If you are a manager at the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia, and see the fear COVID-19 has struck in Americans, what are your media plans in the coming months?
U.S. Intelligence agencies have said the Internet Research Agency, known as a “troll” farm to many, was at the center of social media messaging that sowed disinformation and division in the 2016 presidential election. And its doing the same in 2020.
First, the not-so-obvious: Tell people things are getting much better. That U.S. officials are doing the right things. Just sit back, and do nothing. Maybe keep the 6-foot social-distancing thing going.
Then do some reverse messaging: Everything sucks, things are going to get worse. The virus will last through the end of the year and into next, while we wait for a vaccine. And during that wait, there is a reasonable chance of getting the virus.
Oh, and make sure those messages you use the words “ethical,” “honest” and “fact-checked.”
And then go further; talk about the 2020 presidential election. For Trump? For Biden? Either one, that’s OK. Maybe the message will be to stay home on Election Day, otherwise you’ll catch something at the polling booth.
Even with that fear, it will need to be sophisticated. U.S citizens are still on high alert when it comes to social media, not just because of the pandemic, but because they are suspicious of any media messages, good, bad or indifferent.
Before COVID-19, many reports said bad actors on social media were hard at work to manipulate the outcome of the 2020 election.
Will they be getting a bit of help?
Consider: The Justice Department recently dropped its criminal prosecution of Russian companies accused of interfering with the 2016 U.S. election. The DOJ said there was "a risk of exposure of law enforcement's tools and techniques.” So it moved to dismiss the prosecution of two Russian firms.
Previously, former DOJ special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 individual Russians named in an indictment. But it doesn't matter much now. None are in custody.
Yet, in the 2016 presidential election, Facebook said Russian propaganda reached as many as 126 million people. That is a little more than half of all 330 million Americans.
Separately, and perhaps ominously, estimates say the same number -- about half of all Americans -- could be infected with COVID-19 in the near-term.
All to say more bad actors will continue to undermine America — while Americans are preoccupied in the near-term with pressing life, health, and death concerns.