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GlobalFocus CenterReport on COVID-19-related false information

GlobalFocus Center is an independent international studies think tank which produces in-depth research and high quality analysis on foreign policy, security, European affairs, good governance and development.

This is a synthetic picture of the regional dis-/misinformation environment, resulting from the weeklymonitoring of 17+countries*by GlobalFocus Centerand its regional partners within the Open Information Partnership COVID-19 Working Group (CWG).Each organisation provides monitoring and analysis of evolving and emerging disinformation and misinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional insight and research have been provided by OIP partners, including Zinc Network and Bellingcat.

*Countries covered: Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia & Kosovo, Slovakia, Ukraine.

MAIN ANALYTICAL CONCLUSIONS:

Monitoring of the COVID-19-related spread of false information across the region reveals a number of  key features of the use of dis-/misinformation and conspiracy theories for the purposes of manipulation of public opinion:
Narratives, targets and vectors are adjusted to fit the local context. In Russia, where the focus is on opposing a ‘strong’ Russia to the ‘weak’ West, we see multiple narratives portraying Russia as much more  competent in managing the pandemic, better equipped, even historically prepared in that sense (based on scientific knowledge and experience from  the former USSR) than EU countries or the US and able to provide other countries with essential assistance. In Hungary, where the government has branded itself as the ideological leader of an illiberal world order, emphasis is placed on the demise of the West and of the EU, its hypocritical attacks on Hungary while being unable to provide the country with assistance. Pro-government or government-controlled media also attempt to link immigration, a key topic of Viktor Orban’s anti-EU crusade, to the pandemic. They also specifically and permanently target opponents: from George Soros to the opposition mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karacsony. In Georgia, a profoundly orthodox country, narratives are linked to restrictive measures being actually a conspiracy against Orthodoxism and traditional values; vectors of influence are often orthodox leaders. As Tbilisi nurtures NATO and EU aspirations, another prevalent narrative is how its recent NATO membership has failed to benefit North Macedonia in the pandemic. Anti-NATO narratives can also be found in the Baltics, where they are shaped around both NATO failure to offer support and the continuation of military exercises, while NATO troops are allegedly carriers of the virus, thus increasing the risk to the local population (the stories being carried mostly by Russian-language media). In countries like Czechia, Romania, Slovakia, anti-EU and more generally anti-Western narratives are dominant.

There is seamless circulation of narratives across the region and ‘successful’ ones get recirculated in more and more countries. The ‘conspiracy of global elites’, led by Bill Gates, George Soros and others has had a
long lifecycle, crossing borders from Armenia to Lithuania and Romania and not sparing a single country in-between. As the lack of trust in national governments and in the actual ability of the EU and Atlantic system to offer tangible benefits to members of the EU and NATO increases among the general population, the pandemic has offered a priceless opportunity to substantiate claims of the hypocrisy of the West, caused by an actual conspiracy from the shadows whose goals are the opposite of those publicly proclaimed. A new world order where Russia and China are key players is offered as an alternative.

Misinformation and disinformation are supported by conspiracy theories, the latter helping create useful fertile ground for the former. Conspiracy theories are rarely, unlike what they might seem, just the ramblings of ignorants, without a destabilising purpose. Often they help create fear, mistrust, apprehension that make the public even more prone to deliberately spread false information. At the same time, the large numbers of followers that conspiracy websites and social media accumulate make them valuable channels in spreading dis-/misinformation too.

The pandemic has not necessarily created new targets, narratives or channels of mis-/disinformation. It has, however, provided ample munition for the above, as all effective disinformation relies on some partial truths. The main victims of dis-/misinformation are likely to be the EU, NATO and the international institutions (UN, WHO), the pioneers of a Western-centric global order. The atmosphere of fear, the lack of transparency, the additional government powers to impose restrictions, the confusion about the virus and the partial and often flawed responses of Western states and international institutions have created a fatal mix that can be exaggerated manifold in the hands of able propagandists. The return on investment has thus increased significantly: the (manipulative) message is now easy for anyone to understand and adhere to, there is direct human interest, the actors in the pandemic are audience ‘favourites’ (Big Pharma, financiers like Soros, billionaires like Bill Gates), the emotional scenes are everywhere – such as in Romania, where one of the key narratives is that of a conspiracy between Berlin and president Iohannis and his liberal government to send Romanian workers to Germany for agriculture, despite mistreatment and risks to their health, as well as to the UK, which until recently rejected Romanian workers. The narrative is supported by fragments of truthful information: crowded buses with no sanitary precautions, abuses to Romanian workers in Germany, etc. The exercise alone has proven to hostile states ready to use stratcom as a weapon, whether Russia, China or others, that the method can win them important victories, both in front of favourable audiences from more like-minded states and in front of not-so-friendly audiences.

The role of far-right movements in disseminating disinformation has been underestimated, as well as their potential for being employed as ‘useful idiots’ by state actors, even by states that they would normally be ideologically opposed to, such as Russia or China. The unity of message among these groups in several countries is striking and potential connections among these might be a good thing to explore in the future.

Orthodox groups have a lot of impact and reach; potentially more so than the actual Orthodox Church in countries with an orthodox majority. While the Church as an institution may have wider reach and
through the orthodox faith it may offer the doctrinary basis, more toxic and often more radical messages come from fringe groups than from the mainstream clergy. In countries like Romania, with an 85% Orthodox population, the surprising reach and force of neoprotestant groups (including through members holding high office or significant positions in all political parties) is also worth noting, and possibly so far underestimated. Their message, often a variation of conservative ones originating in the US (in groups with close links to those in Romania), reaches well beyond those of the same confession (i.e. Nasul TV, for instance, which receives funding from evangelical groups in the US and Canada, has over 150,000 followers, among whom non-evangelical anti-vaxers, etc.)

The transformative impact of propaganda cannot be underestimated. While it may seem that the majority of citizens have a rational approach to social relations and political realities, the moment that marks the crossing of the threshold to ‘critical mass’ able to fundamentally influence a country’s security and strategic environment is hard to anticipate or assess. A recent IRES poll in Romania shows that only 4 out of 10 people would vaccinate against coronavirus and that half of them believe the state and media are engaged in a conspiracy to limit their rights under the pretext of a pandemic. This is happening in a nominally European, pro-Western country, whose values have long shown however to diverge from European ones in significant ways, and partly so because of persistent mis-/disinformation that has tended to go under the radar. The impact of the crisis here and elsewhere is too early to assess –but it may be too late when we do.

Read the full report on: https://www.global-focus.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Monitoring-COVID-19-related-disinformation-April-July-2020.pdf

 

Photo source: UNESCO

 

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