content they read.
[Kate Gerbeau] That was Tom Ascott of RUSI speaking to Paul Osbourne.