Anti-vaxxers & Conspiracies: Monitoring the Spread of Covid-19-related Disinformation


This is a transcript of the first episode of the Intelligence Podcast: OSINT and its application, a podcast about the various broad applications of open-source intelligence. Visit our podcast page to find out more.

Anne-Lynn Dudenhöfer, Intel Desk Lead at HENSOLDT Analytics, spoke with Shayan Sardarizadeh, BBC Monitoring Journalist and disinformation expert, about some of the ever-evolving disinformation campaigns surrounding Covid-19 and the vaccination mandates. They also discuss the potential next battleground that conspiracy theorists could choose after the topic of the pandemic has been exhausted.

Some sentences were shortened and edited for clarity.

Q: Today my guest is Shayan Sardarizadeh, who is a disinformation journalist with BBC Monitoring. BBC Monitoring is a department within the BBC, which specializes in open-source media monitoring on the topics of geopolitics and security. BBC Monitoring has a disinformation team, which works more widely with the rest of the BBC to investigate disinformation in particular. Welcome, Shayan!

Shayan Sardarizadeh: Thank you, it’s my pleasure being here.

Let’s dive right in. Could you provide some information about your professional background and your role with BBC Monitoring?

I’m a journalist with BBC Monitoring investigating disinformation, conspiracy theories, cults, and the overlap with extremism.

I started working for the BBC in 2013 and back then I joined the monitoring service as a journalist for their team covering Iran as I’m Iranian. I was born and raised in Iran; I worked as a journalist in Iran. Then in my early 20s, I moved to the UK, and I got a Master’s degree in Computers and IT, to which my dad, himself a lifelong journalist, told me, “Whatever you do with your career, never become a journalist”.

But I started working part-time as a journalist when I was 17. On the advice of my father, I tried to find a better career, a little bit more prestigious, with more money. However, I quickly realized that I enjoyed journalism. I don’t have any specific talents in any other field despite all the degrees and everything, so I got back to journalism.

When I moved to the UK, I joined the BBC. For five or six years, I covered Iran and the Middle East. Then I moved to verification – the BBC has a verification team called UGC, user-generated content. I worked there for about a year, and this was right at the time when the world was going a little bit insane. There were terrorist attacks in France and in the UK. We had the US election campaign, so verification was actually quite significant back then. Then it made me realize how important it is, as a journalist in the modern age, to be able to use information that is available on the internet to figure out what’s true and what’s not.

Immediately after the US election the world basically realized the problem of disinformation and conspiracy theories. We had thought it was not actually that much of an issue: a small number of people thought the earth was flat and the moon landing didn’t happen. We realized that that’s not all that conspiracy theories are and how they can influence people. We realized that in the digital world on online platforms people can start believing in all sorts of bizarre things and then, based on those beliefs, go out in the real world and do something which could be harmful.

So the BBC set up a team specifically focused on online disinformation and conspiracy theories. From verification I joined that team, it was like a natural progression. It’s a full-time job and we sometimes don’t have enough time to look at everything and anything. Obviously, I don’t need to tell you with the last two years with COVID-19, it’s been overwhelming. COVID has basically caused the biggest rise in online disinformation and conspiracy theories in my lifetime, I think.

Generally speaking, what does your day-to-day as a BBC Monitoring journalist look like? Do you work exclusively with open-source information, or do you also utilize other methods of investigation?

In the morning at 10:30, we have an editorial meeting, where all the journalists in the disinformation unit and our editors go through the stories that we’ve spotted. Either from the day in the UK and in Europe and in other parts of the world or from the night before in North America or Latin America.

Then we decide which stories we should and we shouldn’t cover. I don’t need to tell you that the world of disinformation and conspiracy theories includes some really nasty extreme elements. Some of which are very fringe so we always have to be careful about what we do cover and what we don’t cover. As a major news platform, we don’t want to amplify everything and anything. Just because we’re seeing it, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily important. So the threshold for us always is, is it reaching a large enough audience to justify a platform like the BBC covering it? And is it actually doing some real-world harm?

