The Infodemic: China is angry with Australia; controversial legislation in Eastern Europe; fake news leads to more violence in India

Natalia Antelava


Hello. We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what is being done to combat it. Below you’ll find a few narratives – real and fake – that have grabbed our attention.

Let’s start in Eastern Europe where two governments in Hungary and in Poland are taking advantage of the pandemic to push through very different but equally controversial legislation:

  • In Budapest, parliament is classifying the details of its most expensive infrastructure deal in history: a $2 billion railroad project with China to upgrade its Budapest-Belgrade route.
  • The project is China’s first major railway project in the EU, but bizarrely, local news outlets are reporting that the deal will take 130 years to pay off in a best-case scenario, 2,400 years in a more realistic one. The headlines say it all “All Aboard the Secret Express.”

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is pushing for new measures to toughen access to abortions.

  • The new measures would ban the termination of pregnancies with malformed fetuses. Another bill up for debate would criminalize “the promotion of underage sex,” which rights groups say could lead to a ban on sex education in schools.
  • Amid strict social distancing measures, Polish women are finding creative ways to protest: bringing posters outside grocery stores and other essential businesses still open and protesting while standing in line. 
  • “Attempting to pass these recklessly retrogressive laws at any time would be shameful, but to rush them through under the cover of the Covid-19 crisis is unconscionable,” says Amnesty International’s Draginja Nadazdin.

Meanwhile nearby, the Czech Republic is reporting a strange series of cyberattacks:

  • Websites of hospitals in four Czech cities, as well as websites of the Ministry of Health and the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague have been attacked.
  • The website quotes anonymous sources in the government who say that IP addresses used in cyberattacks point to “Russian hackers maybe behind the attacks.”
  • U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that anyone engaged in these attacks should “expect consequences.” Pompeo did not name Russia as responsible in his statement, saying that “We call upon the actor in question to refrain from carrying out disruptive malicious cyber activity against the Czech Republic’s healthcare system or similar infrastructure elsewhere.”

Background: The Czech Republic has been a popular target for cyberattacks originating in Russia with the country’s counterintelligence services actively taking on cyberattack networks associated with the Russian intelligences services.

China has accused Australia’s home affairs and foreign ministers of “bigotry” and participating in a US-led smear campaign after they called for transparency from Beijing on the origins of Covid-19. 

  • Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton asked China to provide “clarity” on coronavirus’s origins – which led to fury from the Chinese embassy in Canberra. 
  • “He must have received some orders from Washington requiring him to cooperate in the US propaganda war,” a spokesperson for the embassy told state-owned Global Times
  • In a statement on the embassy website, the spokesperson added: “These days, certain Australian politicians are keen to parrot what those Americans have asserted and simply follow them in staging political attacks on China.” 

In India the government is beginning to ease restrictions to allow some manufacturing and agricultural activity to resume. In the meantime, it seems that fake news deployed against the country’s minorities online continues to spill over into the real life:

  • Two Hindu monks or “sadhus” and their driver were lynched in the Indian state of Maharashtra while police stood by, possibly due to rumors that “they were Muslims disguised as sadhus out to kidnap kids, or spread coronavirus by spitting”
  • As a viral video of the lynching spread, many on Indian social media rushed to blame it on Muslims. Today, the Maharashtra home minister released a list of 101 people arrested in order to show that none of them were Muslim. 

In Central Asia this week we have an unexpected newcomer to the game of face mask diplomacy: Tajikistan is sending 11 million masks to Italy, according to Central Asia’s

  • One of Central Asia’s most authoritarian states, Tajikistan has reported zero cases of Covid-19, but journalists have been documenting suspicious cases of pneumonia deaths.
  • Among them is a prosecutor from the capital Dushanbe. The government says Jalloliddin Abdoujabborzoda died from pneumonia, but according to the family his body was brought back in a closed coffin by a team of medics in full protective equipment. The family was not allowed to attend the funeral.

Hungry for more?

  • Coronavirus tests Germans’ devotion to privacy: new initiatives to limit the spread of Covid-19 have sparked a debate over how far the government can go to control the pandemic. 
  • And before you go, here’s an example of disinformation fanning the flames of racial tensions: UK-based The Black Opinion posted a video of a fire explosion claiming that Nigerians are burning Chinese businesses in retaliation for mistreatment of Africans in Guangzhou. The video had 1.2 million views and received tens of thousands of likes/retweets. 

    It’s fake: the footage is actually from a fire that took place in Ibadan, Nigeria earlier this month. 

Stay healthy and don’t get fooled by the Infodemic,


P.S. It takes a village, or in our case a team to bring you this newsletter. Many thanks to Katia Patin, Gautama Mehta and Ariam Alula for today’s contributions.