This study aims to explore if a computational propaganda campaign can alter the value system of its targets. To achieve that we began by analyzing the Parasite Stress Theory which shows how fear of pathogens and disease can alter the behavior of the individual and society in general, by making them more susceptible to authoritarian rule. We then attempted to see if that phenomenon could have been exploited and exacerbated in the case of SARS-CoV-2 through a coordinated online effort to push fear of the disease with the malicious intent of softening and priming western audiences for accepting authoritarian measures and policies. By examining online activity during early 2020, as well as the findings of digital firms, we found out that online campaigns indeed took place, with the purpose of spreading disinformation regarding the measures that should be taken against the disease. Harassment campaigns were also active at the same time, targeting dissenting politicians. In the end, we concluded that there was a drastic change in the core value system of western societies which could in some part be attributed to the aforementioned computational propaganda campaigns.
Over the past 6 years, the common Populus has become increasingly more aware of the potential dangers that social media technology can pose to our day-to-day lives and democratic institutions. Either through the possibility of actors manipulating undecided voters via online campaigns or of misinformation spread with ill intent, we all have by now understood to some degree how computational propaganda can have real-life consequences which can be to the detriment of the general public. As we examined in our previous study, coordinated efforts by bots and human actors were able to trigger mass social upheavals and accelerate the political fall of a recently elected, sitting president. In short, computational propaganda was able to alter election results (after the election) and change the make out of an elected government.
That being said, and by having established how computational propaganda is able to change the political landscape of a country, it is high time we considered how such an operation can affect us at an individual level, possibly altering the core values that we hold as a person or a civilization in general. To do that, we will analyze some interesting findings revolving around the effects that a perceived danger from pathogens can have on our values and how such a phenomenon could very well be exploited by a computational propaganda campaign. To accomplish that, we will proceed by examining “parasite stress”, a theory that suggests that fear of pathogens can make us susceptible to authoritarian government overreach, as well as how such knowledge may have been used by China in order to mount a massive online campaign of fear regarding SARS-CoV-2 and its deadliness.
Disclaimer: This study will not delve into the matter of SARS-CoV-2’s virulence, Covid-19’s severity and survival rate, the effects of lockdowns on curbing the spread of viruses, China’s geopolitics and goals regarding its standing on the global scale. These subjects fall wildly outside the spectrum of this study and no conclusion will be drawn on them as the data on them develops daily. This study is the product of objective, independent research and it strives to be free from partisan points. It aims at helping us understand the nature of coordinated computational propaganda campaigns and not at recruiting followers, boosting certain party positions or convincing people to join political movements or parties. Readers are kindly asked to judge the information presented through an objective lens and reach their own conclusions.
Is authoritarianism contagious?
To establish the background of our research, we will first have to see if fear of disease can indeed change who we are and our values. To accomplish that we will take a quick look at the Parasite Stress Theory. According to the theory “authoritarian governments are more likely to emerge in regions characterized by a high prevalence of disease-causing pathogens” (Murray, Schaller and Suedfeld, 2013). The theory defines authoritarianism as characterized by concentration of power, repression of dissenting voices, submission to authority, social conformity, and hostility towards non-compliant individuals. Examples of this are the so-called “illiberal democracies” of countries like Turkey and Russia. “Parasite stress” is defined as the strain that a pathogenic organism of any kind puts on human health and welfare.
According to the theory, it was observed that government restrictions on political rights and civil liberties, (a key element of authoritarianism), were strongly predicted by pathogen prevalence in a country. The same can be said for the individuals’ tendency to accept authoritarian governance and display conformist attitudes and traits. As a result, in places where the serious disease is more prevalent, there are increased chances that less democratic and more authoritarian governments will emerge and prevail over time. This was even more evident in countries that used to experience high parasite stress in their past history.
