The Infodemic—April 1

Natalia Antelava


Welcome! We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what’s been done to combat it. If you like what you are seeing, please help me to spread the word and sign up here.

Here are a few narratives – real and fake – that have caught our attention: 

“A very, very large planeload of things,” is how Donald Trump described the aid that Russia has sent to the United States. Apparently it hasn’t arrived yet and it’s not yet clear what is inside the plane. Meantime, we teamed up with reporters at La Stampa to figure out what Russians sent to Italy. More on that below.

China’s Ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, has been working hard to show how China’s response to Covid-19 is a huge win for authoritarianism. In a weekend blog post entitled “observations of a Chinese diplomat stationed in Paris,” he described Europe’s coronavirus response as “highlighting the limits of individualism and selfishness.” He went on to describe Asia’s “sense of community that’s sorely lacking in Western countries,” citing it as a reason why Europe and the US are struggling to contain the pandemic. Shaye praised China’s coronavirus response most of all, saying the lockdown wouldn’t have been possible “without a great regime.” “China is labeled a “dictatorship,” he wrote, “but when the epidemic started to rage, it was China that the whole world asked for help, not the so-called “flagship of democracy” – the United States.” Shaye’s comments are in line with a coordinated propaganda campaign waged by the Chinese Communist Party that seeks to divert any blame for the pandemic away from China.

Narendra Modi’s extraordinary lockdown in India has left millions of people stranded and without food, and has attracted widespread criticism for its poor planning and implementation—but you might not know it by reading India’s daily newspapers. A report from The Caravan magazine suggests the reason may have to do with an apparently successful charm offensive Modi launched on the country’s print media. In a videoconference held with 20+ editors and publishers six hours before the announcement of the lockdown, the prime minister requested that Indian newspapers publish “positive” news coverage of the government’s coronavirus response—and, as The Caravan reports, based on conversations with most of the participants on the call, they mostly agreed to follow his instructions. Many of the editors on the call immediately tweeted and even published articles about how grateful they were to be included. The editor of one Hindi-language daily is described in the article as having been so “floored by the fact that the prime minister folded his hands” (a customary gesture of respect) during the announcement of the lockdown that, on the next day, his newspaper carried four pictures of Modi with his hands folded. “No prime minister in the world has ever folded his hands,” the editor told The Caravan.

The biometric surveillance technologies being deployed by some Indian state and regional governments reportedly include apps requiring quarantined individuals to periodically upload selfies, with location tracking to ensure the selfie is taken at your home. The state of Karnataka’s minister of medical education instructed those under home quarantine orders to upload a geotagged selfie once every hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. to an app called “Quarantine Watch,” on penalty of being “shifted to Mass Quarantine.”

We have teamed up with the Italian daily La Stampa to dig into Russia’s activities in Northern Italy.  


Ten days ago, Vladimir Putin sent 15 military planes full of supplies and medical personnel to Italy. It was followed by a massive propaganda campaign portraying Russian troops as coming to Italy’s rescue at the time when the EU or US could not or would not help. But people we’ve been speaking to are raising questions about Russia’s mission. 

“It’s unimaginable that this would happen in a NATO country in any other circumstances,” says Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commanding officer of NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion

What we know so far:

  • 122 officers from the Radiological Chemical and Biological Weapons Defense (RChBD) unit, one of the most secretive units of the Russian military, are now stationed in Bergamo. 
  • Russia says they will send more aid, despite the rapidly growing cases at home (not unusual, as the US has also been sending aid around the world).
  • In Bergamo, Russians have decontaminated two nursing homes and are preparing to decontaminate a hospital. 

The problem 

All of this information is coming from the Russian sources. Russians are in full control of the information about their activities in Bergamo and the wider narrative surrounding their presence in Italy. 

The Italian media are using footage distributed by Russia Today’s video service Ruptly. No questions were allowed during a brief press-conference that Russian General in charge of the operation held in Bergamo and none of the officials we have spoken with have any information beyond what is already on Russian tv.   

The big question. Or two:

It’s clear that Moscow (like Beijing) is using its humanitarian mission for propaganda purposes, but are they also using it for intelligence gathering?  That’s the concern for two senior European diplomats, who wanted to remain unnamed, but said that they are worried “There will be a lot of activity going on on the ground in Russia,”  

“That’s safe to assume,” says Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, not only because any intelligence service would do so” but also because there is a lot of overlap between RCBW troops and military intelligence, or GRU, in Russia. 

“But right  now the story is being lost in the noise and trauma of the crisis,” one of the diplomats said. 

The second question

Considering Russia’s track record (Salisbury comes to mind) and the double use of the humanitarian purposes, why did Italy, which has one of the best CBN capabilities in Europe, allow Russians in?  

The answer seems to lie in a combination of chaotic crisis management effort, an historically softer stance towards Russia, and Russia’s successful cultivation of Italy’s current populist government.

Hungry for more?

  • With Covid-19 approaching 900 thousand cases globally, the pandemic seems to leave no community untouched. We reached out to artists in six countries asking them for a snapshot into how coronavirus has transformed their daily lives. 
  • And here’s Coda’s Katia Patin with a gallery of the coronavirus politicians who have no time for science.

I don’t have a video for you today, but I do have a final piece of disinformation news. Late last night, Russian state news agency reported that alcohol sales have been banned as part of quarantine measures in Georgia. 

Fake news! Coda’s team here in Tbilisi quickly debunked this myth. While keeping social distance, of course.

Stay healthy (and sane!)

Natalia Antelava 

PS. It takes a village, in our case a team to bring you this newsletter. Today, a big shout out to Coda’s Isobel Cockerell and Gautama Mehta.