Where that coronavirus text from ‘a friend in the military’ really comes from
Disinformation peddlers are spreading fake news through private messages, evading scrutiny.
In mid-March, a family member forwarded a suspicious message to my family’s group chat. She prefaced the note by saying someone else had “just texted us this. Not sure if it’s accurate but sharing just in case.”
The message warned of imminent national lockdown. The note said someone’s “friend from the military” had inside knowledge that “a two week quarantine will be initiated by Trump pursuant to the Stafford act. So make sure you have enough everything for 14 days.”
Awooga! My journalistic skepticism-sensors blared. President Trump declared a national emergency over the then-already rampaging coronavirus on March 13th, a few days prior to my receipt of the message. He did so under the auspices of the legislation in question, which allows the federal government to deploy aid and resources more quickly in the event of disaster. The Stafford act says nothing about the legality of the executive branch implementing country-wide quarantines. (Look to the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, or this section of the U.S. Code, which details the Surgeon General’s powers, for the basis of that possible, though contestable, authority.)
I fired back with a link to a tweet from the White House’s National Security Council. “Text message rumors of a national quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown,” it said, urging people to follow the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s Twitter account for more accurate information.
I was one of many, many Americans to receive that erroneous text message, so clearly designed to incite panic. Other iterations proliferated, many attributing advance knowledge of a lockdown to sources in national security-focused federal agencies. (Did you come upon a note like this too?)
Now we know at least partly why such messages ran so rampant. While the exact origins of the bogus claims remain unclear, American officials across six agencies believe Chinese agents amplified the messages, borrowing tactics from Russia’s divisive online disinformation campaigns by using fake social media accounts and distribution to fringe political groups, the New York Times reports. The U.S. intelligence community is allegedly investigating whether spies in Beijing’s diplomatic offices helped covertly propel the propaganda through other means too. (A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the allegations were “complete nonsense and not worth refuting.”)
State-sponsored disinformation peddlers are adapting their tactics to stay under the radar for longer. They’re turning to more private, encrypted messaging channels, where they’re less likely to be caught, versus public websites. Like the novel coronavirus itself, which infects far and wide thanks in part to unwittingly contagious, asymptomatic patients, disinformation is spreading stealthily.
As propagandists’ strategies evolve, disinformation will become harder to contain. Earlier this month, Facebook started limiting the number of chats to which frequently forwarded messages can be sent—a welcome measure to fight the proliferation of fake news, but by no means a cure-all. It’s also going to take a concerted effort on individuals’ part to counter threats such as these.
My best advice: Do your part and check the veracity of a claim before spreading it. Be on guard for falsities, and do for the mind what health officials recommend for the body.
Self-quarantine, disinfect, repeat.
In case you didn’t tune into yesterday’s enlightening discussion between this newsletter’s usual author, Adam Lashinsky, and Fortune‘s Erika Fry on the admirable responses of Seattle and San Francisco to the pandemic, here’s a recording. Expect to see more virtual events hosted by our team.