The explanation behind this phenomenon comes from the methods that people used throughout history to combat outbreaks of disease. Since the causes of disease are invisible to the naked eye and most of times unknown to the everyday person, people historically took to ritualized behaviours as a means to prevent the spread of diseases. Resultantly, those who failed to conform to these norms were seen as a potential danger to society. At this point, it is important to take into account not only the potential virulness and deadliness of these pathogens but also the subjective opinion of the individual regarding how likely they believe they are to contract the pathogen and/or die because of it. Individuals who believe that they are more likely to be infected tend to display conformist behaviours, prefer those who share similar behaviours to them, have more negative reactions towards those who don’t and espouse more conservative attitudes.
By expanding these individual behaviours into a wider scale, the researchers came to the conclusion that “in countries and cultures characterized by historically higher prevalence of parasitic diseases, people are less individualistic, exhibit lower levels of dispositional openness to new things, are more likely to conform to the majority opinion, and more strongly endorse “binding” moral values that emphasize group loyalty, obedience, and respect for authority” (Murray, Schaller and Suedfeld, 2013).
These findings can be backed by a similar study titled “Threat(s) and conformity deconstructed: Perceived threat of infectious disease and its implications for conformist attitudes and behaviour” which had similar results, noting that a population threatened by the disease can develop conformist attitudes. These conformist attitudes include behavioral conformity and favour towards these individuals who display conformist traits.
Having established that fear of a pathogen can cause changes in behaviour and mentality which can make an individual or a general population more susceptible to authoritarian governance and government overreach we will now go back to early 2020 to see how such a phenomenon may have been exploited to alter the western worldview of liberty and democracy by a foreign power.
Have you seen this video from China?
We now turn our attention to March 2020 when we experienced the infamous surge of tweets about how China is so ahead of the West regarding the efforts against the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The well-known by now tweets of images and videos of trucks spraying disinfectant on the streets of Chinese cities almost instantly went viral gathering a vast amount of likes and retweets. The tweet that started it all was originally posted by user @manisha_kataki on March 12th. It included a video of trucks spraying disinfectant on Chinese streets and the comment: “At this rate, China will be back in action very soon, may be much faster than the world expects”, clearly praising China’s policies against the virus.
The next day, another user, @Ejiketion, retweeted the post, marvelling at how China had locked down cities and built coronavirus hospitals. He also criticised the West’s efforts against the spread of the disease by saying that while China is taking so “advanced” measures against the virus, the western governments are simply instructing people to wash their hands (“We washing our hands LOL”). These two posts received a combined retweet and like count of 382,000 and 1.1 million respectively, most of which were generated within 48 hours from the time of their posting. Meanwhile, two other tweets that retweeted these two posts in Spanish and in French received 67,000 and 181,00 likes respectively.
According to the Israely data firm, Next Dim, the overnight blow up of these tweets raises a lot of questions. First of all, according to its analysis, large swaths of retweets came from the follower base of just 20 twitter users, some of whom rarely got involved with China and its politics. Secondly, few of the first retweets that made @manisha_kataki’s tweet viral came from followers of her account which raises even more questions since it would not be part of their timelines and thus it would not be normally seen and retweeted by them. According to Next Dim, this could very well be the result of an online computational propaganda campaign.
These findings by Next Dim, were also cited by American lawyer, Michael Senger, who took interest in the potential of a disinformation campaign run by China against western governments. “An Israeli company identified a huge ring of tweets, thousands and thousands of tweets, using essentially identical language, denigrating all these other governments, essentially encouraging them to adopt China’s model” (‘There was no science’ behind COVID lockdowns, 2020) he said, stating that the Chinese government is using social media platforms as a way to advertise lockdowns as the solution to the virus. Twitter’s actions seem to resonate with these findings as 23.750 pro China disinformation accounts and 150.00 amplification accounts were taken down by Twitter in 2020. These accounts became targets for Twitter as they were praising China for its response to the outbreak of the virus, using similar content and language.
