Experts: Russia and China are actively spreading disinformation amid a pandemic

Disinformation Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

If Beijing’s actions are mainly aimed at improving its image, then Russian disinformation can be life-threatening.

This week, the European Commission issued a statement that Russia and China are conducting influence operations and disinformation campaigns both in the European Union and elsewhere. While accusations of spreading misinformation against Moscow have been repeatedly brought forward, then public accusations against Beijing by officials of the European Commission have been made for the first time..

In April, a number of media outlets wrote that the European Commission «softened» part of its March disinformation report on China under pressure from the latter and fears of deteriorating relations. The legislators of the European Parliament also criticized the European Commission, but the European Commission then rejected these accusations..

«We clearly mention Russia and China, and we have enough evidence to make this kind of statement.», – noted on Wednesday, June 10, Vice-President of the European Commission Vera Yurova. «Misinformation in times of coronavirus can kill. We have a duty to protect our citizens by informing them of false information and to expose the actors responsible for engaging in such practices.», – said the head of the European Foreign Office Josep Borrell.

«Misinformation is a serious problem», – told the Russian Service «Voices of America» Speaker of the European Commission for Foreign Affairs Peter Stano (Peter Stano). According to him, the service created by the European Union to combat disinformation – East Stratcom Task Force – records a significant increase in cases of dissemination of false information by both individuals and those associated with structures of foreign states..

«A lot of misinformation and conspiracy theories are circulated by individual users who don’t necessarily have bad intentions. They are simply misinformed. But some of the misinformation and misinformation comes from coordinated sources and actors who do it on purpose.», – rushes Stano.

The largest amount of false information, the spread of which through open sources records East Stratcom in Europe and some neighboring countries of Europe, comes from entities associated with Russia.

«Since the beginning of January, we have seen about 600 cases of disinformation coming from Russian or pro-Russian sources.», – says Peter Stano, also noting such mouthpieces of Russian disinformation as «Satellite» and RT. «China is also active, but to a lesser extent», – he adds.

Both China and Russia are using the pandemic to undermine the image of the European Union. If Beijing, first of all, tries to refute criticism in its address regarding concealment of information about the scale of the COVID-19 epidemic, and focuses on the propaganda of its «disproportionately large» aid to other countries, the Russian disinformation campaign goes further, sometimes creating a real danger to life, says Peter Stano. It is Russian subjects that spread false information claiming that, for example, the use of chlorine or alcohol can cure coronavirus.

According to the representative of the European Commission, one of the reasons for more aggressive disinformation on the part of Russia may be Moscow’s keen desire to undermine the image of Europe, including in the eyes of post-Soviet states that seek to join the European bloc: «It is inconvenient for Russia on its borders to have a role model in the person of the European Union, which is a community of countries based on the principles of democracy, the rule of law, respect for its citizens, fundamental rights and freedoms.».

Undermining the West as a Way to Maintain Authoritarian Regimes

Senior Research Fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute of Canada, Professor Charles Burton (Charles Burton, Macdonald-Laurier Institute) also notes that the aim of Chinese propaganda and disinformation is to glorify the alleged victory of the Chinese government in the fight against coronavirus – against the background of the West, unable to cope with the pandemic. This propaganda from Beijing is aimed both at the international arena – with the aim of increasing geopolitical influence, and at a domestic audience, which increasingly doubts whether the Chinese Communist Party has really successfully dealt with the pandemic. The professor said this on Thursday, June 11, during a web event organized by his institute. «Fighting the Spread of Foreign Misinformation in the COVID Era».

«The idea behind these narratives – undermine democracy, assuming that only China has responded adequately and effectively to the threat of the new coronavirus», – added an expert who also expressed concern that this propaganda could resonate with authoritarian leaders in a number of countries with fragile democracies.

A number of Chinese officials have publicly made false statements both against the European Union and the United States, Charles Burton recalls. Thus, the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Zhao Lijian wrote in his "Twitter" that the coronavirus was allegedly brought to Chinese Wuhan by the US military. In mid-April, France summoned the Chinese ambassador to Paris for an explanation after an article on the embassy’s website alleged that French nursing home nurses left their wards to die of hunger and disease..

China has also disseminated allegations that secret US biological laboratories are operating in the former Soviet republics, which is a copy of the narrative of Russian propaganda, the professor added.. «Devaluation of the values ​​of liberal democracy in the world – this is what unites Russia and China», – he concluded.

Experts: Russia and China are actively spreading disinformation amid a pandemic

Expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, formerly Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Susan Spaulding (Suzanne Spaulding, CSIS) noted that China and Russia have several different motives in undermining Western liberal democracies..

While Beijing is trying to counter the West with its own model of governance, demonstrating that it can maintain order, stability and develop the economy, the Russian leader has no model that can be opposed to liberal democracy, Spalding said: «Therefore, its purpose – destroy the reputation of Western democracy by showing that it is no better than a hypocritical and corrupt government in Russia. And the key audience here, of course, is its own population.».

The second goal of Russian influence operations in the West is to create discord, undermining citizens’ confidence in democratic institutions. The disinformation spread by Russia, if it does not create, then tries to deepen the problems existing in American society, the expert emphasizes. But if today’s protesters on the streets of America want a change for the better, then Russian propaganda aims to deprive the public of hope for change, provoking a sense of despair, concludes Susan Spaulding..

Editor-in-Chief of the American edition of the Daily Beast and an expert at the Washington Foundation «Free Russia» (Free Russia Foundation) journalist Michael Weiss (Michael Weiss) notes that Russia is increasing the spread of various conspiracy theories. He recalled that the Russian «First channel» dedicated the plot to one of these theories, according to which Microsoft founder Bill Gates is involved in the spread of the coronavirus.

Proponents of this theory believe that Bill Gates, who also founded a charitable foundation dedicated to health and vaccination issues around the world, intends to implant microchips to billions of people to reduce the world’s population. At the same time, as the journalist notes, in its story the Russian channel also referred to American sources to give legitimacy to its statements. One of «so-called sources», as Weiss characterizes them, was the use of the statements of Robert Kennedy Jr., a well-known opponent of vaccination, or a link to a Florida-registered homeopathic medicine website. «They essentially take some of the homebrew conspiracy theories in the West and reinforce them.», – said the journalist during an online discussion.

Michael Weiss recalled that the Kremlin accompanied the assistance to Italy in the fight against the pandemic with a large-scale anti-European information campaign. Its goals were to spread allegations of the alleged helplessness of the European Union and a lack of solidarity between European states, as well as the assertion that it was Russia, and not the EU or NATO, who provided assistance to Italy..

Experts note that the West should strengthen the fight against disinformation, including conducting programs to educate the population.

On Wednesday, the European Commission also announced new plans to combat the spread of false information. Among them – requiring social media companies to provide monthly reports on their measures to combat disinformation, informing their users about the possibility of knowingly inaccurate content, and sharing data with researchers. The European Commission also considers it important to improve cooperation in the fight against disinformation between national governments and international organizations.

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