‘The United States is operating a secret biological weapons lab in Georgia. They purposefully created COVID-19 as an attack against the Russians.’ These and other headlines circulate in Russian state-controlled media steering the beliefs of many Russians as well as Georgians who claim that the ‘Lugar lab’ in Georgia contributes to the spread of the pandemic.
The reason for the dissemination of such disinformation has its roots in the US-Georgian partnership by which Russia feels threatened. It goes without saying that none of these claims are proven to be true. Yet, they succeed in creating fear and confusion, which may result in harmful consequences for public security, health and effective crisis communications.
‘Disinformation creates fear and confusion, which may result in harmful consequences for public security, health and effective crisis communication.‘
Many other examples of false claims in relation to the pandemic and the spread of the virus can be found. Ultimately, disinformation accelerates the existing tension between opposing geopolitical power blocs. Uncertainty opens space for conspiracy theories. Especially when people’s lives are personally touched the chances for these theories to receive attention increases. For these reasons, COVID-19 disinformation is currently thriving. With the ultimate goal of exposing the EU as a failed project and strengthening the legitimacy of Russian authoritarian ruling, pro-Kremlin disinformation is trying to enhance Russia’s position in the international arena. Simply put, COVID-19 is used as a means to an end. Russia, just as China, is pushing a narrative which shall evince that authoritarian rulers are better equipped to deal with crisis than democratic states and claim that the Schengen area will collapse due to the virus. ‘The Coronavirus is the Chernobyl of the EU‘ is written in the online news outlet Rubaltic. No evidence is provided. Ultimately, Russia’s disinformation campaigns on the virus are testing the EU to an unprecedented level. Frankly, there is no reason to believe that Russia will change its foreign policy discourse. Rather, authoritarianism will further drive the spread of disinformation. What does the EU do to fight these myths?
An essential first step of the combat of disinformation is the detection of fake stories. Since mid-January 2020 over 400 instances have been recorded by the EU External Action Service (EEAS). The EEAS has developed the ‘euvsdisinfo database’ to inform on fake stories related to COVID-19 and stemming from Russia. The ultimate goal of the EU is thereby to protect societies and freedoms as well as raising awareness of the dangers evolving from the spread of disinformation. The database translates Russian media output and highlights fake stories before disproving them. It is a flagship project to draw attention to media manipulation and to address and respond to Russian disinformation campaigns which affect the EU or its member states.
Lastly, I would like to stress that it is not only Russia or China who contribute to the spread of fake stories. All states follow their political agendas, which in some cases are reflected in pushing responsibility for COVID-19 to their perceived ‘enemy’. I have chosen to focus on pro-Kremlin media as Russia is a dominant case by which the EU is directly affected.