COVID-19 Key Developments: Week of May 2-8
Countries across the world are implementing measures to reopen economies and ease lockdown restrictions. These plans include multiple phases to avoid potential spikes in infection rates.
This week, White House officials announced plans for the Coronavirus Task Force to wind down its efforts, citing plateaus in the number of infections and deaths related to the epidemic. They later said the group would shift its focus to economic recovery.
European countries continue to move to reopen, with some countries easing movement restrictions and allowing more employees to return to work and some schools to reopen. These measures have also been accompanied by social distancing regulations to help prevent a new spike in infections.
Greece has announced victory over the pandemic, and plans to reopen the country to tourism beginning in July.
The United Kingdom has not loosened its restrictions, but the government has announced it is working on a staggered plan to reopen the country gradually.
Australia’s government announced a three-phase approach to reopening the country: The first stage will allow restaurants to reopen, the second stage will allow other services such as gyms and movie theaters to reopen, and the third will allow office workers to return to physical offices and permit gatherings of up to 100 people. Officials will review results each week to evaluate when localities can move to subsequent phases.
Coronavirus and Cybercrime:
Threat actors continue to find new ways to leverage the coronavirus pandemic to carry out fraud schemes and malicious campaigns.
On May 5, 2020, the US Department of Justice announced that two individuals in Rhode Island have been charged with fraudulently seeking more than half a million dollars in Small Business Administration loans administered under the CARES Act. These were the first individuals charged with fraudulently attempting to obtain the funds disbursed through the act.
Iran-linked hackers have allegedly been targeting US-based drugmaker Gilead Sciences Inc. in recent weeks. Gilead has reported promising trials of a drug to combat the coronavirus. These attacks have reportedly included targeted phishing campaigns to steal employee passwords. Iran has denied the activities, and there is limited information available to confirm the reports.
Flashpoint analysts continue to monitor threat actor discussions of fraud activities exploiting the pandemic, including the following posts identified this week in our collections:
An English-speaking threat actor posted two government checks issued under the CARES Act for a total of $3,900, purportedly in an attempt to prove they have access to a supply of the checks.
An English-speaking threat actor posted an ad on an illicit marketplace that they have developed a new scam page that they claim can be used against multiple banks. They claim they have integrated additional features, such as requiring the user to enter security questions to advance. They also said the scam page appears as a custom Canada Emergency Response Benefit site that asks the user to provide name and social security number, and “checks their info, tells them how much they are entitled to receive and lets them choose from 16 banks where to deposit the money.”
An English-speaking actor operating under the alias posted on a paste site that they are selling a fifty-page ebook that provides tutorials for obtaining COVID-19 government stimulus funding, claiming there are a variety of methods to illegitimately obtain this money since safety checks are insufficient. According to the actor, they have twenty-five methods that apply to the following countries’ aid programs: Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States.
Misinformation and Disinformation Trends:
Misinformation and disinformation continues to spread on social media platforms and via chat services. Narratives and major developments observed by Flashpoint analysts include:
COVID-19 conspiracy “documentaries”: Flashpoint analysts observed several longer videos that spread conspiracy theories and unfounded narratives about COVID-19, often in a documentary style and sometimes with the participation of people who are introduced as scientific or medical researchers or doctors. Disinformation actors have a growing tendency of relying on doctors and researchers who are often disgraced in their own field to lend credibility to conspiracy theories.
These included a video produced by “Shake My Head Productions” that claims, based on intentionally misinterpreted information, that the pandemic has been “50 years in the making” by a global elite to take control over governments; a video produced by Dutch “crop circle researcher” Janet Ossebaard that spreads the 5G conspiracy theory; and an hourlong video titled “COVID 1984 Pandemic” that, using cropped footage from various videos (many of them showing Bill Gates), argues that the pandemic is a man-made scam that was brought about to implement a hidden agenda, namely “Event 201.”
Most important in the past week seemed to be a half-hour-long film titled “Pandemic,” made by Mikki Willis and featuring the anti-vaccination activist Judy Mikovits, that makes the unfounded claim that COVID-19 was caused by flu vaccines. Mikovits makes several misleading or false claims in the video, which was shot in a slick documentary style and benefited from weeks of building up “plandemic” as a social media hashtag on various platforms.
Surveys have shown that conspiracy theories linking vaccines to COVID-19 are already affecting people’s perception of a future COVID-19 vaccine, with a growing number of Americans saying they would refuse to be vaccinated against the disease. This could hamper efforts to defeat the virus and create security risks. Alex Jones, a known disinformation peddler, suggested “executing” Bill Gates in response to conspiracy theories that Gates is attempting to control the Earth’s population through a COVID-19 vaccine.
Disinformation about contact tracing: Campaigns on various extremist platforms have called on people to resist the compulsory contact tracing that will likely be a vital element of any lockdown exit strategy. Speakers identify contact tracing as an element of a deep state conspiracy.
Members of extremist communities are to a large extent primed to accept any pandemic-related policy as deep state conspiracy, but communication about “an army of contact tracers” probably did not help.
Since surveys show that most of the US population remains supportive of lockdowns, Flashpoint analysts currently assess the associated risk as low.
Questioning death figures: In parallel to narratives discounting the threat of the pandemic, disinformation claiming that authorities are tampering with death figures also proliferate. Viral posts spreading on Facebook claimed that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made 30,000 COVID-19 deaths “disappear.” A tweet claimed that New York’s death rate is 200 times higher than that of the world’s ten largest cities.
Disinformation narratives associated with political and business leaders:
A liberal satire website that aims to mislead Trump supporters created a story about the Democratic Party ostensibly trying to take away stimulus payments from members of the military.
Chinese and Russian bots attacked a Chinese businessman who has been critical of China’s COVID-19 response. Chinese government-linked accounts across social media criticized the United States for its pandemic response.
Various narratives accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of cooperating with the Wuhan Institute of Virology—which some called the source of the virus—or denying the beneficial effects of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug with no proven effects on the virus.
Actions by social media platforms:
Platforms have continued to fight COVID-19-related disinformation.
Facebook announced the takedown of eight sets of accounts exhibiting inauthentic behavior, including from Iran, Russia, and the United States. The US accounts amplified “QAnon” conspiracy theorists who in recent weeks have pushed several COVID-19-related disinformation narratives.
TikTok added a feature to allow users to report COVID-19-related disinformation and misinformation.
The International Fact-Checking Network started a WhatsApp chatbot to send pandemic-related fact checks to users.