At the Stanford Internet Observatory our mission is to study the misuse of the internet to cause harm, and to help create policy and technical mitigations to those harms. Over the past year, researchers at SIO have investigated disinformation from a variety of actors: governments, spammers, mercenaries, and domestic groups. We’ve studied covert operation tactics, such as social media manipulation campaigns, as well as overt propaganda strategies from state media leveraging technology for public diplomacy. In our work we have demonstrated that online actors all have their own topics, motivations and techniques. This diversity has often impeded comparative analysis on questions such as how the capabilities of major state actors differ.
The global COVID-19 crisis has significantly shifted the landscape for mis- and disinformation as the pandemic has become the primary concern of almost every nation on the planet. This has perhaps never happened before; few topics have commanded and sustained attention at a global level simultaneously, or provided such a wealth of opportunities for governments, economically motivated actors, and domestic activists alike to spread malign narratives in service to their interests. In response, the Stanford Internet Observatory is launching the Virality Project, a global study aimed at understanding the disinformation dynamics specific to the COVID-19 crisis.
We have a unique opportunity to address several outstanding research questions:
- Tactics: How do governments leverage the full scope of media and social media capabilities - overt and covert - to spread particular narratives? What can we learn about state information capabilities from this crisis?
- Priorities: What do government information operations tell us about their geopolitical priorities?
- Actors: What role do groups that are partially aligned or not aligned with governments, such as groups opposed to vaccination, play in these information operations? To what extent do these groups coordinate?
- Interaction between government narratives and local communities: What is the relationship between government narratives, user-generated content, participatory dissemination, and mass media?
Over the next several months, you will see posts by our research teams exploring the information environment and actions of seven states as they experience and combat COVID-19: the United States, Russia, the People’s Republic of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Brazil. Our work will focus on the narratives these states deploy for domestic and foreign audiences, as well as the activities of powerful non-state groups acting independently for their own financial and political benefit. We will use similar methodologies in each country to provide both qualitative and quantitative views into COVID-19-related narratives, conflicts and influence operations in each of these countries. Our goal is to help inform the global public debate on the proper role of government and private actors in our information ecosystem.
This work is being funded by pre-existing grants by Craig Newmark Philanthropies and the Hewlett Foundation. Funding bodies interested in supporting this work are encouraged to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.