In some cases there are some conspiracies and narratives that are not that big but, despite being small they’re still doing quite a lot of harm. We always look at the size and whether there is some level of real-world harm involved. In which case, the editors then decide whether we should cover something.

When it comes to measuring how big a narrative is in conspiratorial circles that we monitor… That’s completely down to open-source techniques for us. We use a variety of online tools. We have experience in how we can gauge something that is going viral in either mainstream platforms or fringe platforms but then from there going on to major platforms. We can then gauge whether it is reaching a few thousand people, tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands or millions.

Essentially you use open-source information but then you would also use human intelligence if you were to, for example, send an email.

Absolutely, 100%. We use all of these tried and tested ways in which journalists gather information. Every time we want to verify something it’s necessary, it’s essential that we contact whoever we think is the source. Whether they do respond to us or not, that’s another matter. But we have to obviously give them the right to reply, we have to contact them if we think they deserve to have their say in our story.

From going online on some bizarre corners of the internet and getting information about a company or a person, all the way to, “Okay, can we send this institution an email or can we phone them?”. All those things we use depend on obviously the nature of the investigation.

When it comes to measuring how big a narrative is in conspiratorial circles that we monitor… That's completely down to open-source techniques for us. We use a variety of online tools. We have experience in how we can gauge something that is going viral in either mainstream platforms or fringe platforms but then from there going on to major platforms. We can then gauge whether it is reaching a few thousand people, tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands or millions.

How would you define disinformation and how can open-source intelligence facilitate the detection of disinformation?

I would say, you read different definitions for it but I think the one that is accepted by most people, who do this job, is “disinformation is sharing any form of information with the deliberate intent to cause harm or for political or financial gain”.

And that is different from misinformation in the sense that when it comes to what people categorize as misinformation, the intent is a little bit different.  You may not necessarily want to cause some kind of real-world harm or you’re not necessarily gaining politically or financially from the piece of information that you’re putting out there. It’s just you believe that, either you believe that it’s true or you just do it because for whatever reason. Whereas disinformation is more that there’s some kind of intent behind it.

Obviously, we cover both of them but there’s usually more emphasis given to disinformation because it is assumed that there’s some kind of malicious intent behind it.

As for open-source intelligence, it’s really like bread and butter of this job. Open-source intelligence and open-source investigations are their own field and it’s an enormous world. I know plenty of investigators online that do incredible things. I would say I’ve been using open-source techniques for around five years now. There are some people, who do stuff out on the internet that you and I probably don’t know what their real names are, but we see that work and we go, “Wow!”. It blows your mind. I would say I’m not in any sense on their level, but I do use open-source techniques. And I think all the journalists, who do this job or reporters or researchers or academics, who do this job inevitably have to use open-source information. The reason for that is we are not dealing with something that is easily accessible in the public domain. If you’re a journalist covering say a group of politicians or you’re covering a war or you’re covering some kind of international dispute, you have some sources that are easily accessible to you. For example, established institutions, politicians, governments, and ministries. All those sources can help understand what’s going on, they can leak some information to you.

The world of extremism and disinformation is completely different. We’re talking about a group of people that are first of all fringe. When I say fringe, I mean in a sense of the entire population of the world.  I know some disinformation campaigns and some disinformation narratives actually reach millions and millions of people. But the people who are actually invested in this and spend their time creating these pieces of information and then distributing them to the rest of the world… There are not that many and most importantly they’re incredibly hostile to us because they think we’re part of the established institutions that are involved in some sort of conspiracy to do harm. Such as, when it comes to COVID they think journalists, academics, and researchers are all basically part of this global conspiracy to infect the entire population of the world with this thing that happens to be a hoax. And also then to vaccinate the entire population and somehow depopulate the earth. They are not going cooperate with us, they’re not going to help us in gathering information so it’s a little bit different to traditional journalism in that sense.

What we’ve got in order to do an investigation is basically open-source techniques. We know exactly where these people and all these groups that share these pieces of information are. We follow them, we monitor the activities but then when it comes to something that reaches millions of people in order to figure out exactly who was behind a specific narrative, where it came from… Is it just some individuals, or is it just some groups of individuals? Is there potentially some state-sponsored activity behind it? All of those things. In order to figure out those pieces of information, we need open-source techniques in order to do the investigation.

