But even though the coronavirus has turned billions of lives upside down with unprecedented restrictions, COVID-19 has not put the world’s existing political differences on ice. The tensions between the US and China, the diverging interests of the West and Russia, the seemingly endless crisis in the Middle East — the pandemic has merely provided all of these with a new battleground in long-running wars of information.
This is all the more intense because so many people are cooped up at homes during this crisis, spending more time on social media. As early as February 2, the WHO warned of a massive coronavirus “infodemic,” describing this as “an over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” The WHO’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus doubled down on this warning later that month. “Fake news spreads more quickly and more easily than the virus, and can be just as dangerous,” he said. Things haven’t really improved since.
Sputnik News wrote on January 22 that the virus was man-made, a weapon created by NATO. This was the first piece of false information concerning COVID-19 to appear on the EUvsDisinfo database. The service at the EU’s foreign affairs office has been logging Russian disinformation in 15 languages since 2015.
Experts at EUvsDisinfo have tracked a stream of disinformation from Russian media and other outlets close to the Kremlin. They all tend to follow rather similar tropes: the Pentagon was behind it all, the ruling elites are at fault, it’s all a ploy to prop up US global hegemony, the real goal is a new, tyrannical world order.
Recycling the rubbish
The US State Department’s answer to EUvsDisinfo is the Global Engagement Center (GEC), which also pays close attention to Chinese, Iranian and Islamist propaganda. The GEC’s Lea Gabriel, formerly a CIA agent, warned in a video briefing last week that disinformation was flourishing in its own “ecosystem”.
For instance, if a Russian outlet publishes a falsehood, it is often picked up next by Chinese media. These subsequent reports would then be retweeted by Russia, as if they had come directly from China. The GEC notes the Chinese propaganda has now changed tack. No longer is it seeking to portray the US as the virus’ secret source. Instead, it is trying to put the comparative success of China’s containment strategies in focus, all while criticising the US for stigmatising China unfairly as the virus’ source.
In US, President Trump seems rather fond of calling COVID-19 the “China virus”. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, prefers to be a little more specific with “Wuhan virus”.
Plenty of blame to be shared
Admittedly, the US criticism of China for failing to recognise the virus’ scope would ring a little less hollow if the Trump administration had not spent weeks playing down the threat. But things get truly tragic when the legacy of disinformation ends up having very real effects. For instance, when Iran’s Khamenei rejected a US offer of assistance, saying the virus was a US bioweapon. NGO Doctors Without Borders also had to pull out of Isfahan. Iranian hardliners had objected to their presence, alleging that the body was in fact a cover for western spies.Some Iranians are liable to pay for this controversial appraisal with their lives
— The writer is a journalist with Deutsche Welle