Originally published on April 17th, 2020
Every day, the UK government releases new information about COVID-19. Millions of people tune into radio, TV, digital and print broadcasts to hear the latest advice from deceptively earnest-looking health officials, ministers, and leaders. The extent of the coverage of the virus is astounding: not only has virtually every media outlet geared themselves up for reporting predominantly on COVID, whether private or an arm of the state, but the same information is recycled over and over again, drilling into our heads the mantras of “stay at home”, “protect our NHS”, and “flatten the curve”.
Pandemics are a dangerous time for democracies. Whilst authoritarian regimes can downplay the impact of the virus, attribute it to foreign powers to de-legitimize fellow governments, or manipulate statistics at the cost of public safety, states committed to transparency cannot. Whilst the free flow of information is encouraged in democratic states to foster economic growth, under repressive regimes information is weaponized. Although they are not able to benefit from the quickened pace of technological and cultural innovation that an unrestricted circulation of ideas entails, repressive regimes can greatly strengthen their position in power by manipulating the flow of information to their advantage -as we are seeing, in non-democratic countries, with COVID-19.
Manipulating the information the public receives is an extremely complex and nuanced task; attested to by the sheer size, scale, and global reach of secret police forces and intelligence agencies, particularly in the former USSR. However, there are broadly two modes of state manipulation.
The first is the “implausible-claim” approach. Some regimes have such a firm grasp on media narratives within the country they govern over that they are able to make claims that few people believe. An example is the government of North Korea, which claims that Kim-Jong-Un has superpowers and can control the weather. The point of this approach is not to convince people that these claims are true. Rather, it is to show that the ruling coalition has such firm control over the country that they are able to make these claims without being contested. This discourages the opposition and effectively stakes the regime’s claim over the media, showing that there is no room for policing of the truth, let alone dissent.
The second is the “plausible-claim” approach. Regimes with an equally firm grasp on the media may use a more sophisticated approach, which involves indoctrination and the creation of a Manichaeannarrative of good and evil, us and them. This approach is particularly useful in that after a certain threshold is reached, the propaganda becomes somewhat self-perpetuating. When enough plausible claims are made by the government in a diffuse and oblique way, perhaps over a long period of time, individuals and private entities will replicate these claims, as they undergo a process of mutation and evolution that is conducive to the aims of the regime. A second factor in the success of this process, besides timing, is “information-laundering”. Private citizens, or at least a large proportion of them, are naturally skeptical of their government. Thus, in order to make plausible claims really stick, the information has to look like it is coming from a source outside government control – perhaps, a distant state branch, which has different imperatives or a separate mission to the executive. This could be a science department or an arm of the military. The greater the separation between core government and where the information is being broadcast from, the more likely that the state will be able to convince the naturally distrustful that the claim has some merit. Ideally, the claim will seem to emanate from a foreign country, or even the enemy.
The first mode of manipulation is used largely by regimes which uphold extremely extractive institutions. In places where political and economic institutions do not benefit “the people” apart from incidentally, the flow of information can be completely controlled. This is because under such regimes, leaders do not need to develop and enrich their country to maintain power. Open circulation of ideas will lead to a more informed society, that is able to make quicker advancements in culture and technology. However, highly extractive regimes do not need this motor for growth, as their ruling coalition is enriched through the export of valuable energy and mineral resources, for example, rather than taxation on a broad and healthy economy. Thus, the best strategy for the most perfidious regimes to maintain national stability and power is administering careful control over the flow of information.
The second mode of manipulation is used by many types of regimes, arguably, in some cases even democratic ones. Because this mode is to some extent self-perpetuating, governments do not need to pay close attention to the information being disseminated by public or private entities. Rather, they can intervene and step up their claim-making efforts when society undergoes particularly acute periods of stress. One method of doing this is by creating scapegoats for media attention to focus on. These scapegoats may be internal – minority populations, religious groups, organisations hostile to the regime – or they can be external, like foreign states, NGOs, and even supernatural enemies. The scapegoats can be humans, creatures, objects, or ideas. By centering criticism around these scapegoats, they deflect criticism of the regime, and unite citizens against a “common enemy”, other than their leaders. This tactic is particularly effective when the criticisms are legitimate, or hold some element of truth. We have seen the success of such tactics when used by regimes in the Middle East, targeting US military action in particular.
Plausible-claim style manipulation is being used widely during this pandemic. The coronavirus has presented an opportunity for non-democratic governments to exploit a global weakness for conspiracy theories against the US government. This weakness exists because American institutions have in the past engaged in covert operations of dubious moral character. Some of these could only have occurred in segregationist states, such as the deliberate withholding of necessary medical care from 400 African Americans in Macon County, Alabama, with an identified and curable condition (latent syphilis), for the purposes of studying the effects of not treating the disease. Others reflect a Cold War paranoia, like the attempt to develop chemical and physical means of psychological control known as Project MKUltra. More recent controversies have involved corporate actors, such as Abdullahi v. Pfizer Inc., during which it came to light that Pfizer had experimented with meningococcal meningitis treatments on Nigerian children in 1996 without official approval. All these have contributed to a general mistrust of American institutional and quasi-institutional actors in foreign states, and their own backyards.
