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COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories Meet Election Interference

Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders are pushing more people than ever to turn to social media for entertainment and connection during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, bad information—including intentional disinformation—is disseminating widely, causing confusion, fueling conspiracy theories, and potentially meddling with elections.

According to NewsGard, more than 200 websites were actively peddling pandemic-related hoaxes in May—up from just 36 websites in April. A Carnegie Mellon University study found that nearly half of the Twitter accounts posting messages about COVID-19 are likely bots. The researchers said that the tweets appear to be aimed at sowing division in the United States, NPR reported.

“We do know that it looks like it’s a propaganda machine, and it definitely matches the Russian and Chinese playbooks, but it would take a tremendous amount of resources to substantiate that,” said Kathleen Carley, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University conducting a study into bot-generated COVID-19 tweets.

This activity has experts concerned about the potential for disinformation to color the outcome of upcoming elections, including the 2020 presidential election in the United States.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that foreign actors would likely seek to amplify COVID-19 conspiracy theories to interfere in the 2020 election, the Associated Press (AP) reports. Rubio added that malicious actors could try to convince people that any new vaccine against the virus could be more harmful than helpful.

“I think the COVID-19 crisis is one in which you’ve seen efforts to promote false narratives that drive some of the friction in this country,” Rubio told the AP, warning that lessons from 2016 election interference had not been learned. “I’m not sure that we’re any less vulnerable than we once were,” he said.

Read more about rebuilding trust after the 2016 election in this Security Management report.