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Is Russia running a coronavirus disinformation campaign?

Barbara Wesel
March 20, 2020

Is Russia using the coronavirus pandemic as a chance to incite unrest in the West by spreading fake news and misinformation? EU observers of Russian media say that's what it looks like.

The Kremlin in Russia's capital city, Moscow
Image: AFP/Getty Images/M. Antonov

The Russian news outfit Sputnik claims "very smart biologists and pharmacists" in Latvia invented the new COVID-19 coronavirus. Other sources close to the Kremlin say it was made in the British military's Porton Down facilities.

Russia observers from the European Commission have so far analyzed 80 different reports containing false or misleading information about coronavirus published by official Russian state media sites as well as platforms and authors with close ties to the Kremlin. But does that activity constitute a deliberate campaign, or is it just part of the ongoing propaganda war between Russia and the West?

Read moreHow not to protect yourself from the coronavirus 

'Confusion' is the message

Excerpts of those reports, which can be seen on the website EU vs. Disinfo under the title, "The Kremlin and Disinformation About Coronavirus," are at times astonishing. The authors note that it is easy to get the impression that the reports are entirely contradictory. For instance, the Oriental Review, an e-journal with ties to the Kremlin, wrote: "When the panic is over, COVID-19 will have killed less people than a normal flu." The article argues that current fears about the new coronavirus are racially-fueled.

Alexander Dugin, a Russian nationalist and a very public supporter of the Orthodox Church, claimed exactly the opposite at Geopolitica, another Russian e-journal. Dugin said when the virus finishes its "victory march across the planet" it will have destroyed the existing world order. In his moral and religious castigation of Western lifestyles he often draws on symbols such as vengeful ancient gods or biblical plagues.

But is there some sort of plan behind all these contradictory claims? EU observers suspect the aim of the campaign is to confuse European citizens by, "sowing disunity and mistrust." Peter Stano, lead spokesman for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the EU, explains: "We have seen an increase in the amount of misinformation originating outside the EU. Some has been Russian, spread by Russian providers and pro-Kremlin sources." Stano says Russia isn't the only source of foreign misinformation, before adding that wherever such misinformation is coming from, "it threatens people's lives."

Read more: Russia denies EU allegations over coronavirus disinformation campaign

Denials and interpretations

On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov strongly denied reports of a Russian coronavirus disinformation campaign that had been printed in the Financial Times newspaper: "We are talking about unsubstantiated claims that are, considering the situation, likely the result of an anti-Russian obsession." Peskov called the claims absurd, adding that no concrete evidence had been offered to substantiate them.

Peskov's denial won immediate support from Russia's foreign broadcaster Russia Today (RT). The RT website quickly published an article by Nebojsa Malic, whom RT says is a Serbian-American journalist, which read: "When all else fails, blame Russia. That seems to be the EU approach to deflecting blame from its response to the coronavirus pandemic."

Is the Kremlin really behind it all?

But is the Kremlin using coronavirus to attack European democracies? British fake news expert Ben Nimmo, who regularly monitors the Russian media landscape, doesn't think "Putin made the call personally." Nimmo says it isn't even that important that a campaign is going on at all. "The whole thing seems more like standard anti-Western posturing than a targeted campaign devised at the Kremlin."

Nimmo says the case was different after the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 or the annexation of Crimea. In both of those situations media outlets all used the same script, a clear indication of Kremlin orchestration. With the coronavirus, says Nimmo, things are different. Media outlets like Sputnik and RT knew they wanted to paint the West in a poor light no matter what.

When Russia expert and Green Party EU Parliamentarian Sergey Lagodinsky looks at Russian media coverage of COVID-19, he says, "It reflects the nature of our relationship." He says the current attitude is that Russia has had few cases of COVID-19 so far and the EU is being overrun with them, so Russian media groups are using the situation to keep stoking panic.

Coronavirus: Hoaxes and fake news

Read more: Coronavirus in Iran: A case of misinformation, conspiracy theories and propaganda

Russian foreign policy trolls

Agnieszka Legucka from the Polish Institute of International Affairs says Russian foreign broadcasters have plenty of resources and reach. "Since the beginning of 2020, they have also been spreading disinformation about the coronavirus with the aim of inducing distrust in public institutions and aggravating the public health crisis in the EU." She says one of the sources of such fake news is the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll farm owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.

"With its various methods and channels, Russian disinformation remains a strong tool for contesting the order in Europe. And knowing the strategic goals of Russia's foreign policy, it won't end anytime soon; the European Union must prepare for a long-term campaign of disinformation," she says.

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