Khatuna Mshvidobadze, Senior Fellow at Rondeli Foundation, Professorial Lecturer at The George Washington University and Adjunct Professor of Cybersecurity at Utica College, NY. She tweets @KhatunaMs.
The Trio—Russia, China and Iran—has seized upon the global Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to spread disinformation. It is a multidirectional and multi-faceted campaign and—make no mistake—it is aimed at undermining public confidence in the western countries. Interestingly, all three countries are weaving remarkably similar fake narratives. “It is pretty defused, unfortunately,” stated US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “but we have certainly seen it come from places like China and Russia and Iran.”
And the lament is not solely American. According to a report of the European Union’s External Action Service, essentially the EU’s foreign ministry, China and Russia are using the global Coronavirus crisis to spread online disinformation. State and state-backed actors, says the EU report, seek to exploit the public health crisis to advance geopolitical interests.
Not only are the Russian, Chinese and Iranian narratives similar, their methods all appear to have been snatched from the Russian disinformation playbook.
In China, this dovetails with the already well-established internal censorship mechanism of the Communist Party. And the party’s stranglehold on Chinese citizens has only intensified during the pandemic. Journalists, doctors and online voices who dare to disagree or try to send true messages to the rest of the world are somehow silenced or even “disappeared.”
With independent voices in China silenced, the United States is trying to investigate a possible Chinese cover-up of Covid-19 information, specifically whether the virus escaped from the P4 laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. P4 is the highest biosafety level that a laboratory handling dangerous biological agents can have—Wuhan is one of two in China. Pending hard facts, US officials remain cautious.
Meanwhile, China is pre-emptively directing a propaganda torrent against the US. “When did patient zero begin in the US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be the US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” Chinese Foreign Minister Lijian Zhao Tweeted on March 12.
On the same day, Zhao also urged followers to read and retweet a conspiracy theory from Global Research, a Kremlin-friendly Canadian website, that promoted the fake narrative that the Covid-19 virus originated at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland. Zhao’s propaganda spree preceded a diplomatic social media barrage from a handful of China’s ambassadors asserting that Covid-19 did not originate in China.
Even academic and scientific sources are used. In February, ChinaXiv.org, a so-called open repository and distribution service for scientific research, published a report suggesting that the virus might have been introduced from outside.
Meanwhile, Chinese state-controlled media outlets disseminated propaganda to millions of Chinese followers on Twitter. For example, state-backed Global Times advanced the idea that the spread of Covid-19 may have started in Italy before it was detected in China. And on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging website with over 445 million monthly active users, a trending story alleged that US contestants carried the virus to the Military World Games, held in Wuhan last October.
“The Chinese government is also targeting its own domestic audience with the narratives,” says William T. Hagestad, author of several books on Chinese cyber operations, “in an apparent attempt to mitigate the fallout from the Beijing government’s initial mistakes in handling the Wuhan virus crisis.
“China’s strategy could thus be aimed at preserving and expanding China’s information space,” continues Hagestad, “where the Chinese government’s interpretation of events is generally accepted. This aim is also often inherent in Russian information operations.”
As China draws from the Russian disinformation playbook, the Kremlin is not to be outdone. The Russian government-owned Sputnik newswire service has spewed forth propaganda in 30 languages. Mirroring Chinese narratives are stories such as coronavirus was created in a laboratory in the United States or that the US developed Covid-19 as a bioweapon intended to weaken China’s economy.
Recycling a shopworn Moscow yarn, Sputnik reported that Pentagon-funded biological laboratories all over the world were involved in the creation of Covid-19. Predictably, at the center of this recurring conspiracy theory was the Lugar Lab in Georgia. The story was shared massively on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms in different languages.
In reality, the Lugar lab in Georgia is a bulwark in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. The lab was opened in 2011 with the help of the US to fight infectious disease. Lugar lab is a critically important facility in Georgia to identify and report potentially deadly pathogens before they are spread. The Georgian government tried to invite Russian experts to participate in a site visit, but Moscow rejected the invitation as such efforts would have choked the Kremlin’s propaganda agenda.
RT, a Kremlin mouthpiece, which is also available in different languages and broadcast in over 100 countries, tirelessly spews anti-western propaganda. An RT Arabic story, for example, featured the narrative that “Coronavirus is an Anglo-Saxon biological weapon originated in US labs.” The channel interviewed Russian biologist and former UN Expert Igor Nikulin who promoted the false information that the virus could not have happened naturally as it has four HIV inserts. This was viewed over 1.3 million times on RT’s YouTube channel.
And RT has repeatedly targeted Bill Gates and his charitable foundation. RT’s Michele Greenstein questioned the role of Bill Gates in the Coronavirus pandemic. “Maybe this is something to consider when you’re reading headlines about how the Gates Foundation is pledging money to fight the Coronavirus,” she said. RT’s Rick Sanchez also propagated disinformation about Bill Gates’ links to controversial medical research.