As Senger noted in an interview on Sky News Australia, China has been recruiting for over a decade vast armies of online propaganda agents who are focused on the inside, generating millions of propaganda posts for domestic consumption. What has changed now is that China simply expanded that model to the exterior of the country as well, using its armies of propaganda agents to generate millions of posts which support its methods against SARS-CoV-2 and criticise western governments for not adopting them, all while “bullying” public officials of every level into locking down. Notably, US Governors that refused to impose lockdowns became victims of mass online harassment which used similar content and insults in every case. Another example was British PM, Boris Johnson, who also became a victim of massive online harassment when he initially announced his intention to implement a plan of herd immunity to combat SARS-CoV-2. His twitter feed was bombarded by posts comparing his plan to genocide by suspicious accounts, several of which were not active before the announcement of his Covid strategy.
Senger then considered how videos and images from China of people collapsing on the streets and dying almost instantly of Covid-19 started spreading in the West and became viral on social media platforms after Wuhan went into lockdown. He emphasises that these videos, which began circulating the western web around January 23rd 2020 in social media pages like Youtube, Twitter and Facebook, (all of which are inaccessible by the residents of China), would not under normal circumstances be available to western audiences due to the communist party’s “iron curtain” which only lets through content that serves its goals. In other words, he believes that these videos were pushed on western audiences with the sole intention of generating fear of SARS-CoV-2.
Lastly, he mentions how Italy, the first western country that decided to copy China’s lockdown, was bombarded with Chinese disinformation. Regarding the tweets celebrating China’s medical aid to Italy in March of 2020, it was found that 46.3% of the tweets under the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia (Go China, Go Italy) and 37.1% of the tweets under the hashtag #grazieCina (thank you China) were posted by bots. These findings from theItalian digital marketing firm, Alkemy, suggest that posts in favour of China’s medical aid to Italy originated from possibly fake accounts. These accounts were characterised by high activity on a 24 hour basis, long periods of inactivity before that, being favourable towards China, having alphanumeric characters as nicknames and spreading fake news (e.g. Italian citizens chanting “Thank you China”).
Dan, are you sleeping well?
On the other side of the spectrum, supportive computational campaigns could also have very well taken place in favour of the politicians who adopted China’s health measures and policies.
In the case of the Governor of Victoria, Dan Andrews, (who was one of the foremost supporters of lockdowns in Australia) we saw a similar trend as the ones described above. When Dan Andrews tweeted images from Australia showing empty streets with the message “Thank You” (meaning that he thanks Australians for following the rules of the lockdown) he received support from many accounts which, in similar language, thanked him for his leadership and urged him to keep a healthy sleep schedule.
As a content creator, Dave Cullen, who covered the story noted, this was an astroturfing campaign, designed to make people who are on the fence in regards to lockdowns or are opposed to them, believe that the general public supports such measures. The goal of such an effort is to make the general public believe what is projected as the general public’s sentiment and opinion on the matter in order to produce consent while making dissenters silence themselves out of fear of disagreeing with the rest of society.
Remind me, are China and Serbia neighbors?
Finally, research from Serbia tells a similar tale of a computational propaganda mechanism being utilized to boost public support in favor of foreign, Chinese aid like in the case of Italy.
The Digital Forensic Center, a project of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro, conducted a research analysis of 30,000 tweets in Serbian Twitter between the 9th of March 2020 and the 9th of April 2020 concerning posts regarding the medical aid sent to Serbia by China. The research was aimed at identifying possible bots amplifying messages which praised: 1) China for its medical aid towards Serbia, 2) the friendship and bonds between the two countries, 3) the leadership of the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the Serbian Government while at the same time 5) criticizing the lack of help from the EU.
Out of the 30,000 tweets analyzed, 21,572 (or 71.9% of them) originated from bot accounts, with 1,124 bot accounts being identified. These accounts had 186,584 followers in total (166 followers per account on average) and aimed at amplifying existing content rather than generating new one, with 18,422 (85.4%) of the identified 21,572 bot tweets being retweeted. Meanwhile, 1,134 (36%) of the 3,150 original tweets these accounts produced didn’t have any likes or retweets.
