“No One Knows Where The Truth Is”: Confronting Disinformation in the COVID-19 Era

Sayara’s programs have quickly adapted to study disinformation in the times of COVID-19, where multiple misleading and harmful narratives have been widely disseminated through social media and more dangerously by key influencers themselves. Our on-going research of communication ecosystems and public behavior discovered that the global public health crisis has unleashed a deluge of disinformation from “miraculous cure-alls” against COVID-19 to outright conspiracy theories aimed at undermining social cohesion, democracy, and trust of public institutions 

“Now [media] share fake statistics,” remarked the 28-year-old Russian speaking public sector employee in Estonia. She was dialed into Sayara’s first remote focus group, a component of the array of adaptations Sayara research teams have made across the globe to account for the COVID-19 restrictions. 

This focus group conducted in April 2020 was the 3rd session of five waves of a longitudinal panel study exploring resonance over time of hostile state narratives (a single component of a much larger Target Audience Analysis study across the region). This was the first discussion conducted following the spate of COVID-19 restrictions enveloping Europe and was thus conducted not in-person, but via electronic means. While adapting to physical distancing requirements forced such technology-based adaptability, understanding the influence of disinformation on the information spaces of young democracies emerging from the former Soviet Union, is a much more challenging endeavor. 

This particular 28-year-old Russophone, for example, was criticizing mainstream Estonian media sources for “exaggerating” the effects of the pandemic in order to obtain higher hits and views.  Several minutes prior she presented the national public broadcaster and a source quite well known for its ties to a hostile foreign state as simply two different, but equivalent, perspectives on the COVID-19 issue.  

Students of information operations will be quick to note the success of the adversary: by draping their disinformation mouthpieces in the trappings of journalistic credibility, they have achieved equivalent credibility with seemingly legitimate journalism.  This, in turn, undermines the notion of collective consciousness vital for democracy.  Blunting this tactic is no easy task, even at the best of times.

Sayara’s upcoming wave of this panel study will offer this 28-year-old and her co-panelists the opportunity to identify just what narratives “stuck” following the initial deluge.  Will authentic and genuine voices resonate with such skeptics, or will such confusion and “dismay” have taken hold?  These findings will inform how response strategies are crafted. Finally, Sayara will provide key data showing how this global pandemic plays a role in the strengths or debilitation of democratic structures.