COVID-19 Pandemic: Researchers Take on Threats, Misinformation

ATLANTA— On every continent, rapid changes are taking place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. One ancillary impact of the outbreak is the growing threat from extremist groups. While leaders across the globe race to address the outbreak, experts say terror groups and others are capitalizing on the crisis.

A recent Department of Homeland Security memo warned that violent extremists could try to take advantage of the outbreak by carrying out attacks against the U.S. Researchers at Georgia State’s Transcultural Violence (TCV) initiative are taking a close look at those growing threats and how Americans are reacting.

Author, Professor, and member of the Evidenced Based Cyber-security Research Group Dr. Mia Bloom has been watching closely how some terrorist and extremist groups are exploiting the pandemic.

“Extremist groups may take credit for events for which they are not responsible. Their instinct to capitalize on people’s misery and suffering is consistent across the ideological spectrum, from right-wing extremists to violent jihadists” says Bloom.

At the outset of the pandemic Bloom wrote a piece published in Just Security about the threat from ISIS regaining strength during the outbreak. Drawing on her Minerva-funded research “Documenting the Virtual Caliphate,” she says groups are using misinformation to sow the seeds of distrust and create chaos.

She cites examples including recent accusations by ISIS that Western governments were ignoring citizens’ health instead of ensuring the provision of health facilities and medical supplies, and the several Jihadi groups like ISIS, the Taliban and Al Shabaab claim that COVID-19 was ‘sent by Allah because of the disobedience and sins of mankind.’

Bloom has briefed the Anti-Defamation League, the United Nations, the US Department of Homeland Security and the Joint Intelligence Committee for the State Department on how COVID-19 will impact US national and international security.

The Department of Homeland Security also says white supremacist extremists are advocating for violence against a range of targets, including diverse neighborhoods and even mosques and synagogues.

Communication Professor Dr. Dror Walter has published new research in the American Journal of Public Health about misinformation efforts over the vaccine debate during the 2016 presidential election cycle. He sees a connection with current efforts to confuse the public sentiment and knowledge over the coronavirus.

Dr. Walter says these types of misinformation campaigns could have deadly results and lead some people to grow more distrustful of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.

“Historically, opinions regarding vaccines were not connected to one political party or the other, but recent polls show a rise in anti-vaccination attitudes among conservatives, says Walter. “This increase could result in an increase in the number of conservatives who shape their attitudes towards vaccines based not on science but political disposition. Such a phenomenon, especially if further fueled by other sources of misinformation, could increase vaccination hesitancy, and endanger American communities.”

The collaboration with University at Buffalo and the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed more than 2 million tweets between 2015 and 2017 and found a concerted effort by Russian trolls to use the issue of vaccine safety to sow discord in the U.S. political system and to influence the American political system.

“This phenomenon, even if small in magnitude this time around, points to the possibility that health topics, such as the current COVID-19 epidemic, will be harnessed by malicious fake accounts hoping to polarize and sow discord among Americans in the future,” says Walter.

Communication professor Dr. Anthony Lemieux and Founding Co-Director of the Atlanta Global Studies Center says when faced with threats and uncertainty people may not properly prepare and that reaction has consequences that continue now several months into the pandemic.

Lemieux was recently featured in a piece that addressed a phenomenon many people are dealing with known as ‘quarantine fatigue.’

“We are now starting to see more pictures of people out and about, not practicing distancing, or wearing masks or face coverings,” says Lemieux.” This fuels normative perceptions and reductions in perceived vulnerability that may lead people to think that the stay at home guidance was an overreach and overreaction, and that ‘nobody is really taking it that seriously anyway.’  Meanwhile, the death toll rises, and we still don’t have a vaccine or demonstrably effective treatment.”

As researchers in labs in the U.S. and beyond race to stem the growing threat, researchers working in the social and behavioral sciences are uncovering important insights on how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting society in all walks of life.

“It’s critical for us to be able to pivot our research focus to address situations like the one we are facing right now both to generate research that has real-world implications and teach GSU students about a changing reality in our world today,” says Bloom.