From Brexit to COVID-19: Spin doctors are using disinformation to influence us and change the world

By: Diana Neille and Richard Poplak, filmmakers, Influence

Hydroxychloroquine. Hairdryer “cures.” Bleach injections. The economy versus lives. Since the novel coronavirus began ripping through the world, a unique if unsurprising phenomenon has occurred. Billions of people have been reading, writing, talking and generating content about only one topic: the COVID-19 pandemic. There are few global events in history that have sustained the interest and attention of both the media and its audience for this long — or at this scale.

Disinformation about COVID-19

Just as unsurprisingly, what appears to be thriving more than the virus itself is the massive gyre of disinformation and propaganda swirling around it. Over the past few months, “documentaries” and articles giving credence to disgraced scientists and outlandish conspiracy theories have been winging their way across the internet, fuelling skepticism about the advice of public health officials and organizations. 

Pro-Kremlin media houses have promoted disinformation to undermine public trust in Western health-care systems, according to a leaked European Union report. Alt-right groups in the United States have published pro-Trump, anti-China videos on social media suggesting the virus was created in a lab in Wuhan. The fight to control the narrative of a longstanding trade war between China and the U.S. has found a convenient weapon in the chaos created by the COVID-19 pandemic, and politicians on both sides are feasting on the opportunities.

“As distinguishing between facts and non-facts becomes harder, distinguishing between friend and foe becomes easier,” writes Thomas Rid in his new book, Active Measures. “The line between fact and lie is a continuation of the line between peace and war, domestically as well as internationally.”

Bell Pottinger: Influence for profit

This is the kind of socio-political maelstrom the former public relations firm Bell Pottinger and its co-founder, the now-deceased spin doctor Lord Timothy Bell, would have called, “good for business.” The British multinational is the subject of our documentary, Influence. Its most notorious campaign involved stoking racial tensions in South Africa, which migrated from Twitter and Facebook to actual violence on the streets. For that particular job, the company was commissioned by a family of Indian origin, the Guptas, who had close ties to corrupt former South African president Jacob Zuma.

Timothy Bell

Photo: Lord Timothy Bell

Bell Pottinger’s clumsy campaign devolved into nationwide protests and an online war between Twitter bots and ordinary citizens in mid-2017. Ultimately, the results of its work were so repellent that the company was expelled by the London-based Public Relations and Communications Association. After 19 years building its profile as one of the world’s best-known reputation management firms, with a client list as long as it was morally questionable, Bell Pottinger went into bankruptcy within a matter of months, closing its doors for good.

The victory was sweet, but it barely put a dent in the ongoing fight against disinformation, what the CIA once described as “political warfare,” according to Rid. It’s not as if disinformation is a new phenomenon. It has been used in matters of war and geopolitics for millennia. By the 1970s, it was “fine-tuned, honed and managed … administered by a vast, well-oiled bureaucratic machine,” writes Rid. But it was in the mid-2010s that it was “reborn and reshaped by new technologies and internet culture.”

Disinformation operations are inherently “covert operations designed to achieve overt influence …  carefully hidden yet visible in plain sight,” he explains. These techniques were not pioneered by Lord Bell, but his company employed many of them to astonishing effect. “So much of power is an illusion, and so much of influence is a delusion,” Bell told us during a series of interviews conducted for Influence.

Watch a clip from the film about how it works.

Disinformation used as a tool for political gain

Despite his conservative politics (he helped former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher win three elections), Bell was not directly involved in either the Brexit campaign or the 2016 U.S. presidential race. But he supported the outcomes of the campaigns, both of which relied heavily on weaponized disinformation to manipulate messaging and influence outcomes.

“Information operations,” long used by governments and politicians for domestic and international political gain, have now become de rigueur as the weapons of choice for others as well. The outcome is the overwhelming and massively divided information landscape around COVID-19, which has been exploited by a variety of competing governments to sow chaos and stoke fear.    

“It is a massive advantage that people are scared and anxious, and are sometimes getting angry, because so much of what we see in information operations is emotional targeting,” Ben Nimmo, the director of investigations at social media analytics company Graphika, told us during a recent interview. Nimmo specializes in analyzing online disinformation, influence and intimidation operations around the world. “When people are confused and scared, they’re much easier to manipulate, so in a situation like this, the increased emotion translates into increased risk.”

However, Nimmo notes some important and encouraging differences between the disinformation campaigns surrounding COVID-19 and those of the 2016 Brexit and Trump campaigns.

The battle against disinformation has (finally) begun

“One of the reasons we know so much about these operations now is they keep on getting caught and taken down. There’s a whole community of analysts, platform security teams and law enforcement [organizations] who hunt them. That wasn’t the case in 2016,” said Nimmo. “There was a level of ignorance and complacency back then. That is largely gone.”

Online platforms such as Facebook — while still inundated by so-called “bad actors” who use the company’s vast networks to spread disinformation — have begun to show a willingness to cooperate with research groups and analysts in tracking and learning about these activities, expending resources on counteracting them. In 2019, Facebook said it took down more than 50 different information operations worldwide, from countries including Russia, Iran, China and Myanmar, while Twitter reported that it took down thousands of accounts from China, Saudi Arabia and Spain, among others.

“Now, at least we can say there’s a battle going on,” Nimmo said. “Four years ago, there was no battle — the bad guys just walked in.”

As with every communication revolution in history, from the printing press to the telegraph to the television, history suggests that the use of the internet and social media as tools for both social good and outright manipulation will eventually settle into something more moderate once properly regulated. But we aren’t quite there yet. The lesson that Bell Pottinger teaches us is that the only way to survive this onslaught is with constant vigilance.

There’s an old truism in the tech industry: “If it’s free, then you’re probably the product.” And while it doesn’t apply to everything, it certainly applies to information. All the trillions of pieces of COVID-19 information spread by malevolent actors have but one goal: to turn average citizens into weapons of war. We cannot allow ourselves to afford them the pleasure.

Watch Influence.

Produced with additional funding from: