Russia is trying to spread a viral disinformation campaign

A midshot of President Vladimir Putin

In Russia, the Kremlin has reported unusually low numbers of people infected with the novel coronavirus.

President Vladimir Putin says the country has COVID-19 under control. Meanwhile, Putin has around-the-clock surveillance to make sure he doesn’t catch the disease himself.

But while the rest of the world is busy combatting the spread of COVID-19, a recent European Union document says Russian media have deployed a “significant disinformation campaign” against the West to worsen the impact of the coronavirus, generate panic and sow distrust.

The Kremlin denied the allegations Wednesday, saying they were unfounded and lacked common sense.

The EU document said the Russian campaign — pushing fake news online in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French — uses contradictory, confusing and malicious reports to make it harder for the EU to communicate its response to the pandemic.

Related: COVID-19 impact could be as ‘serious as a world war’

“The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries … in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies,” according to the document produced by the EU’s foreign policy arm, the European External Action Service.

Nina Jankowicz is a disinformation expert at the Wilson Center. She says the information coming out of Russia about the COVID-19 pandemic looks a lot like other disinformation campaigns coming from the country over the past decade.

More from Nina Jankowicz: Facebook needs to be held accountable — and regulated

“Both in Europe and here in the United States, Russia’s information warfare strategy is to seize on preexisting fissures and worries in societies and amplify distrust in our institutions. And that’s exactly what they’re doing with regard to coronavirus,” Jankowicz said. “We’ve seen allegations that this is something that was created in a US lab. We see reports that, you know, China and other countries are doing a better job containing it than the United States. Again, all seizing on people’s fear about what’s going to happen with their loved ones and also their distrust in institutions and how they’re handling this crisis.”

Jankowicz spoke with The World’s Marco Werman about Russia’s disinformation strategy and how people can avoid inadvertently sharing false news. 

Marco Werman: So when people outside Russia start mistrusting their own governments and institutions, how does that help Putin?

Nina Jankowicz: Well, in a couple of ways. First, it gives him a domestic message to send at home, you know, especially in regard to this change in the constitution that’s allowing him to serve up to 16 more years in power. He can say, ‘Aren’t you glad that you know what’s coming? You have a stable system on which to rely. None of this upheaval. Aren’t you glad that I can deliver government services for you?’ et cetera. But it also gives him a seat at the global negotiating table. When we in the West are busy fighting crises in our own domestic arenas, we’re paying a lot less attention to the stuff that Russia is doing on the global scale, whether that’s adventurism in eastern Ukraine or propping up [Bashir al-]Assad in Syria.

Related: Russia’s cabinet resigns and it’s all part of Putin’s plan 

So the COVID-19 cases being reported in Russia — those numbers are pretty low. How likely is it that Russian officials are not honest about the numbers?

Well, I think they have a track record of not necessarily being honest about issues like this. I mean, you can go back to Chernobyl for a very famous example, but they’ve misled their public on issues related to election interference and a number of other government responses over the past several years. So I don’t think we have reason to necessarily trust them. And certainly, you know, Russia had a pretty porous border with China for a long time. Russia has lots of international travel coming in and out of it. I think with the population as high as it is and the situation that Russia’s in right now, we’re likely to see cases spreading there just like we are across the rest of the world.

Related: How Chinese tourism is changing one Russian Arctic village 

But their scientists know what science is. I mean, why hide the real figure? Because everything we’re hearing from the WHO, the CDC, the experts, is that actual data is critical to fighting this thing.

I think as we’ve seen with a few other nations, I think including the United States, there is some effort to save face among governments. They want to continue to prop up the markets to whatever extent they can. They don’t want their societies to panic. And we’ve seen the same thing in Russia. The reports that I’ve seen coming out of Russia from friends who are there are that, you know, Russians are going about their normal business and actually wondering if the rest of the world is overreacting.

Related: ‘Between Two Fires’ looks at the complexities of life in Putin’s Russia 

So with people inadvertently sharing misinformation or disinformation from other places about coronavirus online, I’m wondering if you have any strategies or suggestions to get people either not to do that, or how the rest of us can, you know, learn to find accurate sources of information?

The most important thing is to trust the experts here, not, you know, your grandma with folk remedies, right, but the people from the CDC, the WHO, the NHS in Britain. These are the people who are studying the virus that know how to fight it, basically. We need to be very careful that we’re not sharing information from strange sources of information. And we need to be careful that we are verifying the information that we do get — and that goes for media outlets as well. There have been text messages circulating, for instance, about different government shut downs on lockdowns. If you don’t hear that information from a government official and preferably from a health care official, not someone who is a politician or a political appointee, I would take it with a grain of salt at this time, because there are unfortunately, folks who are trying to score political points through this crisis. And that’s really unfortunate. And I think, you know, you narrowed in on something that’s really important. And it’s not just that groups like Russia are sharing, dis- and misinformation related to the coronavirus. There are a lot of folks domestically who are doing that as well. This is just the perfect nexus of fear and distrust for purveyors of disinformation to manipulate. And there are plenty of folks within our own country who are willing to do that as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed reporting. 

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