Disinformation trade-off: the perils of tolerating Russian and Chinese COVID-narratives and fake conspiracy

Whenever there’s a disease epidemic, there are always two other epidemics that happen alongside it: disinformation and stigma (Bouey, 2020)

 The novel coronavirus pandemic has cancelled everything, but the disinformation. The outbreak of coronavirus hit the truth and democracy. The media landscape has become fertile soil for the proliferation of fake news, narratives us-versus-them, distorted reports, amplifying the distrust and breeding anti-western sentiments. These techniques are currently actively utilised by Russia, Iran and China which outsourced the online dimension to obfuscate data and mislead people (Nossel, 2020).

As it was rightly observed by the RAND Corporation we currently witness the era of “Truth Decay”[1] which is an erosion of evidence-based facts. This is just a small piece of a broader picture. In fact, the pandemic-related disinformation dismantles fundamental bricks of democracy, therefore infodemic spill-over effect on the democracy should not be downplayed (Boyer, 2020).

Russia is definitely leading this battle. NATO StratCom, Oxford Internet Institute, EUvsDisnfo, the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group (Ukrainian Crisis media centre) and some of leading media outlets constantly report on Russian successful efforts of waging a propaganda war. However, when the real pandemic swept the globe the infodemic was already floating around in media space for a long time. This has never been ceased, in fact. Russian authorities have always been succumbed by the lure of propaganda machines and its appealing opportunities of manipulation since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Infiltration with fake narratives and intimidation of outlandish information dimension is always on Kremlin agenda. In 2014 Ukraine’s information landscape became a battlefield for Russian offensive interference and subsequent spread of distorted facts, narratives, and fake news to ultimately destabilize Ukraine (Giles, 2016). In 2016 Russian trolls transcended the U.S. continent to seed the discord and amplify the politicised narratives in favour of Donald Trump and against Hilary Clinton (Prier, 2017). The year of 2020 has just become another page in this propaganda history.

Enabling pandemic environment has created avenues for applying old techniques and fake-news-making opportunities. The toolkit of Kremlin’s Info Ops remains to be classy, involving fake news, narratives and trolls. The advent of the epidemic has also stirred the festival of conspiracy. The Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group[2] has established a number of Kremlin’s conspiracy theories which are employed to support its narrative-driven campaign and solidify anti-western sentiments. Namely,  among those one might come across such wide-spread theories as ‘COVID-19 is a bioweapon, originated in the laboratory’, ‘coronavirus was created to stop climate change’, ‘a campaign crafted by pharmaceutical industries to maximize their profits’, ‘Bill Gates achievement to sell the vaccine’, ‘coronavirus plot is carried out to normalize police governance with surveillance practices”. Such conspiracy fairytales were proliferated by Russia-sponsored media outlets abroad to target primarily foreign and neighbourhood’s audience. Although such misinformation has been debunked by the WHO or other credible resources, yet consumers are inclined to embrace it. For instance, numbers collected by the Oxford Internet Institute reflect that nearly 25% of the Brits believe in the theory of virus being intentionally created in a lab (Smith, 2020).

Russia is not alone in its info efforts. China has also joined this disinformation game, but pursuing its own goals and mainly striving to reframe the story around virus origins and create a fog of uncertainty around this. Moreover, pushing a counternarrative to reshape the history of the coronavirus inception is the ultimate goal of the Chinese President (Lim,2020; Apuzzo,2020; Scott, 2020). The idea of those narratives is to withdraw from a ‘guilty state’ status and gain recognition of the exemplary state, and underscore the features of the authoritarian regime as the only capable one to containing the virus spread successfully. This is done through strategic communication efforts, such as ‘maintaining solidarity’ towards those countries and providing them with humanitarian donations (e.g. Italy), which were abandoned amid hard times by their state-partners. To sound more persuasive in their achievement, the Chinese government issued a book about the victory over the virus, and this has been already translated into five languages. (Nossel, 2020).)

Nonetheless, there is something that unites both states in their propaganda aspirations is the desire to convince the world that the virus outbreak will deteriorate the liberal world and solidarity among partners, accuse Western coalition in their delayed response and perpetuate that idea that authoritarian regimes handled this crisis much successfully, although there is no evidence for this (Boyer, 2020).

Another worrying repercussion of the unfolding info-warfare is the internal controlling of media and censorship. Many power grabbers justify their action by arguing that the spread of fake news is a dangerous disease (The Economist). In fact, Beijing’s silencing turned out to be as lethal as the real virus. COVID-19 outbreak revealed why it is crucial to guarantee access to accurate and updated data for the public sector in order to ensure a timely response. To defeat this virus, the verified data from knowledgeable healthcare experts should be exchanged among countries, so each state’s experience could assist in advancing treatment solutions, instead of seeking the truth amid conspiracy-driven campaign (Harari, 2020).

