REAL CLEAR WORLD - Aug 11, 2020 -
Since the beginning of 2020, the world has seen the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus which became a global emergency on January 30 and a pandemic on March 11. Everyone from physicians and epidemiologists to teachers and grocery store clerks have sought effective means of combatting the spread of the disease. Masks and social distancing help, but they do little to combat the spread of misinformation - which can be almost as dangerous. Our enemy is not only the pandemic, but an “infodemic of misinformation," as UN Secretary-General António Guterres has reminded the world.
In every crisis, leaders and communicators strive to provide accurate, timely information to relevant stakeholders. This has proven particularly difficult during the pandemic as efforts to inform the concerned citizens of the world have run against a coinciding Russian disinformation campaign aimed at sowing panic in the West.
The Russian propaganda machine has been curating and spreading false narratives about the virus among Russian and Western audiences alike, in order to bolster the credibility of the Russian authoritarian regime and undermine the strength of Western democracies. The growing fear and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, its symptoms, and treatments, provide a unique opportunity for Russia to strengthen its influence both at home and abroad.
Russia Propaganda Rule #1: If There is No Story, Make One Up
The misinformation campaign began early and struck hard. On April 5, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to a hospital after exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. The next day, Russian domestic state media RIA Novosti reported that Johnson was urgently hospitalized and on the verge of needing ventilation. This report, the only one of its kind, was debunked by the British press. Riga-based media outlet Meduza asserted the disinformation was part of an ongoing narrative that Western countries are weaker and more vulnerable and were coping poorly amid the pandemic when compared to their Russian counterparts.
In Italy, during the peak of the outbreak, pro-Kremlin media suggested the country’s Western allies abandoned the Italians, whereas Russia gave significant, if non-specific aid. While it is true that Russia sent some equipment to Italy, 80% of the supplies were untimely and unusable in the fight against COVID. Russian media reported widely on the overwhelming gratitude of the Italian people. However, it seems that it was not so easy to find Italians willing to publicly thank Russia: According to La Repubblica, persons who introduced themselves as representatives of Russian media tried to exchange testimonies of gratitude for financial rewards.