How fake news has exploited COVID-19

Since the beginning of the year we’ve seen a surge in fake news exploiting public fear and uncertainty  around the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This includes both misinformation (false information shared by misinformed or misguided individuals) and disinformation (false information shared with the explicit intention to deliberately mislead its audience). As lockdown protocols begin to ease in the UK and overseas, COVID-19 is expected to remain a topic ripe for exploitation.

Unlike local or regional events, such as political elections, that have previously been fake news targets, there is a global audience looking for information on the COVID-19 pandemic. And, criminals have been quick to exploit the heightened emotions that come with the word pandemic. The spread of fake news, dubbed an “infodemic” by the head of the World Health Organisation1, is particularly concerning given this is a global health crisis, and the spread of fake data could have a direct impact on people’s wellbeing. Such campaigns can also take advantage of the fact that there is fertile ground for spreading fake news, given the worldwide disruption  and the number of unknowns that remain around how best to control and treat COVID-19.

Misinformation

On one hand, we have seen misinformation being shared online in the form of misleading advice or statistics, spread by perhaps well-meaning but ill-informed individuals. It could be governments releasing skewed data, perhaps to shield their citizens from the true extent of the pandemic’s impact2– or perhaps because no reliable data is available. There has undoubtedly been a proliferation of fake news stories, driven in large part by the public itself. False information circulating online has included claims around potential cures for COVID-19, origins of the outbreak, and authorities’ responses to the pandemic3. Multiple social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have sought to remove misleading content4.

In the UK for example, ill-informed conspiracy theories linking the rollout of 5G technology to the spread of the pandemic have escalated to the extent that telecommunications infrastructure is reported to have been attacked, and the UK government went so far as to issue a rebuttal of these fake claims.

Disinformation 

On the other hand, we are seeing apparently intentional malicious disinformation aimed at disrupting public order or manipulating an agenda, capitalising on recent events. This is made more dangerous due to the speed at which fake news spreads during a crisis, on social media or messaging platforms, resulting in it reaching greater numbers of people before it can be disputed or countered. However, when discussing disinformation, it is also important to bear in mind that pro-government media content does not necessarily indicate a systemic, coordinated campaign to subvert a narrative. 

Some of this type of disinformation activity to date has included:

  • pro-government media outlets broadcasting conspiracy-themed content aimed at domestic and foreign audiences, notably around the origin of the outbreak5
  • the use of bot accounts to spread false information about the pandemic6; and,
  • the use of COVID-19 as a theme in phishing campaigns, to compromise victims and infiltrate organisations7.

Threats remain

While COVID-19 will likely continue to impact businesses for many months, in the meantime other cyber threats have not dissipated.  It is therefore important to maintain visibility of your entire threat landscape, as for many cyber criminals or threat actors, it has largely been business as usual. We have even seen them releasing new tools and widening their targeting across the period. 

The PwC Threat Intelligence team is publishing a variety of COVID-19 related analysis alongside our regular threat intelligence reporting. If you would like to discuss any of the topics covered here in more detail, please contact us here.

1 ‘COVID–19 has intensified concerns about misinformation. Here's what our past research says about these issues, Reuters Institute, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/risj-review/covid-19-has-intensified-concerns-about-misinformation-heres-what-our-past-research (16th March 2020)

2 ‘North Korea is secretly asking for coronavirus aid from other countries while publicly denying that it has any cases’, Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-north-korea-secretly-solicits-aid-publicly-denies-infections-report-2020-3?r=US&IR=T (26th March 2020)

3 ‘COVID-19 Misinformation’, Poynter, https://www.poynter.org/ifcn-covid-19-misinformation/

4 'How Coronavirus Disinformation Gets Past Social Media Moderators', Bellingcat, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2020/04/03/how-coronavirus-disinformation-gets-past-social-media-moderators/ (3rd April 2020) 

5 ‘Iranian, Russian, Chinese Media Push COVID-19 ‘Bioweapon’ Conspiracies’, Defense One, https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2020/03/iran-and-russian-media-push-bioweapon-conspiracies-amid-covid19-outbreak/163669/ (10th March 2020)

6 ‘Researchers: Nearly Half Of Accounts Tweeting About Coronavirus Are Likely Bots’, NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/05/20/859814085/researchers-nearly-half-of-accounts-tweeting-about-coronavirus-are-likely-bots?t=1591784833988 (20th May 2020)

7 ‘How to manage the impact of COVID-19 on cyber security’, PwC UK, https://www.pwc.co.uk/issues/crisis-and-resilience/covid-19/how-to-manage-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-cyber-security.html (24th March 2020)

 

Contact us

Kris  McConkey

Kris McConkey

Cyber Threat Operations Lead Partner, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7725 707360

Louise Taggart

Threat Intelligence Manager, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7212 1912

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