COVID-19, Misinformation and Minority Communities

14th April 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating consequences for the international community and its economic, social and national security consequences will take years to assess, in full. With close to a million cases worldwide, and over 22,000 deaths and counting in the US alone, how to properly evaluate its impact on communities, particularly communities of color, is a major concern for nations worldwide.

Let’s be very clear, the COVID-19 virus does not discriminate, and can attack anyone regardless of race and class, However, the experience of the United Kingdom and the United States raises a major concern that it has disproportionately hit ethnic and minority communities. Because we currently lack a government wide coordinated response that can feed into a depository where information can be shared from across both sides of the Atlantic, we are relying on anecdotal stories, research reports and accounts from frontline health workers. So far, the impact on minority communities has been terrible. 

Decades of social inequities, poverty, lack of access to medical care, and the higher risk of infection in the often low wage public workforce that is largely minority run and lead, may be an explanation for this disparity in COVID-19 related complications. Earlier this month, the Health Secretary in the United Kingdom addressed the point of the alarming death toll in minority communities, and highlighted how he found it “really upsetting.” Furthermore, in the US, the governor of Louisiana highlighted that 70 percent of the deaths of all COVID-19 cases were African Americans, even though they are less than 50 percent of the population. 

For both the US, UK and worldwide, this should not be seen as something new. The HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 80’s and 90’s similarly afflicted minority populations. We need to be focusing on the many after-action reports from that crisis to ensure that  avoid making the same mistakes as the last time.

Equally important, a plethora of state and non-state actors have saturated social media and the public realm with misinformation of the origins and the manner in which the pandemic evolved. Government and private companies can work in collaboration to dispel rumors and disinformation campaigns that are a mix of conspiracy driven false news. They can provide  evidence and science-based information rich in detail and guidance in how to combat these false narratives. Organizations like Bellingcat and new initiatives via Facebook offer some exciting possibilities in which public/private partnerships can dispel myth and promote facts.

Furthermore, nefarious actors, some sponsored by states, make it more difficult to respond effectively. Efforts are complicated by the upcoming presidential elections in the US in November. Iran, Russia, North Korea, China and likely many others, have conducted active campaigns to sow discord and to provide misinformation to further their agenda and to disrupt the social order within our western liberal democracies.

Pulling from their playbook of the 2016 US presidential elections, earlier this year, Russian trolls and bots, directed by the Russian government, outsourced their efforts to West African nationals in the countries of Ghana and Nigeria to run active disinformation campaigns to exploit racial grievances, inequalities and prejudices in the US.

Less visibly, the Iranian regime has long been playing a similar game. It has engaged in a quiet and steady “urban” foreign policy effort that has focused on minority communities in the U.S. Iran has employed techniques of soft power engagement to target and recruit individuals for their cause that focus on racial and emotional pressure points. 

During the Iranian hostage crisis that began on November 4, 1979, hostage takers declared a unified stance with “oppressed minorities” including African Americans. They immediately released all African American and female hostages in an attempt to use internal U.S. race relations as a wedge issue to help the new Iranian government connect with minority communities globally.

Finally, the Chinese government faces a  diplomatic confrontation with the 54 nations of Africa. We have seen reports of African students, workers and businessman being blamed for spreading the COVID-19 pandemic in a second wave of infections. These hysterical misinformation campaigns largely circulated via Chinese based social media forums. They appear to have resulted from  Western news reports highlighting that the vast majority of deaths in the US have been of African Americans. There is, of course, no credible information to support this claim.

As the global community seeks, to address this pandemic and gain a better understanding of how it is spread, providing accurate and reliable information is critical. Quilliam makes the following recommendations for policymakers worldwide. These steps have been developed from on our efforts to challenge extremist narratives and counter false information:

Counter and Alternative Information: Based on our decades plus experience working against extremism, providing counter and alternative information that is fact and evidence based is critical to challenge rumors and false stories. Active and aggressive efforts, led by both public and private organizations, are critical if we are to to get ahead of the spreading of information that is not based on truth.

Coordinated Public Health Response: As we have been fighting against ideological and religious based extremism, security experts have borrowed similarly to public health models against contagion and viruses spreading. Public health experts should not re-invent the wheel and share and engage with these experts who can offer good practices and modeling efforts in the fight against the pandemic.

Misinformation/Disinformation Task force: The international community must work in concert with the pandemic experts and experts engaging in the fight of misinformation/disinformation. State and non-state actors are actively seeking to exploit this moment of global challenge, and disciplines and respective areas of specialization must be in conversation more than ever to adequately fight these groups and state actors.

Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, Ph.D., Executive Director (North America) Quilliam International