Epidemics have, in the past, shown this second style of information manipulation to be highly effective. Our ability to discern truth from partial truth or fiction is imperfect, and this leaves us vulnerable to manipulation; the end result being a society harmed by misinformation. Often, plausible-claim control involves damaging trust and inciting fear as part of the scapegoating procedure. Massive deleterious consequences result from an undermining of public trust. Not only does poor trust weigh on economic growth, but it impacts the survivors of low-trust periods to such an extent that the psychological impact of the deterioration of trust can be measured even in the descendants of these survivors. Furthermore, pervasion of misinformation around disease can hamper treatment and cause the affected society to be disproportionately impacted by the pathogen. During the Ebola epidemic, mistrust of global health authorities, charities and foreign governments hampered the delivery of treatment to many individuals, who feared neo-colonial machinations and schemes of control.
Whilst the ruptures caused by colonial policy in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries are incalculably difficult to heal, the interplay of propaganda and epidemics can amplify existing ruptures and division in society, even stoking the formation of new ones. When the AIDS epidemic first struck America, there was little to stand between the community that HIV most affected, and a wave of ostracization against that community, particularly by traditional conservative religious groups. Conservative Christians had wrestled with homosexuality and rights in the 1970s, and so when news of the epidemic broke, it presented a newfound opportunity to espouse long-standing, yet purported connections between homosexuality, sin, and God’s use of disease to punish sin. Pastor Jerry Falwell was a notable figure in the voicing of outlandish theories on the cause of AIDS, giving significant ammunition to the otherwise marginal ideas of a minority of Christians. Claiming on national television that ‘a God who hates sin has stopped [homosexuality] dead in its tracks by saying ‘do it and die’, he opposed funding of government research into HIV and AIDS because he saw it as a “gay problem”. He also extended his vitriol to contemporaneous views on sexual liberation as a whole, stating that ‘AIDS is a lethal judgment of God on America for endorsing this vulgar, perverted and reprobate lifestyle’. Some religious journals also endorsed this view, portraying AIDS as the weapon of God’s vengeance against gay sexuality, ‘God warned mankind about AIDS in Numbers 32:23 when He said, “Be sure your sin will find you out.” … Maybe the AIDS plague will educate the world that the Bible is still the bedrock of civilization, and it should be learned, loved and lived in our daily lives.’ These claims; given their lack of merit, sensationalist style, strong ideological convictions, and their broadcasting on national television; can also be characterized as propaganda. Not only does such misinformed rhetoric cause great hurt to many, but it fissures society into one of factions – hardly a productive exercise in a modern, interlinked and interdependent society.
In the 20th century, the greatest division, save for perhaps colonizer-colonized, was between pro-American and pro-Soviet society. The percolation of AIDS conspiracy theories into this division actually proved to be a hindrance to USSR policy in the later years of the Cold War. Beginning as a haphazard and gusto-less effort by the KGB to frame America for yet another global ill (besides capitalism), it evolved into a multifaceted effort by disparate actors. A retired biology professor and his co-partner wife, a Holocaust survivor; who were both loyal to the East German regime, and unwittingly picked up on a KGB information plant in an India-domiciled newspaper; collided with a professional East-Berlin dissenter, Western and African media outlets, the Bulgarian Secret Service, the Stasi, and Moscow officials, to propagate a shared set of claims regarding the origin of AIDS. This was despite the fact that each of these entities acted rather independently, and with entirely different intentions to one another. This bewilderingly intricate and unwitting propaganda machine was shut down by Gorbachev, in pursuit of détente and collaboration with the US over AIDS research. However, the claim that HIV was the product of a Western lab, and designed to be a bio-weapon, is still promulgated in Africa today. Like those that contract Ebola, many HIV-positive individuals are reluctant to seek and maintain exposure to professional medical treatment, due to myths such as these. An untold number of these HIV-positive individuals may contract coronavirus and die as a result. For cases in which treatment for AIDS was materially accessible to these people, had they not fallen foul of misinformation, they might have sought treatment for the autoimmune disease, and thereby drastically reduced their chance of being seriously affected by COVID.
If authoritarian propaganda has not already resulted in unnecessary deaths from COVID-19 indirectly, it will soon do so directly. Efforts to play a blame game aimed at Western hegemony take away valuable public and private airtime and resources, that could be employed to spread public safety information, and focus on developing measures to limit the impact of the virus. So, take note: when the Palestinian Prime Minister claims that Israeli soldiers are smearing COVID on car door handles, or Venezuela’s President Maduro asserts that coronavirus targets the Chinese, or if Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei raises suspicions that the pathogen is engineered to infect Iranians, or even if the website of the Chinese military claims that US soldiers participating in the Wuhan 2019 Military Games may have been the source of the virus; – it is perhaps wise not to believe them.
Oliver Banks is an undergraduate reading Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at the University of Oxford.
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