As millions of people around the world were under lockdown this year, social media became a lifeline for many. While researchers and journalists were focused on mis- and disinformation flourishing on the main social media platforms, information disruptors returned to old-school methods of sowing chaos and confusion through leaflets, billboards, emails, SMS and robocalls.
The pandemic became an opportunity for the dissemination of Covid-19 hoaxes and conspiracy theories through letterboxes straight into people’s homes. A leaflet sent out in the UK claimed that the government, the media and National Health Service representatives were attempting to “create the illusion of an unprecedented deadly pandemic” to justify “extreme lockdown measures.” People living near the Canberra Hospital in Australia received a flyer alleging that Covid-19 is being spread by the government through the water supply, and that a vaccination would contain a tracking device. Misleading claims about the virus were also printed on billboards and posters: An Indian example promoted essential oils to protect people from Covid-19. Two US billboards bore the message that “It’s NOT about a ‘VIRUS’! It’s about CONTROL” alongside an image of a crash-test dummy wearing a mask.
A billboard in India that promotes essential oils to protect people from Covid-19. Photo by Ali Abbas Ahmadi
People received emails from fraudsters pretending to be with the Ministry of Health in Colombia, alleging they had to have a mandatory Covid-19 test. Similar attempts to gain access to personal information were conducted over text messages and phone calls, such as in South Korea, which saw a rise in “smishing,” scam text messages that spread false information about Covid-19 cures and offered free masks in exchange for personal information.
The US presidential election was a greatest-hits compilation of the old-school genre, with unsolicited, misinformation-filled newspapers such as The Epoch Times sent to households across the country, unofficial “ballot boxes” erected on sidewalks, and robocalls telling people to “stay home, stay safe” on Election Day that reached millions.
As the social media platforms become more active in tackling false claims around politics and health, disinformation agents are searching for new ways to spread their messages.
Darren Linvill, an associate communications professor at Clemson University, told First Draft: “If you want to spread disinformation, you don’t go where everybody is watching. You go somewhere where nobody is looking.” Online and offline channels are not mutually exclusive to disinformation actors, who often use multiple platforms to spread untruths, Linvill said. “We frequently saw content from text messages that were screen-grabbed and shared on social media.”
For purveyors of disinformation, one advantage of offline distribution is that provenance can be obscured — physical copies don’t leave digital traces that could point people to the source. Amid worldwide protests against systemic racism this year, misleading flyers designed to undermine Black Lives Matter were circulated in the US and the UK. In both cases, it was unclear who created the leaflets. As Full Fact noted, “almost anybody can make a sticker that looks like an official one, whether they may support or oppose the goals of the group in question.”
And weeks before the US election, suspicious flyers threatening Trump supporters were sent to residents in New Hampshire. Photos of these flyers, whose origin and authenticity were unknown at the time, were uploaded and amplified by social media influencers and partisan groups. Some social media posts with high engagement falsely claimed residents in Kansas had received this letter. Kansas City police investigated the rumor and reported that no resident had received this message on paper, but it did appear on social media.
As mis- and disinformation researchers know, leaflets, billboards, emails, SMS and robocalls present logistical challenges as it is impossible to be everywhere at once. Unless these messages are flagged by the recipient, they can remain under the radar. That makes it challenging to determine how far these hoaxes are spreading and — if the authors choose to remain anonymous — who is behind them.
ProPublica senior technology journalist Jack Gillum reported on the impact of the robocall operation that reached at least 800,000 residents living in key states that may have affected voter turnout for the 2020 US election. “When it comes to robocalls, getting data for that is really difficult,” he said. “I didn’t know what data is easily available and that we can confirm that sort of stuff, so basically I had to rely on US government sourcing.”
Perhaps the most high-profile example in 2020 was the case of a fraudulent email targeting Democrat voters, sent before the presidential election. It prompted a press conference hosted by the FBI and the nation’s director of national intelligence. Experts say it was the work of Iranian hackers posing as the far-right Proud Boys group. Evie Sorrell, an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who lives in Philadelphia, was among those who received a threatening email telling her to vote for Trump.
“When I first got the email, I was like, ‘Huh, that’s really weird. Also pretty illegal,’” Sorrell said. “And then I realized that if it was real, then they might have information on me.”
Of the episode, including finding out that Iran might have been behind it, she said she felt violated. She speculated that her knowledge of internet culture and digital literacy skills might have put her at an advantage: “You could definitely be swayed to at the least not vote, or take it very seriously and vote for Trump because you’re worried for your life and safety.”
As Sorrell’s experience shows, many of these messages can feel uncomfortably intimate to the recipient, as they were sent directly to homes or mobile phone numbers. Linvill says, “They have the potential to be more persuasive, simply because they’re more personal. Because they’re sent to you directly, as opposed to messages on social media that you scroll down through and it’s one message in a list of messages.”
There are laws regulating false advertising and broadcasting materials, but these vary from country to country, as does enforcement. In January, the US government took additional steps to limit the scourge of illegal robocalls, putting the onus on phone service providers instead of consumers. But days before the US election, voters were still flooded with text messages containing damaging disinformation narratives, as The Washington Post reports. Peer-to-peer texting platforms used during elections are not as clearly covered by the anti-robocall rules, as the companies contend they are not an automated service.
As we look to 2021, it’s important to remember that misinformation is not just happening on the major social platforms. Journalists and researchers will need to devise ways to understand the complexities of scope and impact, beyond just hoping concerned citizens will report problematic emails and phone calls.