The Infodemic—April 3

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, sign up here.

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

As a large Russian military aircraft landed at JFK with 60 tons of medical supplies to support America’s Covid-19 response, Trump said he was not worried about Russian propaganda. 

Someone who is worried about Russian propaganda is Italian journalist Jacopo Iacobini. Last night, the Russian Ministry of Defense published a threatening statement against Iacobini’s reporting on its facebook page.

“He who digs his grave will crash into it,” it read.

Moscow is furious about Iacobini’s critical reporting on Moscow’s humanitarian mission to Italy; he has written that 80% of the Russian supplies are useless. Russian TV stations, news agencies, and Russian foreign ministry briefings have called out Iacobini by name.

Here is our jointly reported story with La Stampa that explains why Russian aid to Italy is a unique influence operation. 

There is a very odd story unfolding in France.  

On Tuesday, Renaud Muselier, president of the regional council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (France has 18 administrative regions) went on Russia Today’s French language channel to accuse the United States of “hijacking” a plane load of face masks intended for shipment to France.

The masks were switched on the tarmac to a US-bound plane, he claimed, after American buyers offered the Chinese three times the price.

But then Muselier retracted his story, claiming on Twitter that it had been an April Fools’ joke.

Not so, says the newspaper Libération, which spoke to other regional politicians who had had the same experience. Jean Rottner, president of the Grand Est region, told Libération:

“Indeed, on the tarmac, the Americans take out the cash and pay three or four times for the orders we have made. So we really have to fight.”

Context: France’s hands may not be entirely clean either in this coronavirus-era conflict. 

In early March, the Swedish government lashed out at French authorities for seizing masks it was sending to Italy. Italy has accused the Czech Republic of snatching an order of 700,000 Chinese masks by outbidding them. In Canada, an order of 10,000 masks for health workers in Quebec was diverted to Ohio without explanation.  

We had been warned — but it’s still quite extraordinary to watch coronavirus accelerate the transition of a European nation into an authoritarian state. In a space of one week, Hungary’s Victor Orban gained indefinite rule by decree. Anyone who is deemed to be spreading “coronavirus disinformation” faces a 5-year jail term.

Next on Hungary’s agenda: parliament is looking to make it impossible for transgender people to legally change their gender. Here is a dispatch from Human Rights Watch.

All of this arguably means that Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has lost his title of Europe’s Last Dictator. I asked Coda’s Katia Patin to look into what he has been up to. Read on.

Underreported: Belarus  ᛫  by Katia Patin

On March 28th, President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, played his favorite sport, ice hockey, in an arena full of supporters. During a break from the game, Lukashenko — sporting a bright red jersey with the number 1 — assured a journalist that “there are no viruses here” and that hockey is the “best antivirus medicine.” 

Belarus is the only country in Europe that has taken virtually no measures against the spread of Covid-19, even though authorities have reported 304 cases.

“It’s practically impossible to verify any information with the Ministry of Health,” said Boris Goretsky from the Belarus Association of Journalists. “The government has taken the position of minimizing all information.”

Goretsky says the Ministry of Health refuses to publish daily statistics. 

“Nothing extraordinary is happening in our country,” says Deputy Minister of Health Elena Bogdan.

But at least one Belarussian doctor dares to disagree. “Help save the people of Belarus,” wrote Natalia Larionova from Hospital Number One in Vitebsk, in the north of Belarus.

“The situation in our city is starting to get out of control,” Larionova wrote in a post on her social media profile, adding that many doctors are already being hospitalized with pneumonia. 

“The numbers being published by the Ministry of Health are a complete myth,” she said.

Hungry for more?

To make up for the lack of video in the last newsletter, I have two for you today.

Guardian’s Eastern Europe correspondent Shaun Walker, whose coverage of what’s happening in Hungary you should be following, says “Turn up the volume and watch this video from Orban’s Facebook page of Hungary’s coronavirus action group as superheroes, set to Hollywood action music.”  

In case you’ve missed: watch this extraordinary video wherein a senior advisor to WHO’s Director General apparently hangs up on a reporter when asked a tough question. Thanks to Coda’s Chaewon Chung for flagging.

Stay healthy, and look out for the next edition on Monday.

Natalia Antelava 

Tracking the war on science around the world

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