The starting point could be, “Okay, we have to use some available information online to figure out what this presumed company that’s been set up in this part of the world is”. Is it a real company? Does it exist? Who’s behind this particular group that’s popped up on Facebook and has 100 000 people? Who are the admins? Where are they based? What kind of people are behind that particular group? Where is the information from that group that has around 100 000 members? Where else is the information going? Are they actually influential?

Just to clarify, we’re not in favour of censorship, we’re journalists and we rely on free speech to do our jobs. I come from a country where working as a journalist is a nightmare exactly because there is no free speech. So I  value free speech and I don’t want people to censor it.  At the same time, sometimes there are some narratives that veer into the area of causing real-world harm. Then we would just try to shine a light on it and say that this is happening.

Since you mentioned COVID-19 and the conspiracy theories surrounding that topic, let’s discuss some of these ever-evolving disinformation campaigns about COVID-19 and the vaccination mandates. As we’re all aware by now, anti-vaccine movements have hardened across Europe in recent months and are frequently accompanied by disinformation or fake news campaigns. Would you agree with a rather popular sentiment that COVID-19 conspiracy theorists can be categorized into political groups, such as right, left or centre? And if so,  what common traits and ideas do they share?

That is actually a really good but difficult question to answer. Because, having done this job for four or five years now, I would tell you that seeing the world of conspiracy theories and extremism through the traditional established framework of left, right, and centre, doesn’t necessarily work for the world of conspiracy theories.

First and foremost, these people are committed to doing this and sharing this information, are actually going out in the world and doing something about it, including as you mentioned all of these violent protests that we’ve seen across Europe and in other parts of the world. They are anti-establishment so it doesn’t matter whether there’s a right-wing government or there’s a left-wing government, or a centrist government. They hate every established institution, and they think that these institutions share some degree of responsibility for what has now become a grand conspiracy in their minds.

Basically, it just started with “COVID is a hoax” and then gradually it went into the area of “Okay, COVID is real but these lockdowns are not”. Obviously, most of us are not in lockdowns anymore thankfully but two years ago most of the world was in lockdown. Initially, there was opposition to lockdowns and again that was a problem because for us there are some legitimate reasons to be against lockdowns; you can say that a government can use other tools to stop the spread of infections. Or that lockdowns cause mental health issues. That’s all fine.

It was a group of people who were so committed to being against lockdown in the sense that they thought lockdowns and COVID as a whole were basically some kinds of a plot. And then we started seeing names coming in – from George Soros to Bill Gates – to the usual favourites of conspiracy theories. The Rockefellers, the Rothschilds, the freemasons, you just use all of that. The World Economic Forum apparently was kind of involved in it and all the major governments – from the Chinese government to the American government to the British government, the German government, you name it. They’re also all part of this mass conspiracy and then, as you say when the vaccinations began…Well, that was like, it went into overdrive but what happened was, despite the fact the anti-vax movement globally – relatively, what has always been a fringe movement – the internet, particularly major platforms, gave the anti-vax movement the opportunity to spread completely false narratives to millions and millions, probably billions of people around the world. And we know for a fact, that this caused some vaccine hesitancy in some parts of the world.

Despite the fact that the British anti-vax movement is incredibly prolific online and very loud, and also has been one of the most active offline as well – basically on a weekly basis we’ve had active protests here – but it hasn’t really penetrated the minds of the population at large here in the UK.

For instance, we have a really high vaccination uptake rate, nearly 90 per cent of our population age 12 or over has had one dose of vaccine. Nearly 80 per cent is fully vaccinated.  I think it’s pretty much the same in Austria if I’m not mistaken.

In some countries, the conspiracy theories have had an impact, in some other countries they haven’t. And people, even though the narratives go online and reach a huge percentage of people, in some cases people have just completely ignored them.

