Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Moscow Expanding and Modifying Its Disinformation Campaign about Coronavirus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 28 – Instead of dropping the disinformation campaign about the coronavirus that it began in January with suggestions that NATO had invented the virus and used it as a weapon against China and the world (euvsdisinfo.eu/disinformation-can-kill/), Moscow has refined and expanded it in equally dangerous ways, Russian journalists say.

            If some of the grossest ideologue tropes have largely disappeared, journalists and experts surveyed by the Ekho Rossii portal say, the new messages for both foreign and domestic audiences are being pushed hard by Moscow outlets with deadly and politically deleterious results (ehorussia.com/new/node/20509).

            That conclusion is suggested by the responses of six Russian experts and commentators to the question Ekho Rossii posed to them: Has Moscow’s disinformation campaign regarding the coronavirus changed and is it likely to evolve further in the coming weeks both domestically and internationally?

                Aleksandr Morozov a political scientist at Prague’s Nemtsov Academic Center, says that Moscow is currently pushing two notions: the first with which it began is to blame the US for the appearance of the virus and its spread, and the second which calls for “global solidarity” in the face of the pandemic.

            At times, he says, these things are mixed together, with the message to Europeans that they and Russia can join together to fight what is America’s fault.  Domestically, the Kremlin’s message is constant: the superiority of the West and the hopelessness and antagonism of the West against Russia.

            Pavel Kanygin of Moscow’s Novaya gazeta says that government-controlled media in Russia are pushing the idea that all other countries are in disastrous shape while “we are prepared the best of all.”  But because of what people can see around them or hear from friends, they are becoming ever more suspicious of the Kremlin’s message.

            Konstantin Eggert, a journalist who writes frequently for Russian-language outlets in Germany, says that Moscow began its coverage in the traditional way with the message being “’There are no problems in Russia but the West is full of them.’” Now, there is more objective reporting, but the anti-Ukrainian line continues with the insistence Kyiv is near collapse.

            Kirill Rogov, vice president of the Liberal Mission Foundation, says that “initially, the authorities tried to use the threat of the epidemic for political goals.” But they, “like the governments of other countries, have found themselves under serious pressure from public opinion and the threat of the collapse of the medical assistance system.”

            Because ever more Russians are turning to alternative sources of information, Rogov continues, the Kremlin’s ability to control the media agenda is limited on coronavirus as well as on everything else.

            Denis Korotkov, a Novaya gazeta journalist, says that Moscow began by playing up empty streets and empty stores in the US and saying that Russia was doing ever so much better than the West. When it became obvious that the epidemic would hit Russia too, government media have been compelled to cover it, although no criticism of the regime is allowed.

            And Andrey Arkhangelsky, the cultural affairs editor of Ogonyek, says the spread of the coronavirus in Russia has forced the government media to shift from saying everything is bad in the west and good in Russia to suggesting everyone is in this together, although these outlets still say democracy and multilateral organizations are powerless to stop the plague.

Russian propaganda “has laughed over the Europeans who ‘in a panic bought toilet paper,” but that stopped when the same thing happened in Russia. As a result, “stories about ‘the panic in Europe’ have become a little less,” he continues.  And stories about “panic and rumors” in Russia have become more frequent. Thus, “the information boomerang has come back.”

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