As the new coronavirus continues its march across the world, journalists and researchers have already debunked a number of false stories, but many more are likely to appear as the battle against the virus rages on. The term “infodemic” has caught on as a reference to the whirlwind of disinformation around COVID-19. While these stories have come from a variety of sources, Russian media and online trolls have been some of the most pernicious propagators. In addition to spreading disinformation about the U.S. and the West on state-run media and social networking sites, Russia may have covered up facts and engaged in false messaging to its own citizens.
So far, Russia is reporting a very low number of coronavirus infections, even lower than the tiny country of Luxembourg, despite the fact that Russia has supposedly run a high number of tests. As of right now, the share of cases that turned up positive compared to the number of tests run is just 0.21 percent, which would be the world’s second lowest (after the United Arab Emirates). While the number of cases in Russia is growing, and the country has imposed a number of restrictions — including closing all schools in Moscow — both experts and the Russian population are skeptical of officially reported numbers. A history of opacity and obfuscation during crises such as the nuclear accident in Chernobyl has led everyday Russians to be somewhat suspicious of messaging from their government in these situations. An unexplained jump in the number of pneumonia cases, which in Moscow rose 37 percent from the year before, has fueled apprehension. (The government in Moscow later walked those numbers back and stated that the number of cases actually fell.)
Russian President Vladimir Putin asserts that the situation in Russia is under control due to a number of measures the government implemented swiftly and early, including closing the border with China and setting up quarantine zones. Russia has also tested large numbers of people since February. However the test is run out of a single lab in Siberia, and evidence shows it is much less sensitive than tests administered in many other countries, which could lead to greatly distorted figures.
In reply to the skeptics, Putin has pointed to disinformation from abroad, stating Russia’s adversaries are spreading false narratives about the coronavirus in Russia to cause panic among the Russian people. A Russian cybersecurity firm called Group-IB said in early March that it had uncovered thousands of posts on messaging services and social media sites like the Russian social networking site V Kontakte containing false information about the spread of coronavirus in Russia. As a result, the Russian communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, blocked access to a large number of posts it claimed contained disinformation, and even threatened to revoke the licenses of news outlets discovered to be distributing disinformation about the virus that “sows panic” among the Russian people. It also took aim at several news outlets propagating news it deemed fake and ordered those entities, including the radio station Echo Moskvy, to remove the offending content.
Spreading Disinformation Abroad
At the same time, Russia has promulgated false coronavirus narratives about the U.S. and the West through a multi-pronged effort playing out across state-run TV, radio, websites and social media. Since early February, theories that the U.S. and the West are intentionally responsible for the spread of coronavirus have featured prominently on Russian channels including Channel One, the state network that reaches the largest number of Russians. Stories alternately blame American intelligence agencies, pharmaceutical companies and billionaires — including Bill Gates and George Soros — for creating the virus. One news report went so far as to imply President Donald Trump’s involvement in the creation of coronavirus, since “corona” means “crown” in both Latin and Russian, and Trump was previously involved in running beauty pageants. The use of traditional media to spread false narratives is reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s “active measures,” a vast media ecosystem that the USSR used to advance disinformation both inside and outside its borders. An infamous example of this was the spread of a false story asserting the United States created the AIDS virus. While such stories could take years to make their way through the media web and into public consciousness during the Cold War, today’s digitally connected world has greatly sped up the spread of disinformation.
In February, an unpublished report from the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center purported to show around two million Russia-linked tweets in a variety of languages pushing disinformation primarily about the U.S. and the origins of the coronavirus. An internal report from the European Union published on March 16 also linked a “significant disinformation campaign” to Russia, saying a monitoring team had uncovered around 80 examples of Russian disinformation over the previous two-month period. A number of these narratives also related to the manufacture of the virus by the West, pharmaceutical companies, or other entities like the Belarussian opposition. Other narratives took aim at EU member states in order to cause panic, such as the false claim that the Slovak prime minister had contracted coronavirus and infected other EU leaders during the Brussels summit in February. Moscow for its part, has strongly denied these reports, stating there is no evidence to back up the accusations.
Some of these stories had widespread distribution. For the two-month tracking period, the Spanish-language news service of the Russian government-funded television network, RT Spanish, was the 12th most read source for coronavirus news on social media sites, placing ahead of even some prominent Western news organizations.
Rather than writing posts themselves, those spreading Russian disinformation have primarily reposted and amplified the theories of others, including stories originating from China, Iran, and the American far right. This potentially allows Russia to fend off accusations that it is creating disinformation, by instead stating it is simply reporting on the statements of others. As is often the case with Russian disinformation, a multitude of different and often contradictory narratives are deployed without regard for whether a single idea actually sticks. The immediate aim is to confuse the public and elites, thereby subverting trust in national entities, eroding confidence in the ability of Western governments to respond to the crisis, and generally fostering panic around the globe. In the long term, this disinformation could play into a number of Russian strategic goals, including the eventual disintegration of trust in Western institutions and the liberal international order. Moscow hopes this disintegration will help restore Russia to great power status, preserve its sphere of influence, and bolster the regime.