Infodemic Monitor

How Russia, China, and other governments use coronavirus disinformation to reshape geopolitics

Vladimir Putin.Russian President Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, in 2009. Credit: Remy Steinegger/World Economic Forum. CC BY-NS-SA 2.0.

Late in May, an article published by the online journal the Strategic Culture Foundation claimed that a German government official leaked information revealing COVID-19 to be “a global false alarm.” Germany’s measures to control the pandemic were doing more harm than the virus itself, the article claimed. The piece went viral and was retweeted a whopping 15,020 times. But the Strategic Culture Foundation was no independent and trustworthy source of information--not about the coronavirus, or about anything else. Purporting to focus on policy analysis and global affairs, the journal was really a front operation for Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, which ran it, and the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

That COVID-19 is being incorporated into government propaganda efforts like the Strategic Culture Foundation—which published, according to the US State Department, “Western fringe thinkers and conspiracy theorists” for its target audience of Westerners—comes as no surprise. The precursor to the Foreign Intelligence Service, the KGB, ran a global misinformation campaign in the 1980s that accused the United States of developing HIV for use as a “racial weapon,” weakening American diplomacy during the Cold War. Once again, a health crisis is being used as fodder for misinformation that countries like Russia hope will help reshape the geopolitical playing field.

As part of a Princeton University project on COVID-19 misinformation narratives, we’ve been cataloging the various false storylines that have been circulating online since the beginning of the pandemic. Our data is full of stories that we think of as short-term narratives, or those that are relevant to an upcoming event in the next two to three months. As covered in a previous piece, these fake storylines often boost or denigrate one politician or political faction. Another set of political misinformation has a separate aim: to set conditions for arguments to be made in the long-term, over the next few years.

Russia’s COVID-19 misinformation network. The dubious Strategic Culture Foundation, with its professional logo and seemingly legitimate “about” page, was just one of several Kremlin-backed misinformation sites that the US State Department identified in an August report. The site did not disclose its links to the Russian government. This network of so-called proxy sites also included SouthFront and Global Research, which have circulated narratives ranging from claims that the coronavirus was manufactured in a US lab to accusations that the World Health Organization and governments are deceiving the world with a “fear pandemic” that benefits powerful corporations at the expense of the public. These claims make up part of the coordinated effort on the part of government-affiliated groups like the Strategic Culture Foundation to shape international events.

The most common long-term misinformation trend shown in our data involves content designed to delegitimize governments, like the stories targeting countries the Russian government considers adversaries. Notably, Russian propagandists have been particularly active in pushing anti-US and anti-NATO narratives all over Europe. In March, for example, a story spread on several pro-Kremlin websites argued that US soldiers would bring the coronavirus to countries in which they were conducting military exercises.

On top of this, Russian officials may have tied their cyber-related coronavirus disinformation efforts with a real-world influence operation in Italy. In that operation, soldiers were sent from Moscow to the Italian city of Bergamo with the official purpose of helping local authorities cope with the COVID-19 emergency. Yet, as alleged in joint reporting by the major Italian newspaper La Stampa and Coda Story, a nonprofit media organization, officers with Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, were also sent to Bergamo to gather sensitive information. “Any intelligence service would take advantage of this situation, and especially the Russians,” Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former NATO commander told the outlets. The Russian government dismissed the report and claimed that Russia was just trying to help Italy in the worst hit areas of the country.

In Syria, state-linked misinformation seems to have aimed not just at the figurative geopolitical playing field but at a literal battlefield. Sputnik Arabic--the Middle Eastern arm of a Russian state-controlled media outlet--overreported COVID-19 cases in Syria’s Idlib Governorate and spread rumors of infected patients escaping from hospitals to delegitimize the pandemic response in the last rebel-held stronghold in the country. A regional radio station, Sham FM, made similar false claims about coronavirus transmission in the rebel province. Russia, of course, is a strong backer of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

China plays the misinformation game, too. The United States has been losing credibility on the world stage as it has proven incapable of dealing with the virus. President Donald Trump has sought to address this failure by casting blame elsewhere and referring to SARS-CoV-2, the official name of the novel coronavirus, as the “China virus.” Meanwhile, China has increased its international profile through aid and a seemingly competent, if heavy-handed, approach to controlling the spread of the coronavirus, despite the fact that the virus likely originated there. The pandemic has seriously damaged the image of the United States, with international polls of the global population reflecting an increasingly dim view of the US COVID-19 response.

China is also pursuing long-term geopolitical objectives during the crisis, seeking to discredit the United States and promote China’s global image. As with Russia, the Chinese propaganda apparatus exploited the pandemic to start a worldwide disinformation campaign, in particular by trying to shift blame for the outbreak onto the United States. At the same time, they tried to enhance the perception of the Communist Party and China’s efforts to fight the spread of the virus. Occasionally, misinformation that originated in Russia is repackaged in China, as both countries have capitalized on the United States’s poor response to COVID-19 to cast doubt on the nation's ability to respond to crisis.

But the effort to exploit the pandemic for geopolitical gain extends far beyond the United States, Russia, and China. There are other examples of governments that have exploited the pandemic for geopolitical gain, sometimes by incorporating COVID-19 disinformation into long-standing geopolitical grievances. In March, for instance, PressTV, an Iranian state-controlled network, argued that “Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of coronavirus against Iran.” Similar stories were spread in other countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

Governments have invested extensive resources in efforts to influence political debates online. Russian government-linked trolls spread disinformation online to try to sway the 2016 US presidential election. Disinformation in geopolitical conflicts is nothing new, and now Russians and others are using COVID-19-related misinformation to shape international politics more to their liking.

Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment in a series by researchers working with Princeton University’s Empirical Studies of Conflict’s COVID-19 disinformation project. Led by professor Jacob Shapiro and Samikshya Siwakoti—a research specialist for the conflict studies project—students at Princeton and other universities are cataloguing the various false narratives cropping up online about the COVID-19 pandemic. Readers can see the team’s disinformation spreadsheet here.

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