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COVID-19 disinformation from Russia, China more influential than domestic news sources, study finds

Vladimir Putin visited the new Russia Today broadcasting centre (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.

Coronavirus disinformation published by Chinese and Russian state media outlets in France, Spain, and Germany is in some cases reaching a greater audience on social media than news coverage of the global pandemic produced by major domestic media outlets in those countries, according to a study by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII).

The study, released by OII on June 29, found that the Russian international news network RT has achieved up to five times the number of engagements per article share on Twitter and Facebook with its French-language coronavirus coverage than the major French daily Le Monde.

China Radio International (CTI), meanwhile, has generated four times the number of engagements per shared article than the leading Spanish newspaper El Pais.

“Many of these state-backed outlets blend reputable, fact-based reporting about the coronavirus with misleading or false information, which can lead to greater uncertainty among public audiences trying to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic,” OII research assistant Katarina Rebello said in a press release.

The co-author of the study, OII Director Philip Howard, said that along with Russia and China, state-backed media from Iran and Turkey were also targeting “French, German, and Spanish-speaking social-media users around the world with news on coronavirus.”

OII researchers found that the disinformation varied depending on the language and source country.

For example, Russian outlets disseminating coronavirus coverage in French and German “consistently emphasized weak democratic institutions and civil disorder in Europe.”

Russian and Iranian media produced “polarizing content” intended for Spanish-speaking social-media users in the United States and Latin America.

And Chinese and Turkish outlets promoted their countries’ respective “global leadership in combating the pandemic” in disseminating Spanish-language content.

The OII studied output from Russia’s RT and Sputnik news agency, China’s Global Television Network, China Radio International, and the Xinhua News Agency for its study, along with content from Iranian and Turkish media outlets.

It covered each outlet’s 20 most popular stories from May 18 to June 5. A previous OII study found that heavily politicized news stories from some state media from Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey could have 10 times the impact as news organizations such as the BBC.