According to an internal document from European Union authorities seen by Reuters, Russian interests have been caught spreading fake news about the Coronavirus pandemic online in an apparent attempt to destabilize Western countries. The fake news is already sparking consequences — at the end of February, there were even riots in Ukraine after the circulation of “a fake letter purporting to be from the Ukrainian health ministry” which “falsely stated [there] were five coronavirus cases in the country.” In fact, Ukrainian authorities insisted, the document was a fraud, but the apparently Russia-created fake news doesn’t end there.
More examples include Russian disinformation that Italian doctors “would choose who lived or died because of a lack of beds” — which obviously seems well-poised to spark the kind of Western unrest that Russia seems to be after. There’s also been fake news that Slovakian Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini was infected with the Coronavirus and may have passed the illness to other world leaders, although, to be sure, European leaders have already begun meeting via video conference instead of in-person.
The “significant disinformation campaign” from Russia is intended to “worsen the impact of the coronavirus, generate panic and sow distrust,” Reuters explains. As the internal EU report itself puts it:
‘A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVID-19 is ongoing. The overarching aim of Kremlin 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 tactics are, of course, similar to those which Russian agents have used in conjunction to U.S. elections. Trump has repeatedly dismissed the significance and even existence of the tactics as a supposed hoax, although he took office in part on a wave of support of Russian disinformation campaigns.
In this case, as in the one surrounding the U.S. elections, Russia has denied the allegations. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov insisted:
‘We’re talking again about some unfounded allegations which in the current situation are probably the result of an anti-Russian obsession.’
The report about these Russian disinformation tactics includes apparent concern about Russian state media’s operation and spread across social media in Europe. The report emerged as the Coronavirus outbreak continues to enact plenty of its own havoc. Stock markets in the U.S. plunged yet again on Wednesday, and, for at least a time, 100 percent of the gains in value since Trump took office were completely wiped out. As of about 2:30 p.m. Eastern time, the Dow Jones Industrial Index had plummeted more than 10 percent in just Wednesday trading.
The Dow has fallen more than 3,500 points since Trump signed this chart and sent it to Lou Dobbs https://t.co/iodd7CBXK6
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 18, 2020
On the same day, the worst day for Italy so far during the Coronavirus outbreak was reported. Italian authorities reported 475 new deaths and over 4,200 new cases, bringing their totals to 35,713 cases and almost 3,000 deaths. It’s unclear when either Italy or other affected countries might be able to catch a break — reported U.S. cases have also been dramatically increasing, with over 1,300 newly reported by the mid-afternoon on Wednesday alone. The U.S. case total passed 7,750, with 122 deaths and counting.
Italy has just seen its highest single-day spike in its death toll and infection rates since the Coronavirus outbreak began. The Health Ministry reported that 475 people died today, bringing the total to 2,978. @NBCNews @MattMcBradley
— Jesse Rodriguez (@JesseRodriguez) March 18, 2020