The Infodemic: Authoritarians cheer America’s moral decline; Moscow cancels Musk

Natalia Antelava


Welcome back, and a very special welcome to all our new subscribers. The Infodemic is Coda’s pop up newsletter here to help you understand how the global spread of coronavirus disinformation is shaping the pandemic response.  

The global conversation about what’s happening across America is shaping one of the most consequential narratives of the post-pandemic world. Below is what you need to know about it. 

“Shaming will no longer work”

For decades opposition activists and  journalists working in oppressive states around the world would turn to the United States in times of trouble.
 A press release from an American embassy, a call from the ambassador, a petition signed by members of congress — these were tools that have saved hundreds if not thousands of lives over the years.  

But now journalists are being attacked in the streets of Minneapolis and New York. Reporters who are being attacked elsewhere are left with no one to turn to.   

“This is a new world order,” says Dmitry Kiselyov, Kremlin’s chief spin doctor in his most recent broadcast. “Shaming (other governments) will no longer work.”

Meantime, the harassment of journalists, protesters, and opposition activists is getting worse. Here are just a few examples: 

  • In India, there has been a surge of harassment of reporters over coronavirus coverage
  • In Kenya, journalists have been harassed and assaulted as police have used brutality to enforce a Covid-19 lockdown
  • In Zimbabwe, two journalists have been detained for breaking Covid-19 rules

For dozens of Covid-19 has not just become an excuse to crack down. It has also made fighting back a lot more difficult. 

Why this matters: The moral decline of the United States is emerging as one of the most consequential narratives of the post-pandemic world. Watching the images of police brutality in the United States, America’s foes and friends suddenly find themselves in an unprecedented agreement: the United States can no longer talk to the world about freedom. 

This is also giving plenty of fodder to its foes. Keep reading.

“Shut up about Hong Kong” is the message from China. Having faced endless criticism from the handling of protests in Hong Kong, China is giving plenty of attention to demonstrations in the United States. 

  • When Morgan Ortagus, a State Department spokesperson, tweeted that the Communist Party of China must be held to account for its betrayal of Hong Kong, Hua Chunying (the spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry) tweeted a three-word response: “I can’t breathe.” 
  • “Where is the freedom of speech?”, “Where is personal liberty?” asks Chinese state-owned CGTN over videos of the Minneapolis protests.
  • Hu Xijin, editor of the state-owned Global Times tweets“I highly suspect that Hong Kong rioters have infiltrated American states. Attacking police stations, smashing shops, blocking roads, breaking public facilities, these are all routine in their protests. Vicious HK rioters obviously are mastermind of violent protests across the US.”

“If something similar happened in Russia then we would be facing new sanctions,” says Kremlin’s chief spin doctor Dmitry Kiselyov. He spent much of the last decade pointing out Western hypocrisy to millions of Russians. Current events in the United States are making his job a breeze. Here are a couple of quotes from his last broadcast, in which he linked U.S. protests to the pandemic:

  • “America would have put together a committee at the UN Human Rights Council” if similar protests were taking place in Russia. 
  • “If we had 100,000 deaths from coronavirus in Russia — as is the case now in the U.S. — we would have been strung out across western media.”
  • The pandemic, Kisilev says, has set a tone to the new, 21st century world order and demonstrated clearly that the West is helpless. “The West, it turns out is incapable of fighting for its people’s lives”
  • Kisilev did not mention the recent arrest of Russian journalist Ilya Azar, or the fact that there are more than forty cases of Covid-19-related oppression against journalists in Russia. 

“America is burning” writes Turkey’s Cumhuriyet, another publication that links the American protests to the pandemic. It describes the United States as a “pressure cooker” led by an unstable president who wildly mishandled the pandemic. Unemployment and impoverishment coupled with endemic racism is what resulted in the current situation.  

This weekend’s SpaceX provided a welcome break from coverage of coronavirus and the protests, but it wasn’t welcome news in Russia. 

  • After years of negative coverage of Elon Musk and NASA’s space program (here’s just one example, in Russian), the Kremlin adopted a new spin for this weekend’s SpaceX launch.
  • Correspondents of the state-run Russia-24 implied that the landing may not have even happened, saying that the camera installed on the platform was turned off during the final docking at the international space station.
  • Leading up to the launch, Russian TV networks focused on profiling Musk as a “brilliant PR-man” with a weak grasp of the science behind his innovative technology. 
  • The deputy CEO of Russia’s space program even said: “Some of my comrades have a ban on quoting Elon Musk so I’ll quote Stalin instead: “cadres who have technology decide everything.”

The SpaceX mission ends Moscow’s monopoly on launches and, according to our colleagues at Moscow Times, it sends a wake up call to the country’s space program.

And here is the best part: this deep fake of Elon Musk singing a 1983 Soviet space song is priceless.   

Many thanks for reading. Please keep your feedback, tips and questions coming and if you find the Infodemic emails useful, do forward this email to friends and encourage them to sign up.

See you on Wednesday. 


P.S. It takes a team to bring you this newsletter. Katia Patin, Dave Stelfox and Isobel Cockerell have all contributed to this one.