U.S. officials who analyze and combat disinformation aimed at undermining democracies say foreign actors are now focusing on two topics: spreading falsehoods about coronavirus vaccine development and the U.S. elections.
In an interview with VOA, the State Department’s special envoy and coordinator for Global Engagement Center Lea Gabrielle said President Donald Trump’s health also is an active topic of online discussion among overseas audiences.
“When we see the trending narratives, we are seeing that news of the president being infected with COVID is trending in the online information space,” Gabrielle told VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching on Wednesday during a Skype interview.
After years in which American intelligence focused on Russian-style disinformation tactics, U.S. officials say during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party has learned from the Kremlin’s approach, even using it to shape online narratives inside China’s tightly controlled domestic internet.
In recent days after Trump announced that he and the first lady had tested positive for coronavirus, gloating postings appeared on social media closely controlled by the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda networks. When online users started engaging in more serious discussions about the president’s illness and its ramifications, Chinese censors shut them down.
The following are excerpts from VOA's interview with Gabrielle. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Ching: From what we have seen – some gloating social media postings after President Trump and senior U.S. officials tested positive for the coronavirus – is there indication that U.S. foreign adversaries are pushing out certain narratives, taking advantage of this moment to sow discord in the United States, and to undermine Americans’ confidence in the political system?
Gabrielle: When we see the trending narratives, we are seeing that news of the president being infected with COVID is trending in the online information space. We've seen within mainland China's social media space that there has been a variation of different types of narratives.
But I think it's also very important to recognize that the Chinese Communist Party very closely controls those narratives, that the Chinese Communist Party censors narratives within the Chinese information landscape and on Chinese social media. So it's really hard to tell what's actually happening in the minds of the Chinese people.
And, quite frankly, I think that it would be beneficial to the people of China to be able to have open discourse rather than being trapped inside that great firewall of China.
Ching: How are U.S. adversaries changing or adjusting their disinformation campaigns and influence operations as we get closer to the Nov. 3 election?
Gabrielle: Our (Global Engagement Center) mission is to directly synchronize and coordinate efforts of the U.S. federal government to counter foreign disinformation and propaganda that’s aimed at undermining the security or the stability of the United States and its partners and allies.
So we focus on that foreign disinformation aimed at foreign audiences.
Adversaries and malign actors, competitors that use disinformation or use the information space as a weapon, tend to target elections. Democratic values, democratic principles and democratic elections go hand in hand with malign actors trying to use disinformation and propaganda to undermine those processes.
The GEC has been tracking a lot of different disinformation narratives over the past several months. Of course, around COVID-19 we've seen a lot of disinformation narratives being pushed by Russia, China and Iran as well.
Now what we've seen most lately is a trend towards disinformation narratives around vaccine development.
From the Chinese Communist Party, we've seen an effort to reshape the global narrative to try to make the Chinese Communist Party look like the global leader in the response, rather than as being responsible for the spread of the virus.
We see Russia continuing to use disinformation narratives to try to undermine democratic institutions. And we've seen a lot of Russian disinformation narratives around COVID-19, as well as around vaccine development.
We've also seen Russian disinformation narratives focus around unrest in Belarus and on other global topics.
Ching: What are other focuses of U.S. elections-related narratives?
Gabrielle: During the COVID crisis we've seen the Chinese Communist Party go to great lengths and adopt Russian style disinformation tactics. So the tactics are adapting and changing as the social media environment changes. But we're working very closely with our partners within the US interagency, and globally, to make sure that they are up to date on what we're seeing in the disinformation and propaganda space.
Ching: What keeps you up at night these days?
Gabrielle: I love that question and thank you so much for asking. I am very concerned about how this wonderful social media environment and this connectivity that we have that connects people worldwide is being manipulated by bad actors.
And I think it's really important that we increase resiliency in populations and we decrease vulnerability by training people to better understand how the information space is being manipulated. Because ultimately technology is going to change, malign actors that want to manipulate people and that want to push their agendas forward are going to continue.
And the best resistance to that, the best way to protect against disinformation, is really having an educated, informed and resilient audience. So I think we have to focus on making sure people are aware of how the information space is manipulated. And we all have a responsibility to think before we share information and to really vet the source to make sure it's truthful before we spread it.