According to the analysis, there was great focus in amplifying the above-mentioned narratives since the Twitter accounts of Aleksandar Vucic, Chen Bo (Chinese Ambassador to Serbia) and Ana Brnabic (Serbian PM) were mentioned in 11,346 tweets, 460 tweets, and 270 tweets respectively. These bot accounts also boosted hashtags relevant to the narratives they were created to push and promoted content coming from authoritative sources, close to the Serbian government.
The research concludes that the goal of this computational propaganda was to astroturf public support and redirect public opinion as noted in the case of Victoria’s, Dan Andrews.
This doesn’t affect me, I’m not on Twitter
Despite how digitized our lives are and how the offline world and the online world overlap in our day-to-day lives, we still seem unable to comprehend how mass events in the online world can cause real-world phenomena and changes. Instead, the general populace sees the online world as a separate sphere, with the events that take place within it being unable to affect everyday, real-world life. We might be hearing constantly about cyberattacks against banks, electrical facilities and food processing plants but we never expect such online world phenomena to cause us real-world problems. That frame of thought which separates the online world from our highly digitized offline world might have very well become an Achilles’ heel, allowing online computational propaganda campaigns to bypass any form of scrutiny from internet users, thus making them more susceptible to their messages.
What is more alarming is that, in the case of the abovementioned online computational propaganda surrounding SARS-CoV-2, the message that was allowed to be implanted in the psyche of the western world was one of authoritarianism and of abandonment of the “inept” democratic values that countless men and women gave their lives to defend and expand within the last 800 years. As the Parasite Stress Theory concluded, people who are afraid of a pathogen are more likely to adopt conformist attitudes and support authoritarian measures. After two years of computational propaganda campaigns pushing fear of Covid-19 and astroturfing support for illiberal policies it appears that the online world has managed not only to alter everyday, real-world life but also alter our very core values as citizens of democratic western countries.
Within a short period of time the average person saw fitting to surrender basic human rights and civil liberties to the state in hopes that this will offset the spread of the virus. We now consider normal for governments to have complete control over the economy by dictating who is or isn’t an “essential worker”, what is or isn’t an “essential business”, what products are “essential” and are allowed to be sold during a state of emergency and what hours a private business is allowed to operate within.
Human rights also became unneeded trifles as governments freely seized the right of freedom of movement, restricting an individual’s ability to go where they please or leave their house at all without government authorisation, accept visitors in their own abode or form an assembly at a public space. Meanwhile, we witnessed an increase in online censorship and a brutal crackdown on civil liberties as people were arrested over internet posts challenging the government’s narrative and peaceful protesters were brutalised by local authorities.
Finally, we witnessed the fruits of 60 years’ worth of global civil rights movements wither and become sweeped under the rag over the fear of the virus. Mask and vaccine mandates overshadowed the right of body autonomy, coercing individuals to accept medical acts upon their bodies. Meanwhile, the constant fight against any kind of discrimination took a backseat to a state of medical apartheid where it is socially and legally acceptable for certain categories of people to be treated differently than others and as a result be barred from certain places and events. Simultaneously, basic human rights and civil liberties became privileges to be earned only by those who adhere to the latest government policies. In short, the West was transformed from a civilization based on the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity to one where we are now keen to discriminate against our fellow citizens based on government-approved policies and politics.
As we can see, online computational propaganda campaigns could have very well coerced the general populace into accepting authoritarian values by a combination of fear and astroturfed support for such measures. Posts and messages boosted by automated systems and malicious actors may indeed be capable of causing real-world policy changes while altering western values and what we consider to be normal, constructing in the process a “new normal”. Fake cries of support and indignation could have influenced politicians and policymakers into adopting measures and political stances that would otherwise be unacceptable in western countries. Long story short, the happenings of the online world and the efforts of an army of ones and zeros may have dictated the way we think we are allowed to live our lives, the way we think we should interact with other people and the way we think in general.
Political Scientist, Negotiator
Affiliate of HICD Denmark
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 “The deceptive practice of presenting an orchestrated marketing or public relations campaign in the guise of unsolicited comments from members of the public” as defined by Oxford Languages