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Disinformation Playbook: How false attributions are used to create confusion and chaos

June 30, 2021


Falsely attributed information is among the most effective ways to mislead the public. For example, disinformation actors may claim that a well-known person or organisation made a statement even though it did not happen.

Faqcheck Lab looks at a selection of examples in recent years where such instances occurred and caused confusion.

Fuelling vaccine hesitancy

Fuelling COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy has been popular with disinformation actors. The uncertainty and worry over vaccine safety allows rumours to gather speed fast, causing many people to adopt a “wait-and-see” approach to vaccination.

We saw this manifest in a recent manipulated story that went viral, where Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier supposedly claimed that vaccinated people will die within two years.

Montagnier did not make the claim but those who made it up used his status to legitimise the lie. Global concern over an ongoing health crisis fuelled its spread. The story found widespread traction in many countries and led to multiple debunks by fact-checking organisations [Rappler, India Today, Full Fact].

Rinse and repeat

Such anxiety over public interest issues allows disinformation actors to create fear-mongering content that goes viral. We have seen this play out multiple times throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, the uncertainty over lockdowns in Malaysia have spawned multiple versions of viral WhatsApp messages misattributing announcements to a host of sources. These claims were repeated and generated more anxiety for the public as they spread over social media. [1, 2,3,4].

Fake viral health scare misattributing Malaysia’s Ministry of Health in 2019

Aside from misattribution of sources, it is also common for fabricated claims to be loosely based on historical facts. FCL reported this in a recent check where the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was cited alongside misleading COVID-19 lockdown claims. These claims were then rehashed multiple times in similar or updated versions to sustain panic.

One of the goals of a disinformation actor is to cause mischief. In an example from earlier this year, a fake post on anal swabs for COVID-19 went viral. It caused a mix of anxiety and jesting among Malaysians. The post was misattributed to mainstream news outlet Berita Harian.

Misattributing content to an authority in the spotlight, to people or organisations with a large following, helps disinformation actors to mask their falsehoods.

The resulting fear or confusion can cause a legitimacy crisis and even be used to target businesses. An example of this was the constantly rehashed, and viralled message that resurfaced in 2019. It claimed Malaysia’s Islamic affairs agency, JAKIM, had certified Starbucks as “haram”, or forbidden by Islamic law. The message detailed the reasons, quoting a renowned religious authority as its source.

The original version of the fake message from 2016 that was rehashed until at least 2019

The fake message had actually been around for a while, with The Rakyat Post having traced its origins to at least 2011. Fact checkers at debunked the claims.

Deepening political and racial divide

Misattribution is a powerful disinformation tool that can deepen existing fault lines in a plural society.

In August 2020, a xenophobic message was added to a genuine Malayiakini news report about a COVID-19 cluster in Malaysia. The message was widely forwarded on WhatsApp and misrepresented the news portal as well as the Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, who was pictured.

It misled people into thinking the xenophobic claims were part of the news report.

Malaysiakini debunked this xenophobic WhatsApp message which misrepresented the news portal and Health director-general, Dr Noor Hisham.

In another incident on 9 Dec 2018, a blog post contained manipulated data on protester headcount that was attributed to the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM). The writer claimed more than 1.97 million people were protesting against Malaysia ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). It said the crowds were proof of the “rise of the Malay-Muslim in Malaysia” and cited a PDRM source for the numbers.

Falsified crowd figures protesting at various locations in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

FCL found that prior to the viral blog post, a pro-UMNO Facebook page had carried similar statistics and captions. It suggests the blogger used the video as a source for the post rather than the police, whose official estimates were between 55,000 and 60,000 participants.

Misrepresented data has also been used to revive political smear campaigns.

Known disinformation news site, The Coverage, on 2 Oct 2018 claimed online whistleblower website Wikileaks had released proof of politician Anwar Ibrahim’s secret offshore bank accounts, as well as secret accounts in Israeli banks. Similar allegations were published in 2013 as well, which coincided with Anwar’s return to politics in Port Dickson’s by-elections.

The Israeli bank links were likely made to discredit politicians, as Malaysia does not recognise Israel as a legitimate state. Not long after the allegations, Wikileaks published a tweet clarifying that the claims were false.

Tweet can be viewed here

Be aware and skeptical

Misquoting and misattributing content is an effective tactic by disinformation actors. They play not only on the concerns of the public, but also the status or authority of those they use as vessels to legitimise their claims.

By understanding these tactics, it becomes easier to spot and avoid sharing such misleading content.

Ask where the story originated from and whether the source is trustworthy. It prevents us from being manipulated and helps stop the spread of disinformation.


University of Nottingham Malaysia: Nur Ain Nabila, Muhammad Farhan Shahmi Abdullah, Joshua Ng, Noor Alia Abrar Bestari Abrar, Tan Zhi Ying & Gayathry Venkiteswaran

Xiamen University Malaysia: Siew Tong En, Liu Zihan, Sean Elijah Tan & Dr Jeyasushma A/P Veeriah

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia: Nurul Ain, Seri Haidah, Nur Raihan, Yazlin Yahaya, Ravivarma Muniandy & Dr Sabariah Mohamed Salleh

University of Malaya: Adlin Norafiqah Mohamed, Amin Idham Razalee, Lee Kai Ci, Aq'sa Sumayya Nor Hazalan, Nur Syahmina Aza Azhar & Dr Rosya Izyanie

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