But it still has been a problem because it’s not just about the online narratives. We’ve also seen all sorts of violent protests across the world. In some cases, we’ve seen people trying to go into vaccination centres, trying to shut down vaccination centres, confronting staff, confronting police. We’ve seen people go into hospitals. We also had some links to terrorism in Germany. We know that there was a family that they were so opposed to vaccinations and vaccine mandates that they became convinced the state was coming for them and they were going to lose their jobs. A family of five. The father killed himself, his wife and three children.

It’s not just people, who go, “Okay, this is just a bunch of you bizarre people saying stupid things online that’s”, not the case.  The COVID pandemic, as I said earlier, in my lifetime I’ve never seen anything like it in terms of the spread of conspiracies and online disinformation and misinformation. It’s been mental.

The next question obviously would be, where it’s going to go from here given, thankfully, we are slowly but surely coming out of this pandemic thanks to vaccinations.

In some countries, the conspiracy theories have had an impact, in some other countries they haven't. And people, even though the narratives go online and reach a huge percentage of people, in some cases people have just completely ignored them.

Just because you mentioned Germany, let’s take that as an example. In Germany, the anti-vax or anti-restriction movements let’s call them that, have recently taken the form of so-called Monday evening freedom walks. And in the German federal state of Saxony, which I think has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Germany. These “Monday Evening Freedom Walks” appear to be backed up by a right-wing extremist group called the Free Saxons. I think they were categorized as extremists last year and they appear to be using these protests as a way to spread their ideology and reach out to more people. Would you describe the situation in the UK as similar in terms of the overlap of extremism and the anti-vax movement? As in extremist groups using the pandemic and the government-imposed restrictions as an opportunity to reach out to more people?

Yeah, definitely.  It’s good that you mentioned Germany because Germany is actually a really fascinating case.

Germany has been integral to the global COVID-19 conspiracy movement and that’s something that actually caused a surprise. We didn’t expect it. We know some countries that are very influential when it comes to the world of conspiracies. America, the UK, Brazil, and India. But we didn’t expect Germany to be there among them. But from the very beginning, Germany was one of the countries that were very essential to giving these online voices, which were really fragmented, purpose first of all and then organizing what they wanted to be mass protests globally.

For example, according to Statista in 2020 80 per cent of Germans asked friends or relatives for information and 70 per cent searched the internet for information. Only 50 per cent watched reports on television. Now you can obviously see how the first two ways of gathering information, namely, to ask friends and family or to search the vast space of the internet, maybe an issue in terms of the spread of disinformation.

We noticed a movement on Facebook and Telegram, which called itself Worldwide Protests. Initially, it was Worldwide Protests Against Lockdowns and then it became Worldwide Protests Against COVID Vaccinations. It was basically organizing rallies all around the world, from towns and cities in the UK to America, to Germany, to the Netherlands, to France, to Belgium, to Hungary. Even in the Middle East, Turkey, South Korea, and Japan.

It was organizing rallies and basically putting out these dates. And then the date would come and then we would see in many of those locations some people would turn up. Obviously, there were varying degrees of people that turned up in parts of America, in the UK, in Germany, in France, and there would be relatively big numbers in Brazil. But what was interesting was: something that had come out of nowhere and was just putting up dates setting up protests against lockdowns or vaccinations or whatever, was being seen and people were turning up. Then it turned out that the people behind that group were just a group of a few individuals in a German town.

It was interesting because I am pretty sure many of the people who were turning up to these protests around the world had no idea what this group was and who was behind it. And they were basically just a group of individuals in Germany. What mattered to them was that somebody was doing something to bring these voices together and they were turning out in some cases big numbers.

Germany was also fascinating because of QAnon. I spend quite a lot of my time also specifically looking into the QAnon conspiracy, which quite a lot of people think is now over, but it isn’t. So QAnon… From October 2017 when it began on 4chan all the way to, I would say, just before the pandemic, it saw enormous growth, but it was mostly confined to America. Because the entire narrative, the entire story was focused on US politics, on President Trump and the democrats. It had not that many people. Other conspiracies around the world were interested in it but there wasn’t much in it for them to turn into actual QAnon followers or activists. It was COVID.

