Published August 9, 2020 in Real Clear World
Since the beginning of 2020, the world has seen the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus which became a global emergency on January 30 and a pandemic on March 11. Everyone from physicians and epidemiologists to teachers and grocery store clerks have sought effective means of combatting the spread of the disease. Masks and social distancing help, but they do little to combat the spread of misinformation - which can be almost as dangerous. Our enemy is not only the pandemic, but an “infodemic of misinformation," as UN Secretary-General António Guterres has reminded the world.
In every crisis, leaders and communicators strive to provide accurate, timely information to relevant stakeholders. This has proven particularly difficult during the pandemic as efforts to inform the concerned citizens of the world have run against a coinciding Russian disinformation campaign aimed at sowing panic in the West.
The Russian propaganda machine has been curating and spreading false narratives about the virus among Russian and Western audiences alike, in order to bolster the credibility of the Russian authoritarian regime and undermine the strength of Western democracies. The growing fear and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, its symptoms, and treatments, provide a unique opportunity for Russia to strengthen its influence both at home and abroad.
The misinformation campaign began early and struck hard. On April 5, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to a hospital after exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. The next day, Russian domestic state media RIA Novosti reported that Johnson was urgently hospitalized and on the verge of needing ventilation. This report, the only one of its kind, was debunked by the British press. Riga-based media outlet Meduza asserted the disinformation was part of an ongoing narrative that Western countries are weaker and more vulnerable and were coping poorly amid the pandemic when compared to their Russian counterparts.
In Italy, during the peak of the outbreak, pro-Kremlin media suggested the country’s Western allies abandoned the Italians, whereas Russia gave significant, if non-specific aid. While it is true that Russia sent some equipment to Italy, 80% of the supplies were untimely and unusable in the fight against COVID. Russian media reported widely on the overwhelming gratitude of the Italian people. However, it seems that it was not so easy to find Italians willing to publicly thank Russia: According to La Repubblica, persons who introduced themselves as representatives of Russian media tried to exchange testimonies of gratitude for financial rewards.
Unfortunately, the search for a vaccine to inoculate Westerners from the infection of Russian disinformation is yet to be found. Russia Today (RT), the leading voice of Russian propaganda in English-speaking media markets, has created a series of manipulative stories that argue fear and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus will lead citizens to forfeit their democratic rights in favor of the safety of an authoritarian takeover.
More clandestine approaches include coopting Western voices such as that of Canadian economist and anti-globalization author Michel Chossudovsky, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist with an anti-Semitic flair. Chossudovsky recently dubbed COVID-19 a fear campaign supported by fake data. Hardly a credible source, his article reappeared on South Front, a website branding itself as a legitimate news source covering issues of security, foreign policy and military analysis. The site is, in fact, professionally designed and registered in Moscow and perhaps the only fake news outlet currently curating fake news content about their own “fake news.”
Regardless of the means of amplification, the message Russia is trying to spread is clear: The threat of COVID-19 is not serious, and Western approaches to combat and contain the spread of the virus are, in fact, doing more to erode the Western democratic process than the virus itself.
An infodemic could be as dangerous as a pandemic. If these disinformation narratives take hold, they have the ability to seriously undermine government efforts in fighting the pandemic. Ironically enough, the coronavirus fakes threaten not only the West, but Russia as well. For this reason, the Russian government threatens its citizens with fines and imprisonment for the distribution of fake news.
But as with the pandemic, unified efforts to resist the spread of misinformation can also be effective. Journalists should always be diligent in their fact-checking and refute propaganda; social networks should continue escalate their efforts in fighting fake news; governments should investigate and prosecute disinformation networks and campaigns as well as support and encourage non-governmental organizations to arm the public with the truth; and, finally, everyone should employ critical thinking as a mental shield against such infectious narratives.
Dr. Veronika Velch is a Senior Fellow for National Security at the Rainey Center, and Advocacy Director at the Office of Juleanna Glover. Vadym Miskyi is the program director of Detector Media, a non-profit focused on media self-regulation, development of the public broadcasting and rising media literacy among citizens. He is an advocacy and media expert with advanced knowledge of Ukrainian media market. The views expressed are the authors' own.