Superspreaders of Malign and Subversive Information on COVID-19

Russian and Chinese Efforts Targeting the United States

The global spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) created a fertile ground for attempts to influence and destabilize different populations and countries. Both Russia and China appear to have employed information manipulation during the COVID-19 pandemic in service to their respective global agendas. This report uses exploratory qualitative analysis to systematically describe the types of COVID-19-related malign and subversive information efforts with which Russia- and China-associated outlets appear to have targeted U.S. audiences from January 2020 to July 2020 and organizes them into a framework. This work lays the foundation for a better understanding of how and whether Russia and China might act and coordinate in the domain of malign and subversive information efforts in the future. This report is the first in a series that will use big data, computational linguistics, and machine learning to test findings and hypotheses generated by the initial analysis.

This report is part of RAND’s Countering Truth Decay initiative, which considers the diminishing role of facts and analysis in political and civil discourse and the policymaking process. Disinformation and its rampant spread online and offline is one of the key drivers of Truth Decay. Agents—notably such foreign actors as Russia and China and their proxies—fuel and contribute to the explosion in disinformation observed over the past decade. Knowing how Russia and China operate in this space can help inform our understanding of the Truth Decay phenomenon and efforts to mitigate it.

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