Elisabeth BrawSenior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies
Of course it is! It’s the perfect subject around which to spread disinformation for the simple reason that most of us are not epidemiologists or even medical doctors—although it has been shocking, and sometimes amusing, to see people with no medical expertise opine on how to address the coronavirus outbreak.
So, we’re not just living through a massive health crisis, but most of us also have little understanding of the details of the virus.
What’s more, because the virus outbreak with its enforced isolation and passivity is also taking a psychological toll and harming jobs and the economy, it’s a perfect storm into which it’s extremely easy to feed false narratives.
China has been extremely good at this. Its diplomats and news outlets propagate conspiracy theories, for example blaming the coronavirus pandemic on the U.S. army. The Chinese government also energetically promotes news of medical supplies sent by China to other countries but doesn’t mention that only a small share are donations.
Nevertheless, because it’s very difficult for ordinary citizens to monitor which gifts are being sent where and by whom, Beijing has managed to present itself as somewhat of a coronavirus savior; another case of fake news.
Francesca GhirettiAsia Researcher at Istituto Affari Internazionali
Yes, the ongoing coronavirus crisis is creating fertile ground for disinformation. However, the spread of disinformation was already growing in Europe before the arrival of the virus, so the current situation is partially inherited.
The emergence of the pandemic has nonetheless boosted this trend, as crises lead to insecurity and uncertainty, which offer the perfect landscape in which to frame disinformation. In a condition where even specialists struggle to find answers, anybody can offer his or her interpretation, and it is then up to each individual to decide what to believe.
Polarizing, propaganda-like information appears to be the new normal and is being disseminated by all sides. Undoubtedly, China is busy convincing the world that the virus did not originate in Wuhan, but China is not alone: Russia, the United States, and European media—admittedly to different degrees—are offering a type of information that seems more dedicated to selling a narrative rather than informing people.
Those who could most effectively contribute to the fight against disinformation are the same people who often pursue it: public and media figures. If the trend is to be reversed, fact-based information should be rewarded, not sensational titles.
Despite all of the above, it must be acknowledged that reliable information is still largely available in Europe.
István HegedűsChairman of the Hungarian Europe Society
It is not always about disinformation propagated by unfriendly foreign powers.
In a deeply polarized society like Hungary’s, in times of the coronavirus pandemic, many people admire government actions taken by the wise national leader without hesitation, whilst those belonging to the other political camp do not believe in the correctness of any data. Especially since a special task force—mostly policemen—has the role of answering preselected questions at so-called press conferences with no journalists present in the room.
Meanwhile, the ruling Fidesz party and the opposition Budapest mayor got involved in a mutual blame game on necessary preventive methods. For Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the crisis is once again an opportunity to criticize the European Union by saying that the West does not help—masks come from the East. Since the end of March 2020, public discourse in Hungary has been placed under even stricter control following the introduction of emergency rule.
And now, a Socialist mayor is facing charges of spreading fake news after claiming that his town had become a center of the epidemic. A potential trial might show whether liberal democracy has arrived at its “Mohács”—the name of the mayor’s town serves as a general reference in Hungary to the catastrophic defeat in the battle against the Ottomans in 1526.
Toomas Hendrik IlvesFormer President of Estonia
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The 2008 quip of Rahm Emanuel, former U.S. president Barack Obama’s chief of staff, has become the battle cry of all who engage in disinformation.
In serious crises, citizens are confused, governments have not settled on policy, there is an overall proliferation of competing theories, unconfirmed facts, and locally generated rumors, not to mention the peace-time version of Clausewitz’s fog of war.
These are the perfect ingredients for concocting disinformation. Russia and China do seem to have separate agendas and motivations in their approaches to the pandemic. The negative international press directed at China (accusing it of cover-ups and of providing dubious figures) has spawned a Chinese charm campaign in virus-affected countries, largely with aid—which occasionally backfires due to the poor quality of the large Chinese shipments of personal protective equipment and test kits.
Russia has tried the same in Italy and the United States, similarly with dubious success as 80 percent of aid has turned out to be useless.
At the same time, China has continued its aggressive (and often offensive) diplomatic offensive with diplomats threatening and vilifying their host country and its media. Russia has merely continued its tried-and-true methods of simply making up lies, be they about COVID-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus) among NATO troops in the Baltic states or Boris Johnson having been intubated when the only fact was that the UK prime minister had been admitted to a hospital.
When the dust settles, odds are that these will all be own goals. Lies and disinformation on subjects that turn out to be questions of life and death to much of the European citizenry will not be a problem just in one or two countries as it was with the MH-17 downing in 2014 or the Skripal poisoning in 2018.
Agnieszka LeguckaSenior Research Fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs
Given the pandemic in Europe, it is hardly surprising that broad conspiracy theories, disinformation, and propaganda are flourishing across Europe.
However, these campaigns, unlike others, are unique—they are state controlled and the message is well coordinated, including the targets and tools. What is also new is that Russia is promoting Chinese propaganda, for example suggesting that SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus, is a U.S. biological weapon and that European democracies—including the EU and NATO—are not effective in combating the threat. Now, China is the leading country in pandemic disinformation in Europe.
