March 24, 2020
IntelBrief: Russia Exploits Coronavirus as New Opportunity to Spread Disinformation
It was only a matter of time before Russia, which has practically industrialized its ability to sow disinformation and meddle in the affairs of other states, looked to spread disinformation surrounding the coronavirus, a global pandemic that is crippling nations’ health care systems and economies. A transatlantic rift has emerged between the United States and Europe, an opening ripe for Russian interference as Moscow seeks to further divide an already divided West. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with China’s President Xi Jinping, with Putin offering praise for Xi’s response to handling the spread of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, China’s suppression of information in the early stages of the outbreak allowed the coronavirus to spread across the world. The coronavirus pandemic has become the archetypical ‘infodemic,’ which the World Health Organization (WHO) has described as ‘an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—rendering it difficult to find trustworthy sources of information and reliable guidance.’
Russian disinformation is designed to cause panic and sow distrust. The coronavirus pandemic is tailor-made for the spread of such disinformation. Russia does this through promoting completely fabricated stories, or by amplifying real stories likely to pit Western nations against one another. The coronavirus pandemic is an opportune event for Russia to exploit and has even presented new fault lines for the Russians to target—from rich versus poor to old versus young. Citizens are angry at their governments for being ill-prepared, but tensions are also high within communities, as panic buying has pitted neighbors against each other. The overwhelming economic anxiety and fears of a pending recession have further exacerbated the issue. Russian disinformation seeks to highlight generational tensions, as memes blame entire demographic categories for either over- or under- reacting to new societal restrictions imposed by local and state governments. Russia’s disinformation campaign will inevitably become even more aggressive in the lead up to the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections.
A recent document compiled by the European Union outlines the various forms assumed by Russia’s disinformation campaign and notes that Russian State media and pro-Kremlin accounts have pushed their messages in English, Spanish, Italian, German, and French. Russian disinformation efforts have included an aggressive promotion of Iranian claims that the cause of the coronavirus is a biological weapon employed by the United States. By spreading disinformation about the origins of the virus, especially that it was concocted as a weapon in a Western laboratory, the message resonates with legions of conspiracy theorists worldwide. Other documented disinformation has included stories about migrants as the cause of the coronavirus and that migrants are spreading the virus throughout the EU. Other disinformation concludes that the coronavirus itself is a hoax, and numerous so-called ‘cures’ or remedies for the coronavirus that often dovetail with anti-vaccine disinformation.
Official Russian figures report less than 300 cases out of a population of 146 million. Needless to say, few have faith that the Kremlin is telling the truth, although it is difficult to accurately predict the extent of the virus’ spread in Russia. In the past, Russia lied about official figures related to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, as well as drug use statistics within the country. Recent Russian propaganda juxtaposes Russia’s alleged ‘success’ in combating the virus with the numerous well-documented failures in Western countries, including the United States. Some Russian propaganda has blamed the European Union for the coronavirus and claimed that the EU itself is a disaster for Europe. In reality, it is difficult to say how badly Russia has been hit by the spread of the coronavirus. What is certain, however, is that Russia will continue to seize opportunities to peddle disinformation about the virus with the strategic intent of dividing the West at the very time that countries need to be working together.
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