Disinformation

The Infodemic—Fake news of a vanquished virus alarms Mexico; Covid-19 awakens Europe to its foreign disinformation threat

Welcome back to Coda’s Infodemic and thank you for joining us! We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world that is emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown. Before we dive in:

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And now, from Latin America to Brussels, here are a few narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.  

Information that the World Health Organization has issued a warning about the Nipah virus, which is “more deadly than Covid-19,” is circulating on social networks in Mexico. “Nipah” is even trending on Twitter. The Nipah virus is real and does, indeed, have a high fatality rate, but the news is fake. The Spanish-languge online magazine Animal Politico reports that the last time the WHO launched a health alert for the Nipah virus was in 2018.

The WHO is also under attack in Ukraine.Ukrainskaya Pravda newspaper has collected numerous examples of rapidly spreading WHO disinformation from Russian-language websites, blogs and YouTube. It is not totally clear whether or not the campaign is coordinated, but it looks like it, given the consistent, overarching message. The latest briefing from the WHO on asymptomatic transmission is being presented in such a way that it appears the organization has said that there is no pandemic at all. 

Medical workers are still disappearing in Egypt. We have followed the story of healthcare professionals arbitrarily detained after voicing opinions critical of the government’s pandemic response. As the nation passes 50,000 confirmed cases, many of its people are struggling to get by, and its tourism industry lies shattered — but at least one company is doing just fine. The publicly owned cologne manufacturer Kesma and Chabrawich has reported sales of 3 billion Egyptian pounds ($185.5 million) since April, owing to the adoption of its products as a cheap and readily available form of hand sanitizer.

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What We Are Following: 

Is the pandemic giving Europe a new geopolitical awareness? At the end of last week, Brussels issued a paper on Covid-19 disinformation. The main takeaways are: 

  • The pandemic has been accompanied by an unprecedented “infodemic”
  • Russia and China have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around Covid-19 in the EU
  • The crisis shows that EU public policy could benefit from a more coordinated and faster response

So what does any of that mean? And why does it matter? I asked Romanian analyst Radu Magdin to explain. His thoughts are below, so keep reading! 

CAN BRUSSELS CREATE ITS OWN NARRATIVE? • Radu Magdin

The gloves are off. The pandemic has done what years of Russian interference has not: forced Europe’s leaders to take anti-EU disinformation seriously. 

“Disinformation in times of the coronavirus can kill,” said the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. 

The EU has, of course, taken measures against disinformation before, creating communications initiatives such as the debunking website EUvsDisinfo. But, prior to Covid-19, the whole idea that the West needed to worry about Russian or Chinese disinformation was largely dismissed as crazy talk. 

It was left to an underpowered and bureaucratically isolated unit within the European Commission to try and highlight the dangers.   

Could the pandemic change that? It has certainly made connections between fake news and geopolitical security risks more difficult to ignore, and changed the conversation. Borrell says that the EU has “a duty to protect our citizens” from disinformation. Various groups in Brussels are now working on a  new general framework of how Brussels will tackle the threat. 

The danger is that Brussels will waste this momentum and simply come up with another communication plan — or stratcom — as they are known in EU jargon. 

That would be a mistake. Another stratcom is not what we need. The real solution is a new attitude. Until now, the EU’s disinformation strategy has been not only half-hearted but also reactive, allowing the adversary to set the agenda and then responding. 

That needs to change. Brussels must stop relying on a model based around countering disinformation and, instead, start pushing its own definition of what Europe means and why it matters to the world. 

The pandemic has pushed Brussels into admitting that disinformation is a real threat. The big question is whether the EU has enough political will to take the action required to counter it. 

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Hungry for more? Check out codastory.com . I especially recommend this piece on TV personalities spreading bizarre Covid-19 theories around the world

And many thanks for reading. Coda’s Dave Stelfox, Rachel Sherman and Katia Patin have contributed to this newsletter. 

Many thanks and we’ll see you on Monday.

Natalia

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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Natalia Antelava

Natalia Antelava is the Editor-in-Chief of Coda Story.

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