Disinformation and COVID-19

Ed. note – H/T to a friend of IPA for forwarding these and I’m sure there are many more but a variety of sources is always good.  In this case, the FT, The Hill, and RFE all hitting on the same issue – who’s responsible for this piece of disinformation but, of course, the issues are bigger than that.  We need to take a look at the lack of trust in institutions which have been consistently and persistently attacked by those that would benefit from a crumbling of western institutions.  This is a time to persistently point out disinformation when it’s heard or read and to direct people to sources that are trustworthy.  Furthermore, we should remind people that their fears and biases need to be contained to ensure that they can evaluate information reliably.

Financial Times

March 18, 2020

Ukrainians wearing face masks look at the latest news on a phone in Kyiv yesterday

Fake news

EU report warns of Russian disinformation campaign


Russian pro-Kremlin media have mounted a “significant disinformation campaign” to aggravate the coronavirus pandemic crisis in western countries by destroying confidence in the emergency response, says an internal EU report.

The effort aims to stoke “confusion, panic, and fear” and stop people obtaining good information about the contagion, as part of a broader strategy to “subvert European societies from within”, the European diplomatic service analysis said.

The nine-page report — dated March 16 and seen by the Financial Times — outlines a wide range of attempts internationally to exploit the pandemic by spreading implausible narratives. It said the effectiveness of vetting put in place by social media companies for coronavirus content was still unclear.

“A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding Covid-19 is ongoing,” said analysis from the European External Action Service’s strategic communications division. “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.”

The EU had recorded almost 80 cases in its database of Covid-19 related disinformation efforts since January 22, the report said. It noted that “Russian state-linked false personas and accounts” that had previously posted on subjects including Syria and the French gilets jaunes protests switched to “pushing disinformation about the coronavirus in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French online”.

Pro-Kremlin content sometimes promotes the idea that coronavirus is “a human creation, weaponised by the west”, the report says. Messages targeting Italy aim to exacerbate fears over the ability of national and international authorities to manage the outbreak, while messages in Spanish “advance apocalyptic stories, blame capitalists for trying to benefit from the virus, and emphasise how well Russia and [President Vladimir] Putin are dealing with the outbreak”.

RT Spanish — an outlet of the Russian state-backed news agency formerly known as Russia Today — registered more than 6.8m shares on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit for coronavirus content between January 1 and March 12, the analysis said. That made it the 12th most popular source among a basket of domains surveyed, ahead of some big western media outlets. RT has always denied it spreads disinformation.

The pro-Kremlin pandemic strategy was to “deploy dozens of different and often contradictory narratives that are disseminated through official channels, as well as online and through social media”, the European analysis argued.

“The campaign is designed to exacerbate confusion, panic, and fear, and to prevent people from accessing reliable information about the virus and public safety provisions,” the EU document said.

The European External Action Service declined to comment.

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Moscow




Pompeo warns China against spreading ‘outlandish rumors’ about coronavirus

BY LAURA KELLY – 03/16/20 03:07 PM EDT 377


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday warned his Chinese counterpart against spreading “outlandish rumors” about the coronavirus pandemic.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Pompeo “conveyed strong U.S. objection to [China’s] efforts to shift blame for COVID-19 to the United States” in a phone call with Yang Jiechi, director of China’s Office of Foreign Affairs.

“The Secretary stressed that this is not the time to spread disinformation and outlandish rumors, but rather a time for all nations to come together to fight this common threat,” Ortagus said in a readout of the call.

Pompeo also posted on Twitter accusing Beijing’s government officials of promoting “disinformation” and “outlandish rumors.”

“Spoke today with Director Yang Jiechi about disinformation and outlandish rumors that are being spread through official PRC channels,” he said.

“The United States is sparing no effort to protect our people and contain the global #coronavirus pandemic. Beijing must acknowledge its role and be part of the solution.”

Pompeo’s call with Yang comes amid conspiracy theories taking hold in Chinese media throwing into question the origin of the coronavirus and blaming the U.S. for the spread of the disease that was first detected in Wuhan, China.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes the virus originated from animal-to-human transmission from a livestock market in Wuhan. The World Health Organization has said that COVID-19 is caused by a new virus that was unknown before the outbreak began in Wuhan in December.

