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, according to 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 says.
The nine-page report — dated March 16 and seen by the Financial Times — outlines a wide range of attempts internationally to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic by spreading implausible narratives. It says the effectiveness of vetting put in place by social media companies for coronavirus content is still unclear.
“A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding Covid-19 is ongoing,” says the 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 has recorded almost 80 cases in its database of Covid-19-related disinformation efforts since January 22, the report says. It notes that “Russian state-linked false personas and accounts” that have 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 across Facebook, Twitter and Reddit for coronavirus content between January 1 and March 12, the analysis says. 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 that it spreads disinformation.
The pro-Kremlin pandemic strategy is 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 argues.
“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 says, noting there is evidence pro-Kremlin outlets often do not author disinformation themselves, but amplify false or unsubstantiated reports from other sources. “These efforts are in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies from within by exploiting their vulnerabilities and divisions.”
The European External Action Service declined to comment on the document. It said it had intensified its monitoring and exposure of disinformation flows because of the pandemic and was working closely on this with international partners, including Nato and the G7 leading economies.
Russia has denied previous allegations by western governments and intelligence agencies of using disinformation or opinion-forming campaigns, most notably around the 2016 election of Donald Trump as US president.
While social media businesses have taken “considerable actions” to curb the spread of coronavirus disinformation, it is hard to assess their impact because of privacy restrictions on the data they share with authorities, the report says. It urges the companies to provide more details on how long it takes them to react to the flagging of content as disinformation, and on what they are doing to prevent users “capitalising on citizens’ concerns to spread divisive messages and sow distrust in our democratic institutions”.
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