By Patrick Norén
The COVID-19 pandemic was by far the most consequential global CBRN event of modern times, and it was one where mis- and disinformation thrived. CBNW Magazine Editor Patrick Norén assesses the risk of hostile actors increasingly weaponizing CBRN disinformation to achieve ulterior motives, and argues for better CBRN education among the lay public.
Disinformation is not a new phenomenon. In the mid-1700s during the Jacobite rebellion in Great Britain, newspaper printers who wanted to see the Stuart family regain the British throne printed false stories claiming that King George II was ill in an attempt to destabilize the government.
During World War II, Operation Mincemeat saw British intelligence use the body of a deceased tramp to stage an elaborate deception that successfully convinced the Nazis that Allied forces would invade Crete and Sardinia rather than Sicily, a pivotal moment in the course of the war.
Whether used for noble or nefarious purposes, the deliberate production and employment of false information with the intention to mislead has become a defining feature of modern times, described by some as being a “post-truth” era. Cambridge Dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to a situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts”.
That CBRN incidents have in the past and doubtless will continue to fall victim to disinformation in the future is unfortunate but not surprising. Whether it be catastrophic nuclear accidents like Chernobyl, prehistoric anthrax spawning from thawing Siberian permafrost, global pandemics such as COVID-19, or nerve agent attacks on the streets of Salisbury, CBRN incidents are extremely complicated events whose remediation requires a very high degree of specialist knowledge. Simultaneously, however, they capture the lay public’s imagination in a way that other disasters cannot match.
While the reasons for why CBRN events are often the source of such public excitement can be debated, the disparity between the knowledge of CBRN remediation specialists and the knowledge of the emotionally invested but ultimately uninformed layperson creates an informational vacuum in a CBRN-conscious society ripe to be filled with disinformation.
Characteristics of Disinformation
Unlike the two historical examples given above, disinformation in the 21st century is not necessarily designed to convince the target to believe the deliberately misleading narrative and act accordingly. Arguably the most prolific state producer and employer of disinformation nowadays, Russia, has perfected an art of disinformation that does not seek to convince anyone of anything per se, but rather to disengage the target from the truth, paralyze their objective decision-making capabilities, and prevent them from taking the most appropriate action.
In other words, disinformation in the 21st century is largely characterized by its desire to demobilize and neutralize the target by dragging the truth into an interminable grey area where, in the words of journalist Peter Pomerantsev, “nothing is true and everything is possible”. Indeed, the RAND Corporation has identified the four distinctive features of Russian propaganda as being high-volume and multi-channel, rapid, continuous and repetitive, lacking commitment to objective reality, and, crucially, lacking commitment to consistency. The huge amounts of Russian disinformation about its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is only one ongoing campaign that displays these four distinctive features.
The consequence of such disinformation strategies is a nation in which attempts by the state to counter an external threat are frustrated by a population that mistrusts, misevaluates, or misconstrues the nature of that threat, and subsequently does not take – or sometimes even actively opposes – the actions required to neutralize that threat. This inaction is then exploited by hostile actors who instrumentalize this external threat to achieve ulterior motives.
Sometimes, the hostile actor will complicate the whole nexus by themselves creating an artificial threat and subsequently taking “active measures” to demobilize the target population and prevent them from taking the most appropriate action to counter the threat or the hostile actor directly, thereby achieving ulterior motives. Russia is particularly good at this.
COVID-19: A Case Study in CBRN Disinformation
By far the most consequential CBRN event that humanity has faced in the past century was the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, a deadly virus that tore across the world killing tens of thousands every day and bringing entire countries to a standstill was the stuff of nightmares. Millions of people experienced paralyzing convulsions of fear as a live-or-die uncertainty was the only thing that was certain.
COVID-19 provided the perfect conditions for disinformation to spread like wildfire. There was an enormous disparity between the knowledge possessed by epidemiologists unable to provide immediate answers, and the knowledge possessed by the lay public who wanted them. This disparity created an informational vacuum that was filled by disinformation and conspiracy theories, with some being supported by nefarious actors.
The pandemic captured the imagination of the public in a way that only the most outlandish Hollywood blockbusters could, and millions of people around the world unwittingly internalized false and misleading information in an attempt to fill this vacuum that scientists were initially unable to fill.
