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EU monitors say pro-Kremlin media spread coronavirus disinformation

Russian media (Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Pro-Kremlin media outlets are actively spreading disinformation about coronavirus in an attempt to “undermine public trust” in Western countries, according to an internal European Union document.

The document, dated March 16, was written by the strategic communication division of the European diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS).

It states that pro-Kremlin media outlets “have been prominent in spreading disinformation about the coronavirus, with the aim to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national health-care systems.”

It also notes that the coronavirus pandemic “is a constant and daily topic in pro-Kremlin media.”

Commenting on parts of the report that were leaked in some Western media outlets earlier on March 18, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the criticism was based on “groundless accusations.”

“From the point of view of common sense, I cannot comment on it,” Peskov said.

Peskov said the reports didn’t contain examples nor did it cite specific news outlets, but the document says that East StratCom Task Force, an EEAS group that monitors Russian disinformation, has collected 80 coronavirus-related disinformation cases in its public database since January 22.

It also notes that on social media, RT Spanish has been a prominent source of content about the virus, with more than 6.8 million shares across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit between January 1 and March 12.

The EU’s disinformation monitors say the tactics of pro-Kremlin sources have evolved. They “do not appear to be authoring the disinformation themselves; instead, they are simply amplifying theories that originate” in China and Iran or among far-right groups in the United States.

The monitors say the new tactics allow pro-Kremlin media to deny they are creating disinformation and claim they are “merely reporting what others are saying.”

The report also says that “some of the broader disinformation narratives researchers have highlighted included claims that the coronavirus was brought to us by migrants, or that it is a bio-weapon developed by either the United States, the United Kingdom, or China.”

The group says pro-Kremlin disinformation about the pandemic targets international audiences in multiple languages.

In Italy, it says, the messages “aim to exacerbate fears over the ability of national and international authorities to manage the outbreak.”

It says examples include stories suggesting the EU’s “ability to effectively deal with the virus is doubtful,” or that “Italian doctors will select who lives or dies, as hospitals are not able to save all patients.”

Similarly, it says pro-Kremlin media messages in Spanish have promoted “apocalyptic stories, blame capitalists for trying to benefit from the virus, and emphasize how well Russia and Putin are dealing with the outbreak.”

The report concludes that big social-media platforms “have undertaken considerable actions to hamper the spread” of misinformation and disinformation “surrounding the coronavirus.”

But it says it is difficult to assess the impact of social-media disinformation campaigns by pro-Kremlin media because of privacy restrictions on data that firms like Facebook share with authorities.