For example, when COVID hit and the world shut down in March, April 2020, suddenly all of these QAnon circles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Telegram that we’ve been monitoring and were mostly populated by Americans. Suddenly they start getting lots and lots of new followers from around the world, particularly in Europe and particularly from countries like the UK, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. And Germany was one of the first non-US countries that started organizing specific rallies in support of QAnon. And then they came to the UK, went to France, to the Netherlands. Germany has been a really fascinating example of a country that is a very good democratic free nation with a fantastic, well-respected government, stable, but still comes under the influence of online disinformation and misinformation. If you look at the vaccination rates in Germany, it has a very high rate of vaccine uptake – so the vast majority of Germans obviously completely reject this anti-vaccine stuff.  But still a small group of radicalized people can do some extreme things that cause quite a lot of issues.

Quite a lot of people were genuinely against some of the COVID restrictions or lockdowns because they were not necessarily conspiracy theory supporters, they were suffering, and their business was hurting. They had issues in terms of mental health, they wanted to see their family members and their loved ones, and they were done with it. Whatever it may be, they were turning up in these anti-lockdown rallies, which in some cases attracted tens of thousands of people, for instance, in London.

But as restrictions have gone, a smaller core of genuine conspiracists remained, who, because of all of the things that they’ve been campaigning for two years, feel like they’re completely marginalized and no one’s listening to them and mainstream media is ignoring them. In their minds, which is obviously complete nonsense, people are being killed by these vaccines and children are dropping dead everywhere. They have become much more radicalized. I would say we are now in the most extreme phase of COVID conspiracies in the UK. Particularly in the last two months which is again ironic because we are living under no restrictions now.

However, those core extreme conspiracy theories supporters are now basically turning up outside vaccination centres, openly confronting police officers, people who are doing vaccinations and members of the public queueing to get vaccinated. They are confronting politicians, they’ve been campaigning outside schools, and they’ve been harassing children, and their parents. They’ve been going to mass events and causing disturbances.

I would say even though we have fewer actual real-world activists in the UK conspiracy circles now compared to any time in the last two years, the ones we have are actually much more radicalized and they’re prepared to go much further. And many other people who initially joined the movement.

Where do we go from here?

I honestly don’t know. I would say it is a good sign that, first of all, countries like Germany or the UK, where we know these narratives have reached millions of people still have really high vaccination rates. It means many people have seen these conspiracies online and they’ve gone, “No, it’s not for me. I’m going to go get vaccinated”.

At the same time, it means there are people who are so invested in these COVID conspiracies, that, despite the fact that in some parts of the world there are no restrictions and we’re definitely slowly going back to normal life, they’re not going to give up.

What will happen to those people, to those core groups of conspiracies, some of whom were completely unfamiliar with the world of conspiracy theories and disinformation before COVID? They’ve just been introduced to it in the last two years.

That’s another issue when you spend so much of your time, so much of your life creating content about a specific topic, investing emotionally into it. Even when all the evidence in the real world goes against your beliefs, you’re not going to just stop. You are going to double down, triple down. So, I think that they will probably continue but we have to say it’s a good thing that they’re becoming smaller and smaller.

Definitely. What I have come across more recently is a very absurd disinformation campaign, where internet users who seem to be committed to the anti-vax movement, I think it was in a Facebook group, that COVID vaccines can cause HIV. How popular is this very obviously false idea online? Have you heard of it and how do you monitor the spread of such an idea as part of your work?

Yes, this is one of the newest narratives. Completely baseless, nonsensical narratives that I’ve seen spread online. I first saw it back in November and it was in the form of VAIDS, vaccine-acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, and I saw it on Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. VAIDS stands for vaccine-acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is caused by the virus HIV.

Back in November, we started seeing these messages online that said vaccines cause AIDS and they started calling it VAIDS and some sort of famous anti-vaxxers, that I’m sure both you and I know, and some others who most recently actually were involved in a rally in Washington, DC, spoke against vaccine mandates. One of them was actually severely criticized for comparing COVID restrictions to the Holocaust.

