BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Russian media have launched a “significant disinformation campaign” against the West to worsen the impact of the coronavirus, generate panic and wreak havoc, according to a European Union document seen by Reuters.
FILE PHOTO: fake blood is seen in test tubes labeled with coronavirus (COVID-19) in this illustration taken on March 17th 2020. REUTERS / Dado Ruvic / Illustration
The Kremlin denied the allegations Wednesday, saying they were unfounded and devoid of common sense.
The EU document states that the Russian campaign, by pushing fake news online in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French, uses contradictory, confusing and harmful reports to make it more difficult for the EU to communicate its response to the pandemic.
“A significant disinformation campaign is underway by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin points about COVID-19,” said the nine-page internal document, dated March 16, using the name of the disease which may be caused by the coronavirus.
“The general goal of the Kremlin’s disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in western countries … in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies,” the document produced by the foreign policy arm of the EU, the European External Action Service, he said.
An EU database has recorded nearly 80 cases of misinformation about coronavirus since January 22, observing Russian efforts to amplify Iranian allegations online, cited without evidence, that coronavirus was a U.S. biological weapon.
Most scientists believe that the disease originated in bats in China before passing on to humans.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stressed that what he said was the lack of a specific example or link to a specific information channel in the EU document.
“We are again talking about some unfounded accusations which in the current situation are probably the result of an anti-Russian obsession,” said Peskov.
The EU document cited examples from Lithuania to Ukraine, including false claims that an American soldier deployed to Lithuania was infected and hospitalized. He said that on social media, state-funded Spanish-language Spanish RT was the twelfth most popular source of coronavirus news between January and mid-March, based on the amount of news shared on social media.
The EEAS declined to comment on the report directly.
The European Commission said it had been in contact with Google (GOOGL.O), Facebook (FB.O), Twitter (TWTR.N) and Microsoft (MSFT.O). An EU spokesman accused Moscow of “playing with people’s lives” and appealed to EU citizens to “be very careful” and use only news sources they trust.
The EU and NATO previously accused Russia of secret actions, including disinformation, to try to destabilize the West by exploiting divisions in society.
Russia denies these tactics and President Vladimir Putin accused foreign enemies of targeting Russia by spreading false news about the coronavirus to trigger panic.
Russian media in Europe have not been successful in reaching a wider audience, but they provide a platform for anti-EU populists and polarize the debate, showed analysis of EU and non-governmental groups.
The EEAS report cited uprisings in late February in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that is now seeking to join the EU and NATO, as an example of the consequences of this disinformation.
He said that a fake letter claiming to be from the Ukrainian health ministry falsely claimed that there were five coronavirus cases in the country. Ukrainian authorities say the letter was created outside of Ukraine, according to the EU report.
“The Kremlin’s disinformation messages promote a narrative that coronavirus is a human creation, armed by the West,” says the report, cited for the first time by the Financial Times.
He cited fake news created by Russia in Italy – which is experiencing the second most deadly coronavirus outbreak in the world – claiming that the EU of 27 nations has not been able to effectively deal with the pandemic, despite a series of collective measures taken by governments in the last few days.
The EEAS also shared information with Slovakia about the spread of false news that accuses the country’s prime minister, Peter Pellegrini, of being infected with the virus and who may have passed on the infection to others at recent summits.
EU leaders have conferred by videoconference since the beginning of March.
Additional reporting of Anastasia Teterevela in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich