Since the COVID-19 crisis began, disinformation campaigns launched by Russia, China, and Iran have stirred up considerable anxiety among American policymakers. Unsurprisingly, these countries have accused the US government of manufacturing the virus or contributing to its worst effects. The swirl of fabricated messaging has prompted calls for better US efforts to debunk and counter false narratives about COVID-19. In reality, the United States can only do so much to tackle this disinformation head on.
Though policymakers may feel compelled to do something to thwart deceptive messaging, counter-disinformation efforts have always been a poor substitute for good policy. When it comes to pandemics — and any other crisis — the best way to counter false narratives is to produce sound and world-leading policies, and to put out consistent, routine messaging.
AN UNLEVEL PLAYING FIELD
It may not always be apparent, but the United States has the home-field advantage when it comes to the international information environment. US and European news outlets are far more prominent and globally influential than any Iranian, Chinese, or Russian outlet.
The United States also benefits from neutral international news agencies like Reuters, the Associated Press, and AFP, which all produce reports that are widely read and respected. Their articles are picked up by thousands of local news outlets across the world in a variety of languages. These outlets are certainly not pro-American, but they produce fact-based reporting that tends to reflect better on democracies and transparent government systems like the United States.
Additionally, international news agencies uphold high journalistic standards that protect them from being used as mouthpieces by autocracies and US adversaries. Countries like Russia and China are forced to disseminate false and contrived narratives through second-tier outlets, government-run operations like RT and Xinhua, and fake social media accounts because they cannot push their views or feed false information to agencies like Reuters. In other words, disinformation is an asymmetric tool used by US adversaries to try to level the playing field and skew the rhetoric in their favor. The United States does not and should not target the public with similar disinformation operations because it is contrary to its democratic values.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Russian and Chinese media outlets and fake social media accounts have no impact at all. Their reporting can sow a nagging doubt in the facts that can occasionally outweigh a chorus of publications by legitimate and benign news outlets. And all it takes to win over a swing voter or make an American distrust their government is a creeping distrust in some specific, factually reported world events. For the most part, though, the content that emanates from these outlets is subpar, clearly biased, and consumed by far fewer people than mainstream media outlets.
With that in mind, the best way for the United States to keep its advantage and shape the global conversation is to produce some reasonably good policies and explain them clearly during garden variety press briefings. The US government does not need to extirpate all foreign nonsense online: that is an errand for autocrats and medieval monarchies. Nor should it feel the need to respond to every false narrative or attempt to compete with its own counterbalancing media operations, such as pushing out targeted messaging through US government social media accounts. Americans need to trust that in almost all cases, disinformation campaigns and state-run foreign outlets cannot hope to compete with the professional, top-tier international media outlets that serve as global papers of record.
Conspiracy theories are troubling, but they are rendered mostly powerless in the face of good policy and real media coverage.
WALKING OFF THE FIELD
The caveat is that this natural advantage is contingent on the United States behaving like a responsible, transparent democracy. In order to harness the power of the international media, America needs to earn positive, or at least neutral, press coverage. Instead, the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 has been chaotic, and its messaging has been inconsistent — at times outright false. Consequently, reports of the United States’ missteps have dominated the media both at home and abroad. This has made it easier for countries like China, Russia, and Iran to spread false narratives, foster mistrust in the US government, and advance their own agendas.
Foreign narratives would not be nearly as pervasive if the US government had formulated a coherent response to COVID-19 early on. US adversaries would not have so many stories to choose from, and therefore would have a much harder time formulating convincing disinformation. If the US government had communicated clearly with the public, Americans would have more trust in their own government and be far less susceptible to those influence operations.
And if the United States was playing a leading role in addressing COVID-19 across the globe, it would also be much less convincing to accuse the US government of weaponizing the virus, tarnishing its reputation on the world stage. For example, the 2014 Ebola outbreak brought about similar accusations that the West manufactured the virus to destabilize Africa. But these rumors were not nearly as impactful as COVID-19 disinformation thanks to the Obama administration’s transparent, global campaign to contain and combat Ebola. This demonstrates that conspiracy theories are troubling, but they are rendered mostly powerless in the face of good policy and real media coverage.
RETHINKING THE PLAYBOOK
The best offense against COVID-19 disinformation would have been a good defense. Now that the damage has been done, it will be much harder to push back against false narratives or reshape the conversation.
No matter how often Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls out disinformation about the virus in private and public, the damage will linger. Even the Global Engagement Center (GEC), the US agency tasked with countering foreign disinformation, can only do so much. The GEC can track, disrupt, and label disinformation, but government bodies cannot influence the international conversation in any significant way or compensate for US policy failures. This should have become apparent after the GEC and counter-ISIS coalition struggled to thwart ISIS’s notoriously effective propaganda and recruiting half a decade ago. It appears to be doing the best it can to address COVID-19 disinformation, but that is only a small part of the battle.
It is understandable that policymakers feel the need to respond to disinformation and compete with their own messaging. However, the calls for a stronger disinformation response miss the point. Instead of trying to mount a major response to COVID-19 disinformation, the best use of the American government’s time is to repair its policy and communication failures. Until the government is able to produce a defensible, transparent response to the virus and communicate clearly about its approach, counter-disinformation efforts will not be fruitful.
Alia Awadallah is a Master’s student concentrating in Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS, Presidential Management Fellowship finalist, and Rumsfeld Fellow. Before SAIS, she wrote about Middle East security policy at the Center for American Progress.
Mike Sexton is a Fellow and Director of the Cyber Program at the Middle East Institute. His work focuses on the intersection of cyber technology, international security, and governance in the Middle East.