The Infodemic–March 20

Natalia Antelava


Welcome to Coda’s Coronavirus Crisis newsletter. We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what’s been done to combat it. Here’s the latest: 

From anti-American sentiments fueled by Donald Trump to traffic jams in Tehran and unusual anti-virus measures in Turkmenistan, here are a few narratives — real and fake — that have caught our attention:

  • As Trump ramps up rhetorical pressure on China in an attempt to refocus blame for the crisis, Chinese social media users are responding in kind.  After President Trump repeatedly called COVID-19 a “Chinese virus,” an increasing number of people across Chinese social networks are calling Trump, HIV, and H1N1 an “American virus.”  The number of people using the term exploded after Trump’s remarks. “It’s time that we call the H1N1 flu as American flu and tell our children that American flu broke out in China in 2009,” one Weibo user said.
  • In Russia, the government media regulator Roskomnadzor has asked Youtube, Instagram, Vkontakte (Russian social network) as well as several independent media sites to delete what it called “fake news” surrounding the COVID-19 oubtbreak. The move deepens fears that the Kremlin is censoring news about the outbreak, making it harder for scientists in Russia to fight it.  

Here is the source in Russian, but we have a lot more on the situation, so keep reading. 

  • On the eve of Nowruz, the Persian New Year and amid canceled public celebrations, pro-government papers in Iran tried their best to sound upbeat. “Let’s turn this threat into opportunity” and “Let your Nowruz be a victory over corona” read the front pages of two hard-liner papers: Javan and Kayhan. 

Is anyone listening? Not judging by reactions on Iran’s social media, where people are mocking the government for incompetence and an inability to handle the outbreak or even to create conditions that would keep people home. 

Speaking of which: here’s a viral video from Iran. It shows a government channel correspondent interviewing people in a giant traffic jam on the road between COVID-19-ridden Tehran and the COVID-19-ridden holy city of Qom. The journalist goes from one car to another asking: “Don’t you know you need to stay home?” “Yes, but my trip was urgent,” all drivers reply. 

Context: Iran’s outbreak, the worst after Italy’s and China’s, comes after a disastrous year or floods, riots, US sanctions and plummeting oil prices. Here’s an excellent piece from Foreign Affairs that explains the significance of Iran’s unprecedented plea to the IMF for a $5 billion bailout: the first in 40 years. 

  • Turkmenistan  is developing its own methods of fighting COVID-19. Unlike other Central Asian countries (where total count has reached 70), the region’s most isolated and most authoritarian state doesn’t have any official COVID-19 cases. Authorities have taken some “preventive” measures disinfecting schools and closing already tight borders. 

But instead of banning public gatherings, President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov called on a government meeting and  ordered all public spaces to be fumigated with the traditional harmala grass at the meeting with the government.

 “It is scientifically proven that the smoke prevents a number of infectious diseases,” according to the news agency reporting on the president’s statement. The government also put out this video of the president promoting the use of the grass. 

And staying in Turkmenistan: there’s also been a reported increase in prices for sheep heads and legs after rumors spread that a sheep head soup is an effective protection against Coronavirus. Turkmenistan Chronicle has a full report here, in Russian.


We spent a week wading through disinformation and confusion shaping the response to the pandemic in Russia and spoke to doctors who challenge the official narrative. None of them wanted to be named. 

Anonymously they described scenes you won’t see on Russian state TV: overcrowded hospital wards, lack of equipment and confusion over the real situation. 

Official line:

What initially prompted us to dig in was a bizarrely low number of official cases. Although they doubled in recent days, official numbers are still  at about 200 — with one registered death. An impressive result for a country of 140 million. 

Russian state-controlled media says that’s because the government is doing an excellent job controlling the outbreak. 

Prominent pro-government commentators are constantly underlining the supposed difference between Russia and the West. 

“Look at the locked up Italy, look at Spain, and finally accept the fact that there is nothing we can learn from their model. When people in Moscow living rooms tell me ‘Do you want us to be like China?’  I will no longer shy away from the answer. Yes I do!” wrote Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT, on her Facebook page.

The unofficial line: 

“If we were like China, we could control it, but we are not China. Things are disorganized and the situation is a disaster,” said one doctor in an interview. 

He said his hospital was taking an unprecedented number of patients with respiratory diseases. 

Sound like a strange coincidence? That’s the reaction from all Russians we have spoken to. The government is in fact admitting to an outbreak of pneumonia. This confusion is breeding speculation and mistrust. 

What’s fake and what’s real?

Given the confusing narratives, here is what we can say with confidence about the situation in Russia:

  • Doctors are terrified. I have plenty of experience of talking to people fearful of state retribution, but I was struck by the level of nervousness among all medical professionals and some of the patients we spoke to. This atmosphere of fear is adding to overall confusion and distrust. There are official, designated hospitals that have been tasked with dealing with COVID-19 and where all patients with respiratory conditions are being tested. These hospitals are showcased on state TV. In many of the other hospitals there is chaos and confusion. 
  • State media is lying about the speed of testing in Russia. State-controlled outlets say Russians can expect results in 2-4 hours.  But several doctors confirmed that all results are sent to Vector, a biotech lab in Novosibirsk in Siberia for confirmation of the results and that this seriously slows down the process.
  • Confusing messaging, lack of transparency and stretched resources in hospitals mean that quarantine rules aren’t strictly enforced: one patient we spoke to said he waited for test results for over a week, while staying in a ward where old and new patients mingled freely. A doctor on a virologist WhatsApp group chat wrote that she was told by her hospital to end self-isolation after a trip to Italy because she was needed at work.

Conclusion: The Russian government is taking serious measures: closing borders, stopping public gatherings and repurposing hospitals and even building wards, Beijing-style, in preparation for a peak.  

But at the same time they seem to be fooling their own population for a false sense of security. Many doubt whether this can be a sustainable or constructive policy. Every person I spoke with, at some point in the conversation, alluded to Chernobyl. 

Here is our Russia editor Katerina Fomina with the full story.

Hungry for more? Here are three reads from Coda for this weekend:

  • Isobel Cockerell explores how COVID-19 has undermined Russia’s traditional disinformation narratives in neighboring Georgia.
  • British neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan has spent years studying mass hysteria and large-scale panic attacks and the damage they can inflict on societies. Here she argues why, when it comes to COVID-19, a little bit of panic is in fact a good thing.
  • Coda’s Chaewon Chung finds innovative ways Chinese internet users are getting around state censorship.

‘There is no corona!’

And, before you go, let’s nip back to Russia for this brilliant – and not yet viral – video

Six women in a semi-circle announce that “there is no corona” and that it’s all “fake news” invented by  Donald Trump to strengthen the dollar.   Then they set images of COVID-19 on fire and shove it into a metal bucket in front them. 

“That’s it! The country has been cleansed,” one of them yells. 

Bizarre! But also bizarrely, not all that different from sentiments I hear on Russian state TV.