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“The Information Boomerang Returns”

March 21, 2020

The coronavirus crisis is a vulnerable target of disinformation. State actors have been manipulating the COVID-19 topic in traditional and social media, sowing doubt and discord. The WHO speaks of an “infodemic

EUvsDisinfo got in touch with six Russian experts – independent journalists and commentators – to hear their take on the situation in Russia.

The experts were all asked the same question:

What is your assessment of the way the Kremlin-controlled media have so far treated the corona crisis? How do you think they will treat it in the coming weeks or months? Do you expect to see disinformation about this topic? And if so, what will be the strategy?

“Moscow’s superiority and the helplessness of the West”

Alexander Morozov, political scientist, Boris Nemtsov Academic Center, Prague:

‘Two narratives are developing simultaneously. On the one hand, we continue to see headlines such as, “The virus was brought to China by the US military”, and pro-Kremlin commentators continue to write about “the hysteria of the Western elites” and “the collapse of the European Union”. On the other hand, a narrative of “global solidarity” has begun to work in the Kremlin media, as the Russian government begins to take the same measures as the European governments.

Alexander Morozov is a Russian journalist and researcher with the Boris Nemtsov Academic Center in Prague. Read his interview with EUvsDisinfo, “They are Convinced that Russia Should Follow Guerilla Tactics.“

The Kremlin media will now create a mix of these two narratives, along the following lines: Russian authorities calmly and successfully fight the virus; but in Europe and the USA, governments create hysteria, making mistakes that cause criticism from the side of the citizens. It will be emphasized that some Western governments refuse the help of the Kremlin, while others accept it. This will be deployed to an internal audience as a holistic image of Moscow’s superiority and the helplessness of the West. 

For the external audience, the narrative will move in two directions: it will address European and other governments with a proposal of partnership and participation of Moscow in global solidarity that cannot be turned down; but on the other hand, it will speak to those audiences in Europe which are looking for “alternative opinions” regarding their own governments. This is a large audience, consisting not only of a part of the Russian speakers in Europe, but also of the electorate of the new right, Eurosceptics and populists in different countries.

The Kremlin will use this natural European material, quote out of context criticism of the national anti-virus programmes that will appear in European discussions; criticism of Brussels’s actions from the side of Eurosceptics and panicked statements by European bloggers about the catastrophic economic consequences of the measures that are taken.’ 

“The propaganda vaccinates people with suspicion and distrust”

Pavel Kanygin, journalist, Novaya Gazeta:

‘Obviously, the Russian government does not fully inform citizens about the situation. Through its carefully controlled media, it states that there is no threat of an uncontrolled epidemic. These media continuously report that the West is burning, Ukraine, of course, is on fire, and so is even fraternal Belarus; but we are better prepared than anyone else.

Pavel Kanygin has covered the MH17 case as an investigative journalist with Novaya Gazeta. Read his interview with EUvsDisinfo, “The propaganda digs a cultural ditch between Russia and Europe.”

The reality is that we do not know what actually is happening with the spread of the disease in Russia, since Russia is not even close the level of transparency we see in Europe, South Korea, or even China. 

Russian authorities now start behaving like an angry teenager when people do not follow the rules of self-isolation, or when they begin to panic and empty the supermarket shelves for pasta.

I am currently living in the USA, and acquaintances from Russia are asking me what the situation is like over here. People can’t believe that there is also an epidemic here when experts on Russian talk shows have told them that the virus has been developed in a secret US laboratory and dumped on China and Europe.

But the problem is the following: when the propaganda spreads this nonsense instead of facts, it ultimately hits its own clients – those who are in power – because it vaccinates people with suspicion and distrust towards the actions of the state.’

“The tone changed literally in one day”

Konstantin Eggert, journalist:

‘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.

Konstantin Eggert is an independent journalist, political analyst, communications consultant and a columnist with Deutsche Welle. Eggert was previously the editor-in-chief of the BBC Russian Service Moscow bureau and a news anchor with TV Rain.

Right now, the emphasis is on 1) Coverage of the situation in the EU and the USA in news releases in a purely factual manner; 2) The preparedness of the Russian Federation to fight the virus (“Russia was the first to decipher the virus genome”); and 3) the positive aspects of quarantine (“spend more time with your family”).The anti-Ukrainian theme is inevitable in the TV talk shows – “The healthcare system in Ukraine is collapsing”.

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”).’

