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EU monitor: Russia, China sow distrust in west through coronavirus disinformation

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. (CDC/TNS)

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

Russia and China continue to deploy a campaign of disinformation around the coronavirus outbreak that could have “harmful consequences” for public health around the world, according to a report published by the EU’s foreign-policy arm.

The document, published on April 1, was written by the Strategic Communications and Information Analysis Division of the European External Action Service (EEAS).

It says both state and state-backed actors “seek to exploit the public health crisis to advance geopolitical interests, often by directly challenging the credibility of the European Union and its partners.”

The campaign poses a danger to effective crisis communication and public health, it says.

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Claims that the coronavirus outbreak is leading to the EU’s disintegration are trending on social media, the new report says.

It adds that among COVID-19-related content published by the Russian government-funded RT and Sputnik, “articles covering conspiracy narratives such as that ‘the virus was man-made’ or intentionally spread, typically received more social engagement than other stories.”

The document is a follow-up to a report published last month by the EEAS that said 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.”

The new report says that more than 150 cases of pro-Kremlin disinformation on COVID-19 have been recorded by the EU watchdog EUvsDisinfo since January 22.

It says that in the EU and other parts of the world “coordinated disinformation messaging” aims to undermine public trust in the democratic institutions’ ability to respond to the crisis effectively, and is pointing the finger toward vulnerable minorities, blaming them for the pandemic.

Domestically, the report notes, state-controlled media outlets “have shifted their focus to highlight Russia’s preparedness to tackle the outbreak, while Russian aid to Italy was extensively covered.”

Social media continue to abound in false health advice on the pandemic that comes in direct contradiction to the World Health Organization’s official guidance, the document says, giving the example of Sputnik Deutschland, which has been promoting on Facebook and Twitter the claim that “washing hands does not help.”

In China, state media aggressively highlight displays of gratitude by some European leaders in response to Chinese aid, while promoting unproven theories by government officials about the origin of the coronavirus, the EU report says.

In the Western Balkans region, conspiracy theories continue trending, some suggesting the virus is a U.S.-made bio-weapon, others that it is a pretext for a foreign invasion.

At the same time, the coronavirus crisis is linked to the existing narrative that the EU is “turning its back” on the Balkans, the report says.