So far, the new coronavirus has led to more than 100,000 illnesses and almost 4,000 deaths worldwide. Underestimating it would be irresponsible, alarmingly overestimating it is dangerous. A thin line for affected democratic states, a large playground for ambitions of misinformers and conspirators. Including Russia.
Paradoxically, one of the first victims of coronavirus disinformation was Ukraine, which (at that time) did not confirm any case of infection. On February 20, 2020, a fake email claiming to be from the health ministry falsely announced five cases of coronavirus in the country. Protests, riots and, clashes of citizens with the police followed in several places. SBU (Ukrainian Security Service) officially confirmed that the e-mail sent to the entire Ministry of Health contact list did not even originate in Ukraine. And the result? Panic, violence, and undermined confidence in the government.
Uncertainty and chaos are explanations offered by conscious misinformation that manipulate public opinion with alarming messages. The aim is to destabilize society and subsequently exploit the established distrust in political elites. The increase of public demand for immediate solutions can lead to reckless political actions that will directly favour the interests of external actors. Populist outcries for the closure of borders, the increase in xenophobia or violence cannot be ruled out. The impact of the virus on the global market can only worsen the already tense social climate.
2020 is a crucial year for Russia – the upcoming elections in the Balkans, Georgia, and Lithuania pose as potential targets that could not only reverse integration processes of respective nations but also influence the international system. Steering of the US presidential election could be considered as a highlight of Russian interests. The EU, in which populist actors supported by Russia already operate, is not off the hook either. Coronavirus could easily become a productive narrative for undesirable subjects to fulfil their political interests. US officials have already stated that thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts have launched a coordinated effort to spread misinformation and alarm about coronavirus, disrupting global efforts to fight the epidemic.
Facebook has also responded to arising cognitive and promised to remove posts, photos, and videos that increase misinformation about coronavirus. However, control will focus primarily on health issues, not the political context. Facebook’s response can be seen as a step forward as in the past, it was often criticized for a lax approach in limiting problematic online content.
Increasing numbers of infected people in Europe and the US are directly proportional to the threat to the cognitive security of democratic states. Existing conspiracy and disinformation sites (or sites and profiles on social media) make it easier for Russia to fulfil its interests. It would not be the first time that Russia exploits an autonomous wave of misinformation originating from questionable online sources. There is a lack of attention on this subject in the media – threats arising from misinformation about coronavirus need to be emphasized not only in health but also in the political and security context.
STRATPOL Memos is a project which on a weekly basis provides a short overview of the most important selected moments of Euro-Atlantic security and related areas. Our goal is to provide brief and informative comments with short analysis putting news into a broader context.
Responsible editor Matúš Jevčák.
Author: Peter Dubóczi
The text has not undergone language revision.