China has come under harsh criticism for initially failing to take seriously the growing threat of the highly contagious respiratory infection.

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said last week that China tried to cover up the coronavirus outbreak.

“Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up,” O’Brien said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. “There’s lots of open-source reporting from China, from Chinese nationals, that the doctors involved were either silenced or put in isolation or that sort of thing, so that the word of this virus could not get out.

Nearly three months into the worldwide spread of the disease, global health officials have praised China for its success in reducing the number of new infections and beginning to get the virus spread under control.

“China and other countries are demonstrating that spread of the virus can be slowed and impact reduced through the use of universally applicable actions, such as working across society to identify people who are sick, bringing them to care, following up on contacts, preparing hospitals and clinics to manage a surge in patients, and training health workers,” the World Health Organization said in a statement on March 7.

Chinese officials have recently sought to shift the blame for the origin and spread of the coronavirus.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has suggested on Twitter that the U.S. is responsible for the outbreak of coronavirus, with his messages shared and retweeted by other Chinese diplomats.

“When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” Zhao tweeted last week.

His comments drew a swift rebuke from the State Department, and the agency summoned China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, to say the U.S. would not tolerate the spreading of conspiracy theories.

“Spreading conspiracy theories is dangerous and ridiculous,” a State Department official told Reuters. “We wanted to put the government on notice we won’t tolerate it for the good of the Chinese people and the world.”

Jessica Brandt, head of policy and research for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan and transatlantic initiative that tracks state-backed media in authoritarian countries, said the battle over the coronavirus narrative amounts to an “information contest.”

China is using its media to promote their country’s response to coronavirus, aid to European countries like Italy, and attack the shortcomings of the U.S. response to the viral outbreak, she said.

“It’s fascinating to watch an information contest play out in real time. Beijing appears to be capitalizing on weaknesses in our [the U.S.] coronavirus response, using it to emphasize fissures in the transatlantic relationship and to highlight the chaotic nature of our political system,” she wrote in an email to The Hill.

“Beijing is happy to lift up its way of doing business as a model of effective governance. Recent turns of events on coronavirus create a good moment for that.”

Updated at 5 p.m.




A worker disinfects a railway station in Nanchang City, China, as part of efforts to halt the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19

U.S. Officials Link COVID-19 Disinformation Campaign To Russian Proxy Accounts

February 22, 2020 14:58 GMTUPDATED February 22, 2020 20:46 GMT

Officials in the United States have said that thousands of Russia-linked social media accounts have launched a coordinated effort to spread alarm and misinformation about the COVID-19 crisis.

State Department officials involved in countering Russian disinformation said on February 22 that fake accounts are being used on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and are operating in multiple languages.

“Russia’s intent is to sow discord and undermine U.S. institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns,” acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Philip Reeker was quoted as saying.

Reeker added that the Russia-linked accounts “are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response.”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on February 22 denounced the U.S. claims as “a deliberate fake.”

The U.S. officials said the disinformation campaign has spread unfounded allegations that the virus that causes COVID-19 was a biological weapon developed by the CIA “to wage economic war on China” or part of a Western effort “to push anti-China messages.”

‘Carte Blanche’ To Attack

According to a report prepared by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, several thousand online accounts – many of which have been previously tied to spreading Russia-friendly messages about the war in Syria or the so-called “yellow vest” protests in France – are posting “almost near identical” messages about the COVID-19 crisis. The accounts post at similar times in English, Spanish, Italian, German, and French and, the report says, can be traced back to Russian proxies.

The messages are often similar to reports featured on Russian state media outlets such as RT and Sputnik.

An unnamed State Department official was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying Russian operatives seem to have been given “carte blanche” to attack the United States.

U.S. officials believe the disinformation campaign is already making it more difficult for countries to respond to the health crisis, particularly those in Africa and Asia because of spreading fears of Western actions.

With reporting by The Guardian, TASS, and AFP