The Infodemic: Confessions of a Fake News Merchant in Iran; Conspiracy Clusters in the age of coronavirus; assassination plot in the Czech Republic

Natalia Antelava


Welcome back! We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what is being done to combat it. 

Last week the president of the United States came under fire for promoting dangerous coronavirus cures. Today, we start in Iran, where Ayatollahs have punished a fake cures merchant for his coronavirus treatment plan.  

Confessions of a Fake Cures Merchant

In Iran, enemies of the Islamic revolution are regularly rolled out on television to confess their crimes. It’s a familiar site: a handcuffed “offender” of the Islamic Republic talks about his regrets and pledges to never repeat his mistakes again. 

But Iran’s most recent forced confession broadcast to millions on state television didn’t come from an opposition activist or an alleged U.S. spy but from a man who told Iranians to drink camel urine. 

Here’s what happened: 

  • On April 13th, a video was shared by thousands in Iran. It showed a man in his thirties dressed in a smart black suit and sunglasses getting out of a white sedan. As he shuts the car door, he promises his viewers the “best cure from coronavirus.”
  • In the next shot, he is next to a large brown camel. “This is it, the cure is right here,” he says, petting the camel. He recites what he says is a verse from the Koran, in which a man comes to the “sixth Imam of Shiites, Imam Saddigh, and says I cannot breath.” The Imam, he says, prescribed him camel urine. 
  • And then – you guessed it – he picks up a glass half filled with light yellow liquid. He smacks his lips as he first sips it slowly, then knocks it back. “Ah! The best way to have it is when it is fresh,” he says. 

The video ended with blurry images of English language websites saying: “in one of America’s research centers, they found camel urine has many medicinal properties.” 

Eleven days later, the man — whose name was never disclosed — was shown on Iranian television. 

His legs and hands had been cuffed. Instead of trendy shades, his arms covered his face. 

“I have no research into the relationship between coronavirus and camel urine, that’s why I want to apologize to my dear people and my dear country,” he confessed to a state TV reporter. 

Background: one of the reasons why the original camel urine video caught fire — apart from being both genuinely amusing and a shocking watch — is because Iran’s political opposition picked it up. 

Activists use it as an example of how “backward” Iran has become under the Ayatollahs. This tweet read: “While doctors and researchers around the world are working on vaccines, in our country they prescribe drinking camel urine.” My Iranian sources say the government felt it needed to distance itself from being associated with the camel urine. 

During the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak back in 2015, the World Health Organization warned people that they should not drink camel milk and urine to treat themselves. 

Fun Fact: As ever – there is a grain of logic to every fake story. Camel Urine is actually the name of a plant in the Arabian Peninsula used for respiratory diseases.

Coronavirus Attack

Anyone who follows Chinese censorship knows the strange and random ways it works. Here’s an example:

  • A computer game called “Coronavirus attack” with nineties-style 2D graphics has caught the attention of China’s state media and has been banned in the country. 
  • Its premise is simple: intercept the “selfish virus carriers” before they spread Covid-19.
  • The game’s graphics resemble the Chinese flag, and according to the game’s distributor, it was made by a Taiwanese developer. 
  • This was enough to alert China’s censors, and the game’s ban was a top headline in today’s state-owned Global Times. The Times’ main gripe  was that it “insinuates China is the birthplace of Covid-19.”

Eastern Europe’s Conspiracy Clusters:

The infodemic doesn’t need formal networks in order to spread. Just like with the pandemic, it’s the community spread that matters. Here’s an example:

The 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony in London featured dozens of hospital beds — a tribute to one of Britain’s most cherished institutions: the NHS. 

Seven year on, several North Macedonian Facebook accounts are saying that the opening ceremony was in fact a subtle way the West announced that it was planning to launch a pandemic. The use of hospital beds in the ceremony, their argument goes, proves that the virus was planned by the West. (The original post has been removed by Facebook but this one is still up.) 

The theory is so insane, I wouldn’t bother citing it had it stayed in North Macedonia. 

But suddenly dozens of accounts across the Balkans and wider Eastern Europe are recycling the allegation, each creating its own cluster. And with each cluster, the conspiracy theory becomes a bit less crazy, a bit more normal – the more we hear it, the more immune we are to its absurdity. This Hungarian site is running it as a news story.  

Media researchers who are part of the Open Partnership Network, a UK-funded initiative that brings together journalists and researchers from across Europe and Eurasia to monitor disinformation trends, have found that two major trends shaping the conversation in the region:  

  • Bill Gates is the villain: from Armenia to Hungary, dozens of sites, radio talk shows, and social media accounts are discussing how Bill Gates planned the pandemic so that he could implant the world’s population with a nano-tech vaccine developed by Microsoft in order to create the world’s largest surveillance network. 
  • The virus was manufactured in a US military lab. A version of this theory is being pushed by Chinese and Russia state media outlets, but smaller clusters are forming around local sites that are carrying the story all around the world. 

Why this matters: over the last year and a half we have seen how conspiracy theories launched in far corners of the internet can reshape the mainstream conversation. Here’s an interesting piece on how it happened in the United States.

What We are Watching: An Assassination Plot in the Czech Republic?

This is a developing story.

Czech media are reporting a thwarted assassination of the mayor of Prague for dismantling an old Soviet monument. According to journalist Ondrej Kundra from 

  • Three weeks ago, a Russian intelligence operative flew to Prague. He was picked up by a Russian diplomatic car and driven to the Russian embassy. He carried a suitcase with “ricin” – a highly potent toxin.
  • Two Czech politicians, the mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib, and a mayor of one of Prague’s districts, Ondrej Kolar, have been given 24-hour security protection.
  • Both men have angered Russia by what Moscow says are their attempts to “falsify history.” One renamed the street next to the Russian embassy “Boris Nemtsov street,” after Russia’s slain opposition leader. The other moved a Soviet-era Red Army statue from a city square to a museum.

Background: Details of this story are still emerging, but Russia’s sensitivity about Soviet-era monuments has been well documented. Russia has publicly expressed anger about a lack of gratitude for the role of the Red Army in liberating Poland, and two years ago we reported on tensions sparked by a Russian campaign to protect Soviet-era monuments in Bulgaria. 

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See you on Wednesday,