Some of these people who have hundreds of thousands of followers online amplified it and once those types of people get involved, we know it’s going to reach an enormous audience. We have seen in the UK now all of these anti-vaxxers and anti-vaccine activists and protesters, who go outside vaccination centres or go outside schools or go outside government buildings. They constantly ask, “Why aren’t you doing anything? People are getting AIDS because of these vaccines!”.  It’s something that came out of just some people, who came up with this narrative, started sharing it, making videos about it and then slowly reached more people online. Then once the major anti-vax influences got involved and amplified, in some parts of the COVID conspiracy movement it’s now completely accepted as fact. For them, there’s no debate about it now. Even if you put out something saying talk to some immunologist or some scientists or some doctor saying that VAIDS is complete nonsense, that it has absolutely no basis in reality, it’s not going to change their minds.

They’re not going to change their views; they’re now completely convinced that COVID vaccines are causing AIDS.

As I said, one of the problems of conspiracy theories is - and one of the reasons most experts say it's vital that you stop people from getting into that world first and foremost – that once you're deep into the rabbit hole of different conspiracy, it's so difficult to come out of it.

What can you do about it?

All we can do, as I say, is to do our work and say, “In the view of actual experts, this is nonsense”. Whether that’s going to change those people’s minds, who knows? Probably not those people’s minds but maybe other people’s minds, hopefully.

On your Twitter account, you mentioned, and I quote, that “COVID has dominated the conspiracy world for two years bringing into the fold a legion of new followers”. And then you ask your Twitter followers to share their ideas about the potential next battleground conspiracy theorists who could choose after the pandemic has come to an end. I find that idea quite fascinating. I’m curious to know whether firstly, did they come up with any interesting ideas, and secondly, whether you yourself have been able to identify any trends that could shape the online conspiracy landscape in the future?

Our work has been completely dominated by COVID for two years. There’s all the evidence that suggests that at least I would say in the western world, we’re coming out of it. Most of our population is now vaccinated. Omicron is proving to be a mild variant. The rates of hospitalizations and deaths pretty much all around the western world are falling. It’s not by any means over in some other parts of the world.

All of these people, who have invested so much in COVID for two years… Where are they going to go from here? Because they’re not going to suddenly stop. As I said, one of the problems of conspiracy theories is – and one of the reasons most experts say it’s vital that you stop people from getting into that world first and foremost – that once you’re deep into the rabbit hole of different conspiracy, it’s so difficult to come out of it.

People do it and I know people who’ve done it, I’ve spoken to people who’ve done it, but all of them say it’s actually really hard work. When you’ve invested so much of your time, and so much effort into sharing a particular narrative, it’s really hard to tell yourself that you were wrong.

Where they’re going to go from here, was my genuine question and quite a lot of people responded. It seemed to me that most people were agreeing on climate change.

Obviously, climate change is a major issue for all of us and, as we get closer and closer to what scientists say, as the global temperatures continue to rise, it’s going to become more of an issue.

Most of the world, most people agree on the fact that global temperatures are rising. It’s now moving from climate denials towards what you do about it.  And that’s a world of completely valid debates: what should governments do, how far should they go, and how costly are all these measures to tackle climate change going to be? That’s all valid and that’s not for us to get involved in. We are particularly looking at conspiracy theories, and false narratives, and there is some evidence that climate change is going to rise as a major issue for the world of conspiracy theories.

Another one – which completely surprised us but is becoming concerningly more predominant in the global world of conspiracies – is sovereign citizen theories. It’s a movement that came out of America in the 1960s and 70s; around the 1990s, and early 2000s it also came to Europe and some other parts of the world. But it’s always been kind of fringe. It’s a group of anti-government people. They can pick and choose which national laws or international laws they abide by, and they personally have to give consent to everything and anything. It’s complete nonsense but it was always very fringe.

However, in the last year or so, out of the movement that’s being sort of obsessed about COVID conspiracies, these sovereign citizen theories have suddenly become really popular. In parts of Europe in parts of Latin America, and in countries where we’ve never seen sovereign citizen theories spread.

