COVID-19 Key Implications: Week of May 16-22
COVID-19 Tracing Applications:
Many governments across the world have deployed apps to track the spread of COVID-19 and inform users when they have come in contact with individuals who have either tested positive for the virus or exhibited symptoms. While most of these apps are voluntary, some governments have made use of the apps compulsory.
The US Centers for Disease Control updated the coverage on its website related to transmission of the virus, which now indicates it may not spread easily on surfaces or from contact with infected animals. The website still warns that the virus has a high transmissibility rate via close human-to-human contact.
A study published May 22 found that patients treated with hydroxychloroquine had negative health effects, including heart arrhythmia, which may result in higher rates of death. The study, which is the largest to date of coronavirus patients, evaluated 96,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients on six continents.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading expert on the US government’s coronavirus task force, claimed on May 22 that a vaccine could potentially be available as early as this December, following the release of promising findings by medical research firms tracking the virus. This timeline is earlier than previous reports, which have indicated that a vaccine likely will not be widely available until sometime in 2021. Fauci cautioned that this timeline remains fluid, and it is not guaranteed that a vaccine will be available this year.
As governments move to reopen economies across the world, experts have cautioned that there will likely be a second spike in infections, as reopened businesses will cause closer human contact. Experts have tracked some spikes, particularly in the southern United States, where many businesses have already begun to reopen.
Cybercrime and Coronavirus:
On May 21, the FBI published and disseminated a report titled “Criminals and Nation-State Cyber Actors Conducting Widespread Pursuit of US Biological and COVID-19 Related Research.” In their report, the FBI states that government and private medical entities, including pharmaceutical companies and universities, have been increasingly targeted by criminal and nation-state entities since at least February 2020. These attacks appear aimed at stealing or damaging information related to COVID-19 research, particularly research aimed at treatment and vaccination.
Threat actors continue to seek ways to profit off government programs providing relief to citizens. There are reports that cybercriminals are fraudulently applying for unemployment benefits in some US states. Examples within Flashpoint collections include:
- An English-speaking actor posted a tutorial that they claim can be used in multiple states to fraudulently apply for unemployment due to COVID-19. In the post, they specifically reference Massachusetts and Washington, and note that this method can be used to cash out the unemployment funds to prepaid cards.
- An English-speaking actor posted in a widely-used chat services channel claiming to have an unemployment method for Michigan and Massachusetts. In an earlier post in the channel, they also claim that their method includes different apps that can use direct deposit. They also appear to claim to be African, based on a reply to another user in the channel during the conversation.
Misinformation and Disinformation Narratives:
Misinformation and disinformation continues to spread on social media platforms and via chat services. Narratives and major developments observed by Flashpoint analysts include:
Disinformation narratives and highly partisan takes on the development and origin of the pandemic involving China and Chinese state media continued:
- A video misattributed footage from the city of Shulan, in northern China, to claim that the city of Wuhan reinstated lockdown amid a second wave of COVID-19 cases.
- Chinese state media continued attacking the United States for its COVID-19 response and portrayed China in a heroic light.
Continuing an earlier trend, disinformation peddlers and extremist communities posted several kinds of content attacking federal and state efforts to create conditions for reopening the country:
- Users on several social media platforms used a 2009 video to claim that Oklahoma’s government “rounded up” unvaccinated people.
- QAnon conspiracy theorist DeAnna Lorraine announced in a livestream that she was planning to go “undercover” as a contact tracer to expose the pandemic as a “hoax.”
Narratives accusing Bill Gates of various crimes and conspiracies continued and took new forms:
- A video and an article claimed that Gates had admitted that 700,000 people will be harmed by “his” COVID-19 vaccine.
- A misattributed video claimed that Gates admitted to planning to make a huge profit on the future vaccine.
- Another misattributed video claimed that the Italian government had called for the arrest of Gates. In fact, it was an Italian deputy and known anti-vaxxer.
- A third misattributed video claimed that Dr. Deborah Birx admitted to working for Gates.
Disinformation narratives regarding untested or fake cures continued spreading, including narratives that had been debunked.
- Following claims by President Donald Trump that he takes the antimalaria drug hydroxychloroquine, Fox News host Sean Hannity defended taking the drug, which has no known beneficial health effect and comes with serious risks.
- A narrative focusing on an herbal tonic developed by Madagascar’s president continued spreading on the French-speaking internet. Unsubstantiated reports claimed both that the WHO had approved the tonic and that Madagascar had expelled the organization.
Actions by social media platforms:
A host of Infowars, a disinformation outlet, was banned from TikTok. Other social media platforms had previously banned Infowars, but members of extremist communities have repeatedly tried to flood them with reuploads.
This strategy has also been observed in the case of “Plandemic,” a highly popular disinformation video. Some sites updated their medical misinformation policies in response.