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Top row: Washington and “secret services” of the US, UK, Poland and Canada. From left to right: George Soros; Dalia Grybauskaite; Victoria Nuland; Petro Poroshenko; Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Mikhleil Saakashvili

What is the actual impact of disinformation on people’s behaviour?

This week we have been given a snapshot of an answer as violent protests broke out in Ukraine after a letter allegedly from the Ukrainian Ministry of Health falsely claimed there were 5 cases of coronavirus in the country. Ukraine’s security services later found that the forged letter originated from outside of Ukraine, but the damage was done. People took to the streets violently protesting the arrival of Ukrainian evacuees from Wuhan city in China.

Fear, disinformation and low level of trust in authorities proved to be an explosive mix, and the pro-Kremlin media outlets had a field day with it.

Having portrayed Ukraine as Nazi and Russophobic for years, the pro-Kremlin media jumped at the opportunity to tie it all together, claiming that Ukrainians’ hatred towards Russians has now turned against their own people and that Ukrainians think like Nazis and adhere to Nazi principles that the sick must be destroyed.

This, of course, is not the only instance where pro-Kremlin disinformation actors have weaponized international health concerns. Just last week, US officials warned of thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts that have launched a coordinated effort to spread disinformation about coronavirus, hampering global efforts to fight the epidemic and blaming the US government for its spread.

But in Ukraine, the protests over the coronavirus became an opportunity for the pro-Kremlin media to unleash a new wave of vitriol in a repeated attempt to discredit the Euromaidan protests, which were violently cracked down exactly six years ago. Maidan and coronavirus have become one in people’s brain; the coronavirus protests are the symbol of Maidan, so the pro-Kremlin media claimed, adding that Ukrainians hate each other and are ready to kill, and that in this way, Ukraine poses a danger to Europe.

These disinformation narratives not only aim to undermine the Ukrainian democracy and its European aspirations. They also play into the Kremlin’s repeated attempts to portray the aggression of Russian armed forces in eastern Ukraine as a civil war. As Russia-backed armed formations continue to violate the Minsk Agreements, the pro-Kremlin media offers a false equivalence: if Ukrainians hurdle stones at each other in a small village over the fear of coronavirus, who’s to say they are not shooting each other in Donbas?

 

Euromaidan: back to the start

The coronavirus protests aside, the 6th anniversary of the violent crackdown of the Euromaidan protests turned into another opportunity to air old disinformation narratives.

The signal came from the very top of the Kremlin, with claims that post-Maidan Ukrainian authorities serve foreign masters who aim to divide Russia and Ukraine.

The pro-Kremlin media chorus followed, claiming (again!) that former US vice president Joe Biden together with former US State Department official Victoria Nuland, as well as secret services of the US, Canada, UK, and Poland, and neo-Nazis staged the Euromaidan protests, with the goal of bringing the oligarchs to power.

After six years on incessant disinformation, it seems that the pro-Kremlin media have finally run out of new examples of “Western puppet masters” to place behind the Euromaidan protests. But despite their efforts to discredit the Euromaidan and Ukraine itself, the Ukrainian people remain optimistic about their country’s future and enthusiastic about democratic participation.

In memoriam

This week is also the grim anniversary of the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician and a former deputy Prime Minister. Boris Nemtsov was assassinated on 27 February, 2015, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. To honour his memory Prague joined Washington, Vilnius and Kyiv naming a square in the proximity of the Russian embassy after the slain politician.

For the rest of us, this anniversary is a sombre reminder of how grave the consequences of disinformation and deceit can become. In the words of Zhanna Nemtsova, daughter of Boris Nemtsov, whom we interviewed earlier this month: “Without the propaganda, the killing of my father would not have been possible”. Read the full interview here.


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