The sheer number of alternative conspiracies and theories as to the origins and nature of COVID-19 gives credence to the theory that contemporary disinformation does not seek to convince anyone of one particular narrative, but rather to flood the information space, muddy the waters, and make the search for the truth like looking for a needle in a haystack.
One of the most widespread conspiracies was that 5G was responsible for spreading COVID-19, which is scientifically impossible. Biological particles cannot travel using the electromagnetic spectrum as some kind of epidemiological highway. Nevertheless, this nonsensical theory emerged in a vacuum of uncertainty as to how COVID-19 spread, with research focusing on whether the virus was an airborne or contact disease.
Even before the pandemic Russia had been sowing disinformation about 5G, claiming that it caused infertility, cancer, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and others. Why? To frustrate geopolitical rivals’ adoption of the latest communication technologies, harming their economies, and giving the Kremlin a strategic advantage.
So, when COVID-19 hit, the foundations had already been laid for the 5G conspiracy to adopt a new facet, namely that it could transmit viruses. While there is little evidence of Russian propaganda pushing the 5G narrative in the context of COVID-19, what has been very well documented is Russian disinformation about the nature of the most appropriate action to combat COVID-19, namely, vaccines.
The amount of disinformation that Russia produced to undermine trust in COVID-19 vaccines is enormous. Why? To frustrate rivals’ efforts to protect themselves against the virus, perpetuating the crisis in their countries, and giving the Kremlin a strategic advantage. However, only a few minutes of research can reveal how scattershot and contradictory the Kremlin’s disinformation vis-a-vis vaccines was.
For example, on April 12, 2020, a Kremlin-sponsored narrative emerged alleging that NATO soldiers had already been vaccinated against COVID-19. Then, on August 28, 2020, only a few months later, a contradictory narrative emerged alleging that Europe – with 29 NATO members – was desperate for a vaccine, and was considering asking Russia for its Sputnik V vaccine. The Kremlin’s disinformation strategy over vaccines did backfire, however, as uptake of Sputnik V in Russia remained stubbornly low due to disinformation-induced vaccine hesitancy.
That said, Russia was not alone in propagating COVID-19 disinformation to undermine western attempts to combat it. China famously manufactured a narrative that U.S. soldiers had imported the virus during the Army Games in Wuhan, potentially as a reputational damage-limitation exercise in response to what U.S. President Donald Trump had labelled the “China virus”, or to theories that the virus had originated in a Chinese government lab.
The Future of CBRN Disinformation, and How to Combat it
Conspiracy theories and CBRN incidents have existed for centuries and have at times also coincided, often when the incident is biological in nature. After all, infectious diseases have existed for millennia, nuclear power plants have not. During the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century, Jews were accused of poisoning wells. During a cholera epidemic in Britain in the 19th century, doctors were accused of fabricating the disease to harvest body parts.
A distinction must however be drawn between conspiracy and misinformation on the one hand, and outright disinformation on the other. Conspiracies may develop naturally without input from an external actor. Disinformation constitutes the deliberate production and employment of false information by an external actor to mislead, often to achieve ulterior motives.
Certain facts are clear. The risk of CBRN incidents of all types is increasing, but, thankfully, so is scientific knowledge on how to prepare for and remediate such incidents. And yet, public knowledge of even the basics of CBRN preparedness and response is severely lacking, as evidenced by COVID-19. And, if Hollywood is where the lay public obtains the majority of their CBRN education, their instinctive response to a genuine CBRN event could be any combination of inadequate, disproportionate, or dangerous.
What is also clear is that hostile actors will seek to take advantage of the disparity between scientific and lay public knowledge of CBRN issues, and combine this with the celebrity of a CBRN event to create an atmosphere in which disinformation can thrive.
Peaceful governments worldwide must endeavor to increase lay public knowledge of CBRN issues to reduce this informational vacuum between scientists and the lay public, thereby reducing disinformation’s access points in any given society. This must be done in a way that is calm, considered, comprehensive, and sensitive to the inevitable fact that hostile actors will also seek to spread disinformation about CBRN education just as much as CBRN incidents themselves.
Patrick Norén is the Editor of CBNW Magazine. He has an MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies from Leiden University, and a BA in Modern Languages and Cultures (German and Russian) from Durham University. He was formerly the Deputy Editor of commonspace.eu at LINKS Europe, and has also written articles for The Caspian Post.