The convergence of these disruptive measures and deliberate proliferation of fallacious narratives translate into decreased resilience of the liberal regimes and their nations, constituting a direct threat to democracy and national security. Maintaining resilience against inaccurate data is a key pillar in countering disinformation. Especially during these worrisome times, when people are susceptible to propaganda and their reliance on the Internet is only mounting. The global cooperation, acknowledgement of such impending threat and resistance against infodemic by the Western coalition is critically needed today.

However, the recent rhetoric surrounding Chinese and Russian disinformation has been altered in a softer, but alarming way. The newly emerged debate inside the EU is inclined to ease their discourse on the disinformation campaign. As it was discovered by the New York Times, the recent EU report which documented explicit evidence of China’s and Russia’s efforts to manipulate minds of people with false data, and nurture distrust in Western institutions, – was eventually put on hold and reviewed under the diplomatic pressure of China. The report was significantly edited and contained softer language on Bejing’s to pacify China, while some major parts, like Beijing’s campaign on ‘global disinformation’ or China-France dispute, were entirely removed from the document (Apuzzo, 2020). Elimination of any kind of evidence and attempts to revise the report creates an alarming precedent of diplomatic sophisticated coercion. Restoration of justice and the battle over a COVID-19 truthful narrative is a definite part of a broader political game, a battle over who is leading the info-flows, as well as a long-standing fight for securing democracy.

It is also quite dangerous to justify the existence of disinformation as an inherent vice of the democratic institutions. Professor at the University of Toronto, Seva Gunitsky, in his piece “Democracies cant’s blame Putin for their Disinformation Problem’ claims that damage done by foreign disinformation is less severe unlike the home-rooted, explaining this through the case of the US media terrain which is flooded currently with local misinformation. Moreover, it is stressed that the democratic regime leverages the power of the disinformation and serves as a springboard for fake news and narratives spread. Consequently, unconfined circulation of the narratives should be perceived as an integral part of the democracy existence (“Disinformation Is Democracy’s Problem” n.d.) (Gunitsky, 2020). This kind of logic is dangerous since it might push autocrats to shift the responsibility for their orchestrated Info-warfare to democracy regime and call for toleration of Kremlin’s and Bejing’s Info Ops. Nonetheless, it is rightly emphasized by the author that in any circumstances disinformation primarily poses a problem to democratic regimes, while the autocrats take advantage of the free and appealing opportunities of info-market.

Jakub Kalenský, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council in his recent interview highlighted that we all should be mindful that the long-term rationale behind disinformation proliferation is to dismantle liberal world order and its pillars such as fact-based mindset which drives the whole policy-making process. In other words, the endgame of Info Ops is aimed at altering the trajectory of policy-making, not the simple intention to create turmoil (Bastiannelli, 2020). We already witnessed how those manipulative techniques jeopardised Western governments, which translated into misleading leaders and journalist and downplaying the underlying risks of the virus (Broad, 2020).  Inviting ecosystem of the disinformation also poses an imminent risk for future elections, while feeding the electorate with inaccurate data (Boyer, 2020). Moreover, Russian disinformation intentionally undermines public loyalty towards Western authorities, questions efficacy of their national health-care systems, erodes trust in fact-based science and credibility of the media outlets and solidifies the societal divisions abroad. In fact, it is suggested that one of the reasons for Washington’s slow epidemic response is linked to the disinformation. This infodemic obstructed the political establishment to predict the scale of pandemic setbacks while being misled by the fake news (Nossel, 2020).

In this fight against pandemic and infodemic one should remember that even if the curve of infected flattens and the vaccine is developed over a span of time, we should not expect the decrease of malign influence. Contagious disinformation and Info Ops which are stemming from Kremlin will not vanish. Although, EUvsDisinfo already marked that info-ecosystem is already less infiltrated with the Covid-19-related fake news, fabricated by Kremlin these will fade away. The temporary decrease might be explained by Kremlin’s distraction driven by oil fluctuating price and sanction issues which preoccupied Russia’s mind. Nevertheless, it is crystal clear that Russian massive disinformation is staying with us. Russia is already back to a stage with its old, but gold disinformation and narratives devoted to such subject as ‘collapse of Western values’, ‘MH-17’s trials’, ‘WWII ‘failure of Ukraine’ and Crimean ‘referendum legality’, as marked by the EUvsDisinfo. Another propaganda campaign is always lurking on a horizon, it is just a matter of time and enabling circumstances which can emerge at any moment. Neither Russia nor China will not seize its brain-washing campaigns. Hence, this disinformation arm race should not be a subject for toleration, normalisation or justification at any time.

Written by Victoria Chumenko

About the Author: Victoria Chumenko is an independent researcher and currently completing her MA’s degree in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies (IMSISS, Joint Master Degree (EMJMD) awarded by the University of Glasgow; Dublin City University; and Charles University). Previously, Victoria has been working and interning for the Parliament of Canada, Ukraine-based NGOs and international organisations.

Photo: RFE


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[1] https://www.rand.org/research/projects/truth-decay.html

[2] https://www.facebook.com/HybridWarfareAG/