Coronavirus pandemic and Russian disinformation in Ukraine

Author: Yevhen Mahda, Institute of World Policy, expert of the European Expert Association

The Russian government sees the coronavirus pandemic not only as a challenge but also as an opportunity to increase their influence within the post-Soviet countries. The territory of the former USSR in the Kremlin is considered a zone of its own exclusive interests, so they decided to use the crisis situation totheir own benefit.

Currently in the world there is no substantiated version of the origins of COVID-19, but the scale of the pandemic (on 26th June 2020, the number of infected people across the globe crossed the 10 million mark ) allows us to note a number of features faced by mankind. Including:

- Destruction of the usual views of the world, which creates despair and panic among the majority of people.

- The unexpected nature of the new challenges that stimulate the spread of conspiracy and fear. The seeds of populism, abundantly sown in Ukraine and other countries, are quickly sprouting.

- There is a noticeable slowdown in global economic development, which has already been hit by the unprecedentedly strong recession in the last decade. Although the IMF and the World Bank predict a rapid recovery for the global economy to pre-pandemic levels in the next year, for many countries with unstable economies, these pre and post-pandemic shocks could be fatal.

- There is no universal treatment protocol against COVID-19. Along with the lack of effective drugs against coronavirus and a vaccine that would prevent infection, the lack of an effective treatment for coronavirus causes increased social tension.

- Restrictions on the rights and freedoms of citizens are perceived as an appropriate method to fight the spread of coronavirus. This is because the pandemic began in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and the Chinese government has used numerous tools to isolate citizens to reduce the spread of the disease.

- Some world leaders are sick and now the majority are in self-isolation mode. As a result of the coronavirus infection, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson was admitted to intensive care. The wives of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have contracted COVID-19. Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza died of the effects of coronavirus a few weeks before his term ended.

The reality of coronavirus undermines the fundamental foundations of democracy and creates opportunities to restrict the rights and freedoms of citizens under the aegis of protecting their health. Democratic procedures are also under attack: the dates of the parliamentary elections in North Macedonia have been postponed. The ange of the date of the presidential campaign in Poland significantly changed its picture. Coronavirus in the United States not only destroyed the economic achievements of the Trump administration, but also became an unexpected third player in the presidential election.

The situation in the world information space can be described as infodemia — the active dissemination of unverified information, fakes, manipulations, which exacerbate the negative impact of coronavirus on democratic societies. The beneficiaries of this process are Russia and China, whose leaders do not depend on the results of the democratic will of their citizens.

Prior to the analysis of the pandemic-related disinformation campaign of Russia against Ukraine, it is necessary to take into consideration the post-Soviet matrix of the various impacts of this misinformation, caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It has derived from the global problems and fears, which are being exacerbated due to poor institutions. I would like to point out that the unexpected nature of the challenges that have been caused by the pandemic have intensely stimulated the spread of conspiracy fears even in societies with strong democratic traditions. I must note the ever-increasing use of social networks and various instant messengers as sources of information. They compete with traditional media, used in particular, by the Russian Federation, which has recently spread the practice of using anonymous telegram channels in Ukraine.

So, speaking about the general components of this kind of mandatory misinformation in Ukrainian society against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is necessary to pay attention to the following points: Sources of the origin of the coronavirus — and the lack of information on this topic caused the spread of fakes within the borders of the Eastern Partnership countries. It is significant to note, that Russian media began broadcasting his misinformation back in January 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic was spread mainly in China. One example of this misinformation was the claim that American laboratories, aimed at countering bacteriological weapons, allegedly may be related to the spread of coronavirus in the post-Soviet space.

The influence of George Soros/Bill Gates on the emergence of coronavirus.

The billionaire and philanthropist George Soros has been hated in the Kremlin for a long time, because of his concept of an “open society” which is contrary to the matrix of “sovereign democracy,” which Vladimir Putin relies on even after the resignation of his adviser Vladislav Surkov.

It is no wonder that pro-Russian media are vigorously demonizing Soros in the post-Soviet space. Another target during the pandemic was another billionaire — Bill Gates, against whom the Russian propaganda machine re-interpreted a 2015 statement, Where Gates’ stated that an infectious virus was a greater risk to humanity than nuclear war. Five years later, in just a few months, more than a million messages appeared on the Internet that linked Bill Gates to the coronavirus outbreak.

Another allegation is that coronavirus was spread thanks to 5G towers. The wide coverage of the post-Soviet space with this fake can be primarily explained by the lack of critical thinking, which is, sadly, a common happenstance for its inhabitants. It is easy to find information about the countries where 5G communication networks have been begun to be deployed, among them you will not find Russia, Ukraine or other post-Soviet states, except the Baltic countries, although Tthe latter countries state that they do not belong to the post-Soviet space. So, the thesis about the possibility of “mass chip implantation through a 5G network”, due to its obvious manipulative character, could be easily refuted.