Now that’s really a point of concern because it is a real extremist movement. It’s not just about, “I’m not going to follow this law or that law”. It’s also about actively fighting and confronting authorities and the government.

In America obviously, that poses all sorts of other problems because Americans have the right to bear arms. In countries like ours, where most of the population is not actually armed, it causes a completely different set of issues. We’ve seen in the UK these people are sort of walking into vaccination centres and attempting in their minds to arrest police officers, arrest members of the armed forces who are administering vaccines. They genuinely think they’ve got the right to do that. They’re attempting to put under arrest healthcare workers, they’re taking patients out of the hospital. They think they’ve got the right to go inside the hospital and it is a huge problem, because first of all, it’s really extreme. And second, it convinces believers and followers that they have all sorts of rights to do things that most people can’t do.

So that’s another thing that really concerns me and we’ve had some groups that – particularly in the UK and also this group in Germany, by the way, that has become a little bit bigger – they just go and get training in martial arts, boxing training. They’re completely convinced that they have all sorts of rights under what they refer to as common law to basically walk into a vaccination centre, walk into a school and arrest people.

Climate change and, what particularly concerns me, the sovereign citizens and narratives.

However, in the last year or so, out of the movement that's being sort of obsessed about COVID conspiracies, these sovereign citizen theories have suddenly become really popular. In parts of Europe in parts of Latin America, and in countries where we've never seen sovereign citizen theories spread.

I am familiar with that movement, specifically because I have been monitoring it before in Germany as it’s been gaining traction. It’s been around for quite some time. As you said it is definitely gaining followership at the moment and in recent months, so let’s see what’s yet to come. We will most certainly monitor these post-COVID changes in the conspiracy landscape, I think both you and me.

In the future, in your opinion what methodologies or technologies would be required to facilitate the detection of this information? Or potentially even the detection of bot accounts or bot farms?

When it comes to verification tools, we do have video verification tools. Obviously, it doesn’t work with every video, some videos are really difficult to verify and I’ve been involved in investigations that involved verifying a video that took a month. There are also others that are relatively easy and those types of tools help us as long as they are being maintained and updated regularly.

Another thing I would say where it is a bit of a grey area is the use of GANs (General Adversarial Networks) so all of these images of people don’t actually exist. They’re created by artificial intelligence, and they look completely convincing particularly when you see them in a Facebook or a Twitter profile because you’re not seeing the image in a higher resolution. If you see them in high resolution you figure out okay there’s something wrong here, there’s something wrong with the background, there’s something wrong with the eyebrow. That’s a particular issue and we’ve seen actual influence operations use those GAN-generated images to pose as real people.

So there’s an influence operation and they have to create completely fake inauthentic accounts. How do you try to pose as a real person? You create some GANs images. If you could get some tool that’s possible to do analysis with it. There are some tell-tale signs but we haven’t got something easily available or accessible to most people with which they can check if it’s a GAN image or not. That’s an area that is a problem.

Another one is the rise of these influence operations that are done by PR agencies, the so-called social analytics companies. They basically start an influence operation and then they hire actual people.

Say you’re a government and you want to run an influence operation in an African country but you want to make sure that your campaign is not easily spottable. If you’ve got Facebook pages, Facebook actually has a box that pops up that says where the admins of this particular page are based.

If you’re running an operation from a third country, it’s easily available to researchers and journalists to see okay why is this particular person in Albania so interested in running a Facebook page of 20 000 people about Mozambique, for example. But in order to sidestep that, they hire actual people in Mozambique to run those pages for them but all the information and all the content is coming from the people, who are actually behind the operation in Albania, the UK, France or Germany. Then it becomes really difficult to actually investigate them because you’re seeing a page in Mozambique based in Mozambique and you go okay these are actually genuine people in Mozambique, who are interested in their politics or in COVID or in Thailand, and are sharing this information. It’s completely legitimate. There’s really no way actually to spot those things. 

We're constantly seeing more open-source information being made available to us. We now have information about global shipping. We have information about airlines, and all the flights that happen around the world. We can monitor them. We can go into some specific detail about what shape, what vessel in the world is where and doing what. Where they came from, where they're going who owns them, who's paying for them when it comes to satellite images we're getting to some really good places now.

