Russia and China are driving an online wave of disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, say experts.
Some of the disinformation circulating online amounts to conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus — claims that it was invented in a lab or brought to China by U.S. soldiers, for example.
Some of it involves false reports that experts say could end up harming people — the claim that handwashing doesn’t help to prevent the spread of COVID-19, for example, or that the virus doesn’t affect smokers.
Canadian Philip Howard heads the Oxford Internet Institute, a U.K.-based academic body studying the sociology of the internet. He said the pandemic has seen an increase in misinformation and disinformation related to COVID-19 being spread by sources related to foreign governments.
“We’ve seen quite a significant uptick in misinformation generated by foreign state actors, particularly from Russia and China,” Howard told CBC News. “In fact, 92 per cent of the misinformation from state-backed agencies around the world originates from Russia and China.”
‘Spin is not lying’
“Disinformation” is false or fake information deliberately spread in an attempt to conceal, divide or disrupt.
Disinformation should be distinguished from attempts by politicians or nations to spin the facts to advance their political goals, said Republican Ron Nehring, director of international training for the Washington-based Leadership Institute.
“Spin is spin,” he said. “But spin is not lying.”
WATCH | Russia and China push coronavirus misinformation on social media:
Social media platforms have been more active lately in taking down health information that is inaccurate or could be harmful, along with accounts engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” by working together to spread misinformation.
Last week, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh reported that roughly 45 per cent of tweets related to lifting pandemic restrictions were being posted by “bots” — autonomous programs presented as authentic online users — and mirrored messaging from Russia and China.
A ‘war of ideology’
“They were rebroadcasting messages from state-sponsored media, especially Russia and China,” said Kathleen Carley, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon. “So whenever they sent out a message, it was then rebroadcast by … a little army of bots.”
Some bots have been tweeting links to websites that contain disinformation.
Stephanie Carvin, a former security analyst for the Canadian government who now teaches at Carleton University, said the pandemic is moving “from a war for survival to a war of ideas and a war of ideology.”
The absence of a convincing origin story for the virus makes it easy for disinformation to spread, she said.
“Because there is no clear story here, and because China will almost make it impossible for us to probably ever find out how this really happened, this is going to lend itself to disinformation for decades,” she said.
Carvin said some of the disinformation she’s seen online is focused on the virus’s origins.
“There’s no question in my mind … I think that both Russia and China are definitely trying to spread the idea that this was some kind of U.S. bioweapon,” she said. “It’s cheap and easy for them to do. It is an issue that most people have been affected by and are interested in.”
‘Fertile ground’ for spreading lies
Peter Stano is a spokesperson for the European Union External Action Service, which was set up by the European Union to monitor and counter disinformation. He said his group is seeing a lot of pandemic-related misinformation and disinformation, and some of it is coming from sources linked to the Kremlin.
“This is a novel situation,” he said. “This is a new crisis where there are still much more questions than there are answers. There are unprecedented measures being introduced by governments. There is no vaccine. There is still a lack of information and clarity about how it actually came into being.
“So this is fertile ground for anyone who wants to spread misinformation, disinformation and all kinds of conspiracies.”
Howard said there are some similarities between the messages being spread and the techniques being employed by actors linked to Russia or China — but he’s also seeing differences.
Both China and Russia are promoting the narrative that democracies are failing and lack the capacity or will to fight the pandemic, while claiming that they are doing a better job at searching for a cure and helping other countries with their pandemic measures.
Howard said Russia has years-old social media accounts that tend to post about things like soap operas or soccer scores — until they’re needed to push out political messages.
China’s social media misinformation and disinformation efforts are more recent, he said, and are more focused on refuting suggestions that China is to blame for the pandemic.
“They’ve really just started doing this work over the last year since the Hong Kong protests,” he said. “They’ll simply buy one hundred thousand fake accounts, set them all up at once and get them retweeting or get them to push out content.”
Disinformation efforts linked to Russia and China also are demonstrating that they have a long reach on social media, said Howard.
“The thing that’s really surprised us is the volume of content that those governments produce in English,” he said. “So at the moment, they can reach almost a billion social media user accounts a week with English language content that is across Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and Reddit.”
Often, Howard said, the attempts at disinformation take the form of suggestions that the virus escaped from a lab or was an experiment gone wrong in the West.
“We just finished a study of six countries, public opinion in six countries, and found that almost a quarter of the respondents in the U.K. and Argentina and the U.S. … think that the virus originated in a lab.” he said.
An attempt to rewrite the narrative
Nehring said he’s also seeing key differences between Beijing and Moscow when it comes to disinformation strategy. China is trying to rewrite the narrative, he said, by suggesting that U.S. army officers brought the virus to Wuhan during military games in December — but Kremlin-controlled media outlets appear to be trying to prolong the pandemic outside of Russia.
“We saw articles … claiming that handwashing has no impact on stemming the spread of the virus, that smokers do not get coronavirus, that ginger can be used to prevent contracting the disease,” said Nehring. “Tons of false information that’s never been corrected, never been retracted and is still online today, being put out by the Russians.”
The Russian government says it is western countries that are spreading disinformation.
“By spreading falsehoods, gossip and fakes, some biased experts are doing self-promotion through blaming Russia for all (the) world’s calamities, including COVID-19,” the Russian Embassy’s press office said in a statement.
“On the contrary, disinformation is the major tool of Western MSM (mainstream media) which is the case when they cover (the) coronavirus situation in Russia. Digging dirt on Russia, ignoring reality (lowest mortality rate and record testing) does not improve (the) pandemic situation in Canada.”
The Chinese embassy has yet to respond to questions from CBC News.
Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at email@example.com