What should the EU do about it, especially since the Chinese and Russian propaganda is aimed at breaking down EU unity in specific areas? While considering free speech issue, the fight against disinformation must include limiting Russian media—namely RT and Sputnik—in EU countries and sanctioning misleading, state-sponsored media. Then, by cooperating with for example Google, Twitter, and Facebook, suspicious online accounts such as anonymous ones that transmit false information can be eliminated.
The EU can provide an early warning to the public of an information attack by expanding the scope of work of East StratCom, an EU task force focused on Russian disinformation and propaganda, and transforming it into a fully fledged permanent structure within the European External Action Service (EEAS).
Denis MacShaneFormer UK Minister for Europe
The coronavirus could be rebaptized “conspiracy virus” or “fake news 19” as the Chinese and Russian governments have used the pandemic to spread disinformation, especially across social media.
Beijing wants to duck responsibility for the criminal behavior of the ruling Communist Party in China, which was informed about the threat in November 2019 and for several weeks tried to silence doctors reporting on the new virus, held mass banquets and gatherings in Wuhan, and let scores of thousands of infected Chinese fly all over Asia and the world.
The Sino-Russian objective is to divide the Western communities so that European and American public opinion attack their own governments.
That messaging, which has been disseminated both directly by government officials and indirectly via online media channels, has sought to blame the United States for creating or propagating the virus and to undermine governments taking measures against the pandemic.
The EEAS has collected some evidence of this and the EU’s commissioner for values and transparency, Věra Jourová, has spoken out on the anti-EU disinformation campaigns. But both Brussels and national capitals need to go on the front foot with a targeted anti-disinformation program collating the many examples and publishing them so that domestic public opinion is informed about this new disinformation onslaught.
Jovana MarovićExecutive Director of Politikon Network
Yes. Disinformation is spreading alongside the coronavirus explosion around the world.
Fighting disinformation is challenging even in regular circumstances, and, at the moment, an “infodemic” is particularly important to combat due to its harmful consequences on public health but also because of its potential long-term political impact. That’s why the way governments communicate facts on the coronavirus pandemic is of particular importance, and the narrative should be harmonized across Europe with a focus on credible sources correcting common myths.
Social networks but also other online platforms should continue to sponsor official information sources as well as the World Health Organization’s website, which regularly updates and corrects false claims about the pandemic. Messaging platforms shaped by international organizations and national and local governments are also common these days, which is a helpful anti-misinformation tool.
Yet, suppressing fake news cannot mean restricting media freedom and freedom of expression by arresting journalists and social media users for posts the authorities dislike or by introducing draconian measures—something which often happens in illiberal democracies.
James PammentNonresident Scholar in the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The coronavirus is creating opportunities in Europe for adversarial actors to exploit by using disinformation and other hybrid influence means.
There is evidence that Russia and China are running interference campaigns and, at present, some public attribution of other state actors such as Iran. There are also many active criminal groups, some of whom may be state backed. Many individuals are distributing misinformation and disinformation.
Both the Russian and Chinese campaigns seek to improve the reputation of their countries at the expense of the West’s handling of the crisis. The campaigns involve coordinated efforts, parts of which are transparently state led, parts of which are not. Evidence of the size and scope of these campaigns is insufficient. However, it is clear that at least two major state-backed campaigns are ongoing and conducted across various platforms and in various languages, aimed at a wide variety of international audiences.
There are profound health and public safety risks associated with the disinformation of such campaigns; undermining the climate of debate and trust in critical health-related institutions are clear goals. While a campaign to boost a country’s image is perfectly understandable, the use of disinformation and other illegitimate influence techniques must be exposed.
A specific list of transgressions should be collected and publicly attributed in order to support public understanding of influence operations and foreign interference. And digital platforms should be encouraged to share more comprehensive, real-time insight on issues directly related to public health, public safety, and national security.
Gianni RiottaVisiting Professor at Princeton University and Director of Luiss University Data Lab
I work on disinformation with the Luiss University Datalab and the European Observatory against Disinformation (SOMA), while focusing on AI and fake news with the team at T6 Ecosystems. I reported in St. Petersburg on the infamous Internet Research Agency and was a member of the EU High-Level Group on Fake News and Disinformation.
Yet nothing prepared me for the avalanche of hatred spurred by the pandemic.
In a new infosphere, overcharged with fear and depression, the disinformation masters of war focus, brilliantly, on two levels. They gamble on the disease, charging that it’s a weapon devised in a lab or discounting it as a passing flu. At the same time, they use it to dismantle the European Union.
The situation is tragic. This time, half-baked measures will not work. Debunking will be overwhelmed by swarms of lies. The platforms acted swiftly, but the “Lies Machine” adapted to their new checks.
Yet, the pandemic offers an opportunity not to be missed: pushed against a life-and-death scenario, people realize the stern difference between Truth and Lies much clearer than when just debating local politics in a pub. Because now, Truth means Life, Lies mean Death.