Russia spreads coronavirus disinformation to sow panic in the West

Russian media have deployed a “significant disinformation campaign” against the West to worsen the impact of the coronavirus, generate panic and sow distrust, according to an EU document seen by Reuters. Pushing fake news online in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French, the Russian campaign uses contradictory, confusing and malicious reports to make it harder for the EU to communicate its response to the pandemic, the report claims.

“A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVID-19 is ongoing,” said the nine-page internal document, dated March 16, using the name of the disease that can be caused by the coronavirus. “The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries ... in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies,” the document produced by the European External Action Service said.

A specialist EU database has recorded almost 80 cases of disinformation about coronavirus since 22 January, it said. The EEAS declined to comment directly on the report, but a spokesman said the EU was in contact with Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft to “to discuss the spread of disinformation around the outbreak of COVID-19.” There was no immediate comment on the document by Russia, which has previously denied accusations that it has been spreading fake news about the coronavirus on social media.

The EU and NATO have accused Russia of covert action, including disinformation, to try to destabilise the West by exploiting divisions in society. Russia denies any such tactics, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused foreign foes of targeting Russia by spreading fake news about the outbreak to sow panic.

Russian media in Europe have not been successful in reaching the broader public, but provide a platform for anti-EU populists and polarise debate, analysis by EU and non-governmental groups has shown. The EEAS report cited riots at the end of February in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic now seeking to join the EU and NATO, as an example of the consequences of such disinformation.

It said a fake letter purporting to be from the Ukrainian health ministry falsely stated here were five coronavirus cases in the country. Ukrainian authorities say the letter was created outside Ukraine, the EU report said. It also quoted fake news created by Russia in Italy, the second-most heavily affected country in the world, that health systems would be unable to cope and doctors would choose who lived or died because of a lack of beds.

The EEAS has also shared information with Slovakia over the spread of fake news accusing the country’s prime minister, Peter Pellegrini, of being infected with the virus and saying he may have passed on the infection to others at recent summits. EU leaders have been conferring by videoconferences since early March.

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