BRUSSELS: The European Union accused Russia of putting lives at risk by mounting what it said was a “significant campaign” to spread false or misleading information about the coronavirus pandemic.
An internal EU document seen by this news agency on Wednesday warned pro-Kremlin media outlets are promoting disinformation about COVID-19 in order to make the crisis worse in the West by undermining trust in healthcare systems.
Brussels’ warning comes less than a month after US officials said thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts had embarked on a coordinated effort to spread alarm about the virus.
The EU’s Stratcom East task force, which tackles disinformation emanating from Russia, said it had identified nearly 80 cases of disinformation about coronavirus since January 22.
“Pro-Kremlin media outlets have been prominent in spreading disinformation about the coronavirus, with the aim to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems,” the EU document, circulated to all 27 member states said.
“Pro-Kremlin disinformation messages advance a narrative that coronavirus is a human creation, weaponised by the West.” Russia strenuously denied the accusations.
“If there was even a single concrete example, I could comment on it but once again they are just unfounded allegations,” foreign ministry spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
The task force said accounts linked to the Russian state have been pushing disinformation online about coronavirus in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French.
The strategy is not to try to get one idea to dominate but to pump out dozens of different, sometimes contradictory narratives to sow confusion and fear and make it difficult for people to access reliable information about the virus.
“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 internal document said.
Examples include the idea that coronavirus is a biological weapon deployed by China, the US or UK, that it originally broke out in the United States rather than China or that the virus is an instrument to impose totalitarian rule.
According to researchers working with the task force, the pro-Kremlin sources are not authoring the theories themselves.
Instead they are picking up and amplifying conspiracy theories originating elsewhere, such as China, Iran or the US far-right.
EU spokesman Peter Stano said there had been an increase in disinformation from outside the EU, including “from Russia or from providers which are based in Russia or linked somehow to pro-Kremlin sources”.
The EU is working closely with its member states as well as other international actors such as Nato and the G7 to try to crack down on disinformation, Stano said.
People should turn to reliable, trustworthy sources for information, Stano said, warning that false rumours and propaganda were endangering lives.
“Whoever is spreading the disinformation is essentially playing with people’s lives,” he said.
“This needs to be taken into account by the (media) users but also by the providers and by those who are engaged in distributing and forwarding all this wrong information and sowing panic or distrust.” Major online platforms including Google, Facebook and Twitter are working with national governments and health authorities to stop the spread of disinformation.
But the EU’s internal report said they were still not doing enough to “systematically share data and statistics with researchers and others”.
Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2020