Like China, Russia suffers no shortage of so-called experts willing to join the Agitprop train. Sergey Glazyev, for example, economist and former Putin advisor, helped spread the rumor that Coronavirus is an artificially created biological weapon that Americans are testing in their bioweapons arsenal.
To promote this sort of stuff there are dozens of YouTube channels that attract millions of viewers with fake stories bearing English subtitles. For example, YouTube Russian channel Kramola, with over 1.7m subscribers and millions of viewers, is busy spreading fake stories tying the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the US military and the CIA to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Interestingly, the quality of Russian disinformation varies from barely credible to smartly done. It seems the Kremlin propaganda machine throws out story after story to see what sticks. Some of it might even slip by even a discerning reader. In one instance, Russian state-owned television station NTV wove together disparate stories from the New York Times. The yarn began with the August 2019 closure of a US military lab for safety reasons, then turned to a September story on 500 cases of vaping-related pneumonia, and then to American military participation in the October Wuhan Military World Games. The narrative ends with the first officially declared case of coronavirus in Wuhan.
And Russian propaganda is aimed at western Europe too. For example, Wired.it published a list of 17 Italian websites determined to have been proffering fake Covid-19 news. The list included websites hewing to various political extremes, as well as the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik Italia.
In another instance, on March 23, Russian Senator Aleksey Pushkov Tweeted, “Poland did not grant Russian aircraft carrying humanitarian aid to Italy to transit its airspace.” The Polish Government quickly denied the report, saying that it had not received any such request. Pushkov deleted his Tweet, but the desired effect was achieved. The statement went viral—the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab observing 3,000,000 Twitter impressions. A bizarre map comparing the planned route with the route purportedly flown by the Russian IL-76s showed a detour of 600 plus miles to avoid a couple of miles—yes, literally—of Polish airspace!
The bogus story and surreal map spread like wildfire around all the usual suspects, but also landed in some of the mainstream media. A broadcast by anti-American blogger/podcaster/commentator Diego Fusaro illustrates how the fake news is propagated and amplified at every turn. His presentation is peppered with phrases like “not confirmed” and “just a hypothesis,” but the repetition of the claim over-and-over does its work. Supposed enemies like Russia, China, and Cuba act as Italy’s friends, Fusaro muses, while supposed friends like America act as enemies. Meanwhile, without fanfare, American supplies were offloaded at Aviano Air Base, in northern Italy.
COPASIR is the abbreviation for the Committee on the Security of the Republic of the Italian Parliament, an organization that conducts most of its business behind closed doors. But on March 25, its chairman, Raffaele Volpi, made a public statement of support for the Italian security services that are trying to track and counter-propaganda campaigns run by Russia and China. “Foreign state entities,” Volpi said, “are waging a campaign in European countries, including Italy.”
As Chairman Volpi was expressing COPASIR’s concerns, 15 Russian military IL-76 transports landed at the Italian Air Force base at Pratica di Mare, just south of Rome. Dozens of Russian military trucks festooned with “from Russia with Love” logos and huge Russian flags deplaned.
These examples from Italy demonstrate the three Kremlin propaganda techniques well described by Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States: 1) spreading alternative explanations of events; 2) amplification of conspiracy-bent sites; and 3) the use of official government outlets to lend an appearance of legitimacy.
Moscow’s efforts extend beyond some conspiracy-mongering websites, tendentious YouTube channels or the warped conventional Russian media outlets. Tens of thousands of online accounts that previously were involved in spreading pro-Russian messages about the war in Syria, yellow vest protests in France or Catalan independence are engaged in spreading disinformation about the Covid-19 crisis on Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets. Predictably, messages resemble similar narratives aired on Kremlin-controlled media outlets, according to State Department’s Global Engagement Center Report.
Like China, Iran, the third player in the trio, appears to have borrowed a few pages from Russia’s disinformation playbook. Narratives emerging from Tehran are remarkably similar to those emanating from Beijing and Moscow. Press TV is a 24-hour English and French network associated with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Tying the US military to the Coronavirus outbreak is one of its common themes.
And, in an even taller tale, Hossein Salami, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), on March 5 claimed that there is evidence that Covid-19 is the spearhead of a US biological invasion. “We will win in the fight against the virus, which may be the product of the American biological invasion, which it first spread to China and then to Iran and the rest of the world,” stated Salami.
All in all, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian top Coronavirus fake narratives are mostly about some kind of western—mostly American—schemes to spread the virus or abandon friends. Truly remarkable is the similarity of the tales—almost as if they were orchestrated by one central effort. Even scarier is the more likely thought that they are not coordinated, but that the propaganda machines of this trio think so much alike. Together, their efforts are multi-faceted, multidirectional and multilingual. False news is disseminated in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French and more.
It comes from conventional and social media, anonymous outlets, trolls, diplomats and government officials. False messages reach hundreds of millions all over the globe, making it hard to keep track and respond. Disinformation, propaganda, and deception make their way faster than truth. The aim is to sow confusion, division, mistrust, fear and chaos. To fight such broad information warfare requires a unified approach. Our defense must be equally multi-faceted and multidirectional.