Deep fakes get mentioned, I don’t want to talk too much about deep fakes because I don’t think that they’re that big of an issue yet.  You can make really good deep fakes if you’re invested in making one but it’s really costly and it takes quite a long time. Unless and until it’s possible for me as a random individual to use my smartphone or use my laptop or use my gadget or use my desktop pc whatever it is and easily in 10-15 minutes create a really convincing deep fake… Until we’re at that stage, I wouldn’t say it’s a major problem. Where we get to in five years or ten years, that’s another matter.  

When it comes to sort of fringe platforms I know, some really creative investigators have come up with their own tools and have written their own programs to be able to at least scrap some data from this tool or that tool or get some information or do some basic analysis. But those platforms are still a major black hole to us and all we have to do is basically manual, which takes quite a lot of time so. Those are the major issues.

I talked about all the negatives. I have to talk about some positives.

We’re constantly seeing more open-source information being made available to us. We now have information about global shipping. We have information about airlines, and all the flights that happen around the world. We can monitor them. We can go into some specific detail about what shape, what vessel in the world is where and doing what. Where they came from, where they’re going who owns them, who’s paying for them when it comes to satellite images we’re getting to some really good places now. Still a costly place, still you have to pay quite a lot of money to some of these companies that provide high-resolution satellite images of some areas of the world that are not covered by Google Earth. You still have to pay quite a lot of money but it’s available and the gap between when an incident happens like last year when there were these explosions in the one Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz. It was about 48 hours until we got some high-res images from a couple of these companies of what had actually been the aftermath of the explosion in there, which were really helpful because we could then analyze and say what happened in this corner; what type of explosion it was. Can we see some debris, what type of debris is it and then we can contact actual experts and say, “Okay, what could it be?”. “What do you think has caused this explosion based on these images?” So that’s really helpful and we’re getting better and better at that.

We’re still not at a point when an incident happens and then 10 minutes later we’ve got high-res satellite images, we’re not there yet.  But we are getting close to 24 hours – 48 hours. Again, in Afghanistan when we were we had the evacuations and we had the terrorist attack there, these satellite images were really helpful in getting a sense of what was going on there because we weren’t getting that much information from the Taliban. We were just relying on some handmade videos by somebody holding a smartphone in the area or the high-res satellite images that were coming in.

Technology is obviously always getting better and trying to keep up with all the other things that bad actors are using. However, it is forever a cat-and-mouse game and we’ll continue doing what we do hopefully. We’ll find new ways of getting the information that we want but the same information is also available to bad actors. They will know what new techniques are out there and they’re going to try and sidestep them all the time.

Since you mentioned AI. For example, in terms of tools for fake news detection, AI-supported hate speech detection or fake news detection. And these will also become increasingly popular tools that researchers and academics, journalists and security contractors can use.

I’ll just add when it comes to AI, some degree of human involvement is still necessary. While you can rely on AI automated tools to give you all the information that you want, some human expertise to go through what these automated tools can spot and then verify. This is still required.  As long as that help is available, then it’s also brilliant because it cuts down the amount of manual work that somebody like you needs to do.

The Intelligence Brief Podcast: OSINT and its Application

Anti-vaxxers & Conspiracies: Monitoring the Spread of Covid-19-related Disinformation

BBC Monitoring journalist and disinformation expert Shayan Sardarizadeh and OSINT Analyst Lynn Dudenhöfer discuss some of the ever-evolving disinformation campaigns surrounding Covid-19 and the vaccination mandates. 

What are some of the most exaggerated fake news about vaccines in the online realm? Which platforms are commonly used to spread conspiracy theories? Finally, what potential next battleground could conspiracy theorists choose after the topic of the pandemic has come to an end?

HENSOLDT Analytics
HENSOLDT Analytics

HENSOLDT Analytics is a global leading provider of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) systems and Natural Language Processing technologies, such as Automatic Speech Recognition, which are key elements for media monitoring and analysis.