Russian disinformation: games with coronavirus

Virtual roundtable “Covid-19 and the Chinese and Russian disinformation campaigns”

Peter Stano: If earlier political propaganda was used, the purpose of which was to earn more points, now disinformation plays with human lives

US and EU leaders accuse Russia of conducting disinformation campaign, including related to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Peter Stano, EU foreign affairs speaker and spokesman for EastStratcom Task Forse, a service created by the EU to fight disinformation, emphasizes that disinformation is deadly in the face of the pandemic: “We started tracking this around mid-January and have since found more 150 cases of disinformation, lies, or fake news regarding the coronavirus that either originated from Russia or were linked to Russia or well-known pro-Kremlin media. It is important to emphasize that Russia, such media and Russian-related players are not the only ones spreading disinformation. There are many players. But those who are from Russia or in any way connected with Russia are very active “

Margot Gontard: What narratives are used by Russian disinformation?

Peter Stano: You can find absolutely everything. Just let your imagination run wild and you will find an example of such misinformation. For example, Russian-related media claimed that news of the spread of the coronavirus was fake because the coronavirus did not exist. A few days later, the same media reported that, in fact, this is a mortal threat to humanity and we are talking about the end of the world..

Gradually, this developed into a narrative about the end of the European Union, as the Schengen zone collapses, the European states do not show the slightest solidarity and do not help each other. “The EU is falling apart, this is the end of the West”, “the coronavirus is a biological weapon created in military laboratories” – and here again you can choose: “in the military laboratories” of the USA, Great Britain, China and Western countries were also mentioned.

They have a large arsenal of lies. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be fake. It may be conflicting information, someone’s opinion … But their goal is to flood information space and social networks with contradictions in order to confuse people and weaken their self-confidence. To diminish the confidence that their governments and health systems can handle it. This is why it is so dangerous.

M.G .: Philip Reeker, US deputy secretary of state, said Russia’s goal is to sow discord and undermine American institutions. Does this match your observations?

PS: Absolutely! The methods of propaganda and disinformation are the same. They want to confuse, undermine the credibility of local government institutions, publicize their social model, and discredit the model of the country that is being hit. This is exactly what is done about the United States..

The methods are the same, although they differ in the way of submission – depending on the country. In countries such as Italy and Spain, the epidemiological situation is particularly dire. And there Russia Today is among the top ten sources to which Internet users turn for information about the coronavirus..

So whether it is the United States, Europe, Ukraine, whether it is a post-Soviet space, their goal remains the same: to discredit, confuse and undermine people’s trust in their state institutions and social model.

M.G .: Is Russia’s Coronavirus-Related Disinformation Campaign Different From The One You’ve Observed Before?

PS: The main goal does not undergo changes, regardless of what is used as an information occasion: coronavirus, internal problems or economic crisis. The main goal is to fuel anti-Western sentiment, to show that our societies are poorly governed, are on the verge of collapse, that our model of society is not one to be cherished..

This goal has not changed, regardless of what kind of disinformation campaign you undertake to analyze: the current one, carried out a year, two years or three years ago..

There are different layers here. One is for an internal audience: to show that foreign aggression is being waged against us and we need to rally to protect ourselves. The second layer is to demonstrate to the world how bad and evil are the forces that created a terrible virus that spreads across the planet, destroying states and human lives: “and we even help those countries that developed this virus”.

We found that it is not necessary for media that traditionally spread disinformation to throw outright lies about the coronavirus. It is enough to simply create confusion and flood the information space with materials reflecting different points of view, different theories, while referring to self-proclaimed experts. For example, an “expert” said something on Russian television, and they innocently told about it – and this, it seems, is not disinformation..

Their strategy is to flood the media and social space with contradictions. They seek to confuse and undermine people’s trust. Because when you don’t know what to trust, you stop trusting everyone and everything. You don’t trust anyone else. You are not trying to look for the truth in the media, because it seems to you that everyone is trying to deceive you..

M.G .: Through which channels is disinformation spread?

PS: Through everything possible: both traditional media and social networks. Disinformation uses all possible channels, works at many different levels, targets different populations and uses all available means…

They use media that pretend to be regular media: we have already mentioned Sputnik and Russia Today with versions in different languages. They also use friendly media in other states – conspiracy theory sites or “alternative information” sites that are involved in spreading fake news and lies. These resources are not necessarily associated with Russia – they are simply fed content, or they themselves gladly borrow it..

M.G. : Have you noticed an increase in the number of fakes during the quarantine period??

PS: I would not say that there are more fakes appearing due to the fact that people are sitting at home. But we see that in the healthcare sector, in addition to the coronavirus pandemic, there is also an “infodemic” – a pandemic of information and misinformation. This makes the situation especially dangerous because disinformation plays with human health and human lives. For example, in social networks and on some sites, you can find messages that washing hands does not help fight the epidemic, or it is recommended to drink bleach to protect against coronavirus..

If earlier political propaganda was used, the purpose of which was to earn more points, now disinformation plays with lives. That is why we say that disinformation can kill.

M.G .: How to avoid becoming a victim of fakes?

PS: Be very careful with your sources of information. Check the facts twice and three times. Reach out to credible media and journalists. Don’t believe everything you read. Remember that there are forces that want to manipulate you. Don’t let them do it.

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