Russian disinformation & the coronavirus

Russian disinformation & the coronavirus

Timothy Ogden

Cyber security issues have taken something of a backseat in recent weeks due to the continued spread of the coronavirus; the deteriorating healthcare situations in countries across the world has – understandably – dominated media headlines, a trend which will likely continue until widespread control or containment is established.

Russia has been quick to exploit the situation for propaganda purposes, releasing disinformation to sow distrust and fear among its Western rivals. The European Union’s External Action Service, which researches and combats disinformation online, said in an internal report that since January 22 it had recorded nearly 80 cases of disinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak linked to pro-Kremlin media.

“The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems — thus preventing an effective response to the outbreak,” according to the report, which adds that “the campaign is designed to exacerbate confusion, panic and fear”.

Naturally, Moscow has denied the allegations, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stating: “”If this [report] contained at least one concrete example, and a link to some specific media, I could say something specific. This kind of Russophobic obsession should somehow be going away given the current situation, ideally, but apparently it isn’t.”

Yet the report did not accuse Russian state media of spreading lies about the virus and its origins outright: rather, the Kremlin is alleged to have simply used its troll farms to amplify and spread existing conspiracy theories about the virus. Indeed, US intelligence officials have stated that Russian state media, as well as the country’s diplomats and officials, have been markedly more restrained when discussing the origins of the coronavirus.

The EU report found that the pro-Russian content seeks to advance the idea that the virus is a “human creation, weaponised by the West” (a narrative common to China’s own propaganda campaign over the crisis) with disinformation being used to target Italians’ confidence in their healthcare system and its ability to contain the pandemic, while messages in Spanish “promote apocalyptic stories , blame capitalists for for trying to benefit from the virus, and emphasize how well Russia and Putin are dealing with the outbreak”.

Nowhere, of course, does any of the disinformation make any mention of the origin of the virus in China, or of that country’s failure to initially contain it. It has, however, highlighted a phone call from President Putin to his counterpart in Beijing, in which the Russian head of state heaps praise on Xi Jinping for his efforts in fighting the virus and flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections. This ignores the fact that China’s alleged containment of the coronavirus has not been successful (as the Beijing authorities claim) and the numbers of cases and deaths may, in fact, be far higher than has been reported.

Attention must be paid to Russia’s efforts, especially due to the fact that Moscow will likely try and exploit divisions between European countries and the USA, rifts that have arisen from the growing support for populist movements and worsened due to the success of the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency. Russia will suffer no scrutiny of its own handling of the coronavirus – the West must be equally intolerant over attempts to mislead European and American society.

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