“Russian authorities are under serious pressure”

Kirill Rogov, Political Analyst and Vice President, Liberal Mission Foundation (Moscow):

‘The reaction of the Russian authorities to the epidemic is not fundamentally different from the standard reaction. It is only complicated by the internal political campaign related to the constitutional amendments, which will remove the restriction on the term of Putin’s presidency. 

Kirill Rogov is prominent Russian political analyst. Among his publications is the analytical report 1989: The Drama of Expectations: The Dismantling of Communism and 30 Years of the Post-Communist Era.

Initially, the authorities intended to use the threat of the epidemic for political purposes. The mayor of Moscow issued a ban on public events with more than 5,000 participants a few hours after the adoption of the Putin amendments and immediately after the opposition filed for holding a rally against it. Under the guise of countering the threat of the epidemic, the authorities intend to expand the use of uncontrolled forms of voting on the national voting day on April 22 (at home, via the Internet).

Following the same logic, president Putin signed a decree on 18 March to set the voting day for 22 April, which looked irresponsible amid the cancellations of all mass events taking place around the world.

However, like other governments, Russian authorities are under serious pressure from public opinion and the threat of a collapse of the medical care system if the epidemic spreads too quickly. Therefore, they take standard restrictive measures and reserve the opportunity to postpone the vote.

It seems that at the beginning of the week, authorities believed that by holding back the speed of the distribution of information, they would have bought time for holding the national voting. But by now, such a strategy looks fraught with increasing costs.

One way or another, the ability of the authorities to influence the fear of the epidemic in public opinion is quite limited. Today, social networks and the Internet already make up a far too large share in the information consumption of Russians, and the possibilities for control here from the side of Russian authorities are limited.’

“Any kind of criticism of the authorities is excluded”

Denis Korotkov, journalist, Novaya Gazeta:

‘Kremlin-controlled TV tells more about how the coronavirus has emptied the streets of European cities and store shelves in the USA than about the situation in Russia.

As an investigative journalist with Novaya Gazeta, Denis Korotkov has followed the trail of “Putin’s chef”, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Read his interview with EUvsDisinfo, “Nothing Beats the Good Old Inside Source.“

There will be no strategy for the crisis – it will be good if they at least will be able to cope with the tactics. The usuals message is that we are faced with a problem that has come from abroad; but we are successfully dealing with it, and in the decaying Europe, things are still worse than in Russia.  

Obviously, any kind of criticism of the authorities is excluded: The authorities will be presented as always acting in the best way in the current situation. Manipulations with statistics are inevitable – and they will be used. Most likely, they are already in use. It is very difficult to believe that the coronavirus by some miracle did not cross our borders; Russia is not a totally closed Soviet Union.’

“The Kremlin does not want to be a ‘part of the world’” 

Andrei Arkhangelsky, journalist, columnist, culture editor of the magazine Ogonyok:

‘For about two weeks, there was a flow of messages of one and the same type: “the crisis has exposed Europe’s weakness”; “everyone has turned their back to Italy”; “nobody has helped Ukraine”. The closing of borders gave rise to another propaganda attack on the European Union: “Where is your union, where is your unity?” All these points carry a clear message: democracy is not able to cope with the challenge. Of course, in the end, this is an attack on the very idea of ​​democracy, on the open society.

Andrei Arkhangelsky is a prominent commentator on the topic of propaganda and disinformation. Read his interview with EUvsDisinfo, “Propaganda Must be Opposed by the Language of Values.”

The propaganda laughed at Europeans who were “buying toilet paper in panic.” When the coronavirus came to Russia, it turned out that Russians started buying toilet paper in the same way. The propaganda is now faced with an interesting phenomenon: any message about Europe is perceived as a mirror – Russian audiences inevitably perceive the news as “something that is will soon happen to us.” That is the reason why we now see slightly fewer stories about “panic in Europe”. 

A pandemic is a global phenomenon, and it can only be fought collectively. But the Kremlin does not want to be a “part of the world.” Therefore, the strategy will be the same: the propaganda will try to prove that everything is “different” with us. We can see how the pro-Kremlin media are now actively fighting “panic and rumours” inside Russia: The information boomerang comes back.’

110 cases and still counting

By 21 March, 110 examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation concerning the coronavirus had been recorded in the EUvsDisinfo database.

Follow this link to see examples of manipulations that have appeared in pro-Kremlin media outlets, including Russian state media. The data base is updated on a regular basis with new cases.

Top image: YouTube, screenshot from Rossiya 1 TV.