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COVID-19: Moscow’s Hand Shows Signs of Shakiness

May 13, 2020

Oscar-winning film director targets Bill Gates as coronavirus disinformation in Russia is on decline.

Bill Gates wants to implant microchips in billions of people to control them and ultimately reduce the world’s population, since people consume too many resources.

This was one of the messages in a TV production which state-controlled Rossiya 24 aired in the daytime on 1 May – a public holiday in Russia. However, when the time came for the scheduled reruns of the programme to be broadcast, the TV channel had changed its mind and cancelled the replays, as reported by Meduza and other media.

The programme’s author and host, Nikita Mikhailkov (top image), who won an Oscar in 1995, was not amused: in a video address, the celebrity filmmaker described the decision as “clear-cut censorship”. After that, Rossiya 24 changed its mind again and did broadcast two replays the following days in less attractive time slots at 11 p.m. and at 3 a.m.

Bill Gates as COVID-19 scapegoat

Mr Mikhalkov does have reasons to feel a little bit betrayed by Rossiya 24. After all, as EUvsDisinfo has reported, Bill Gates is a well-established scapegoat and thereby, he could assume, fair game in the pro-Kremlin media ecosystem around the coronavirus. As late as on 24 April, state-controlled Channel One Russia (Pervy Kanal) pushed the conspiracy theory that Bill Gates is responsible for the pandemic.

RFE/RL has reported about the spread of COVID-19 conspiracy theories in Russian state-controlled media.

Nevertheless, even Russia’s state-controlled news agency RIA Novosti described Mr Mikhalkov’s production negatively, labeling it as “conspiracy theories”.

This uncertain handling of the TV production should be seen in the light of the decreasing overall volume of pro-Kremlin disinformation concerning COVID-19: on 30 April, EUvsDisinfo reported about a “flattening curve”, while on 7 May, EUvsDisinfo described a decline in the volume.

While Bill Gates is new target, but central to the COVID-19 narrative in pro-Kremlin media, George Soros is a is a more long-term scapegoat, who is still not forgotten in the narrative of RT.

“Containment of panic”

The Russian journalist and media expert Konstantin Eggert predicted an evolution of the pro-Kremlin narrative about COVID-19 in an interview with EUvsDisinfo as early as on 21 March:

Russian journalist Konstantin Eggert.

‘To begin with, the coverage of the pandemic in the Russian state media followed traditional talking points – ‘there are no problems in Russia; but in the West, there are plenty.’ However, apparently as a result of growing awareness of the possible scale of the epidemic in Russia, the tone changed literally in one day’.

Obviously, natural containment of panic as a possible generator of anti-government sentiment will be a priority. The work of the state media in the near future will be subordinated to this demand. If it becomes impossible to hide the extent of what is happening in Russia, the anti-Western propaganda will resume (along the line of calling the virus “an American weapon”).”

The COVID-19 crisis has not taken away the pressure on independent Russian media, RFE/RL’s CurrentTime TV reports.

Confusion and shaking hands

This process of changing the media narrative has let to similar cases of shaky hands from the side of Kremlin-controlled media.

In early April, a prominent Russian scientist told viewers of the Russian state-controlled TV Rossiya 1 that the coronavirus could have been manufactured by the US as a way of gaining control over the world. However, in the same programme, the host made a reference to Russia’s health minister saying that there is no reason to believe that COVID-19 was created artificially.

As EUvsDisinfo has also described, also in April, Russian authorities demanded that the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta remove an article about COVID-19 in the Russian region of Chechnya from its website. On 8 May, the article was allowed to reappear, but with a censored passage replaced with a black square.

Another recent example was the confusion appearing when state-controlled RT accused the independent outlet Meduza of “fake news” when it reported worrying numbers showing that Russia now is the country in the world with the second highest number of COVID-19 cases – only to stand corrected by RT itself with an article titled “Russia takes second place in the world in the number of cases of coronavirus”.

RT’s own story (right) – “Russia takes second place in the world in the number of cases of coronavirus” – contradicts RT’s tweet (left): “Meduza’s story that ‘Russia took the second place in the world in the number of infected people’ is a fake”.

Decentralised crisis management

Keeping in mind the overall policy with decentralised handling of the COVID-19 crisis, it looks like some of the media managers in Russia could be lacking the traditional top-down instructions they are used to receiving, and struggle to strike a more improvised mix between informing audiences and confusing them with disinformation.

This, together with the concerns not to spread panic, would explain the tendency to avoid risks and tone down the most aggressive disinformation, while still following a more traditional pattern, allowing some conspiracy theories to be communicated, which can satisfy traditionally loyal audiences receptive to such explanations.

Top image: Youtube