Ineffectiveness of quarantine restrictions

The promotion of this topic is directly related to the desire to demonstrate the weakness of the internal structure of restrictions. This also includes messages that constitute a deliberate exaggeration of the impact of the pandemic and mortality rates.

It is necessary to pay attention to the main preconditions for the dissemination of contradictory information about the coronavirus in Ukraine:

  • The existence of the myth of the lexical affinity of Russian and Ukrainian, which is fueled by the low level of proficiency in English and other languages of the European Union. In an environment where the pandemic significantly increases feelings of anxiety, many recipients of information seek it in a language they know best.
  • Weak dissemination of critical thinking, which makes Ukrainian society more vulnerable to various manifestations of misinformation.
  • European researchers in 2017 found that fakes spread six times faster than the usual news. It would be logical to assume that the turbulence of public sentiment is accelerating the spread of coronavirus fakes.

Before analysing the manifestations of Russian propaganda in Ukraine related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is worth noting an interesting fact. On 11th March, the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak and the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation Dmitry Kozak initialed a protocol on the creation of an advisory council at the Tripartite Contact Group, which would include representatives of the so-called DPR and LPR. Objectively, this could have led to a transition to direct talks between official Kyiv and these Russian puppet states, but the quarantine caused by the coronavirus forced the abandonment of the plan, at least temporarily.

At the same time, it is worth paying attention to the peculiarities of promoting only Russian propaganda messages related to the coronavirus:

  • In March 2020, Vadym Rabynovych, co-chairman of the Opposition Platform for Life party, stated that “Ukraine has been supplying our specialists to the EU for six years, and today it cannot get anything from them”.
  • The representative of “OPZZh” Renat Kuzmin paid a lot of attention to the functioning of “secret American bacteriological laboratories in Ukraine”, his efforts were supported also by the head of political council of the party, Victor Medvedchuk.
  • Andriy Palchevsky, who experts consider a probable candidate from the pro-Russian forces for the role of mayor of Kyiv, said in April 2020 that the authorities are deceiving Ukrainians because we have 100 times more patients than the authorities report. Palchevsky did not provide objective confirmation of his words.
  • In April 2020, the publication with the pro-Russian paper “Vesti” distributed a fake list of addresses of the capital’s houses where the coronavirus was allegedly found. The SBU denied this information.
  • In Ukraine, the message of the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moldova on the procession against the forced vaccination against COVID-19 was also published. Earlier, a procession was held in Vinnytsia to fight the coronavirus. However, it should be noted that the Kyiv-Pechersk and Pochaiv laurels of the UOC-MP turned out to be foci of coronavirus infection.

Finally, I would like to identify a number of measures that will ensure effective information vaccination against coronavirus in both Ukraine and countries in transition, many of which are in the post-Soviet space:

Take account of the national specifics of information perception. Although Russian television channels are banned from broadcasting in Ukraine, a number of television channels with formal Ukrainian registration actually broadcast Russian messages. In the context of latent destabilization of the situation caused by the pandemic, this trend is alarming.

Maximum efficiency of response to calls. The daily information of the Ministry of Health about the number of detected patients with coronavirus is objectively insufficient. Volodymyr Zelensky’s video appeals have not been an effective communication source with fellow citizens.

Submission of information “in one voice”. Unfortunately, after the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as President of Ukraine, the “One Voice” program for the executive branch was curtailed. The deployment of this program in the situation of coronavirus seems problematic. The lack of a “single voice” has led to growing distrust of government messages on both the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and domestic politics in general.

Increase speeches of VIP-speakers. The decline in the authority of the Ukrainian government to be listened to makes it impossible to use this step effectively, but it should be taken into account given the indefinite duration of the coronavirus pandemic. It will be recalled that there will be a probable second wave of coronavirus and a long period of uncertainty before the invention of the vaccine against COVID-19.

Thus, the task for the reformatted Ministry of Culture and information policy is the formation of a message box of government officials on the subject of coronavirus.

Case-studies for typical misinformation: Ukraine’s presence on the front line of a hybrid war against Russia presupposes the Kremlin’s active information activities in various spheres, among which the coronavirus pandemic is one of the main ones. It seems logical for Ukraine to try to systematise the experience of counteraction and broadcast it in the interests of other states, first of all GUAM partners and representatives of the European Union. It will not be superfluous to establish a dialogue on this topic with Belarus, despite the use of various models of combating the coronavirus at the state level.

Show “Light at the end of the tunnel”. The instability of the coronavirus pandemic situation requires decisive and resonant steps from the Ukrainian authorities. Lack of financial capacity should push the government to asymmetric actions and the further consolidation of society.

Digital Communication Network begins the series of publications on Digital Challenges in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis.




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