The Infodemic: what do Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin and masturbation have in common? Plus the conspiracy blame game gets nasty
Welcome back! We’re tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what is being done to combat it.
I try hard to avoid starting the Infodemic newsletter with Donald Trump or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Often I fail. Today is one of those days.
The myth of masturbation
While Donald Trump accused China of manufacturing coronavirus in a Wuhan lab, President Bolsonaro accused the WHO of forcing children to masturbate:
- In a long and slightly meandering post on his Facebook page he asked why he should follow the WHO guidelines on coronavirus when WHO has a policy of encouraging masturbation in young children.
- “This is the World Health Organization (WHO) everyone says I should follow in the case of the coronavirus. Should we then also follow their guidelines for educational policies?” he wrote, then listing those “policies” including masturbation for children as young as 4.
The post made little sense and it was quickly deleted, though it is still available here.
We’ve developed a high collective tolerance for outlandish statements by populist politicians. But this one did surprise me — mostly because I have heard it before.
The distant origins of Bolsonaro’s post
Anyone who has watched Russian state television is familiar with the crazy theory about WHO encouraging childhood masturbation.
We need to make a quick detour to explain how it came about in Russia:
- Back in 2011, Vladimir Putin was in trouble. His popularity was low, he faced massive anti-corruption protests and he desperately needed to refocus national anger elsewhere. One way to achieve this was to position Russia as the global defender of family and traditional values. This was a Russian alternative to the Western liberal model.
- This positioning not only gave the Kremlin a sense of ideological purpose. It also gave them enemies: the LGBTQ community at home and the decadent West abroad.
- By 2014, Putin’s traditional values crusade was in full swing. Russia’s powerful state media machine focused on the West, blaming the United States and Europe for destroying societies by spreading homosexuality.
Weaponizing sex education
For nearly three years, sex education in Europe’s schools became one of the favorite subjects of Russian state-controlled television stations.
- “Parents in Lithuania are convinced EU parliament members are trying to pervert their children” read the headline on the state-owned channel TV Center.
- One of the most repeated and endlessly discussed “facts” was that children in Europe are forced to masturbate from age four.
- To provide evidence for this policy of teaching masturbation, many of the reports cited a 68-page document published by the World Health Organization in 2010. The document, designed to provide sex education guidelines, does mention early childhood masturbation several times along with a variety of other normal psychosexual phenomena that teachers should be prepared to deal with.
The story of the WHO’s involvement in Europe’s mandatory masturbation first appeared on Russian state TV channels. It was subsequently spread by thousands of sites and social media accounts, along with several other myths, including:
- Pedophile parties are in power in Europe.
- Rainbows subliminally advertise homosexuality to children.
- Gays are responsible for Europe’s demographic crisis.
Back in 2016, Coda’s Katia Patin wrote an excellent piece looking into the origins of these myths.
Since then, the aggressive anti-LGBTQ campaign on Russian television had subsided, but the anti-EU and anti-NATO narrative lived on through other stories, blending outright lies with genuine problems to paint a cautionary picture of Europe and America appearing weak and unattractive.
But lies are like viruses. Once out, they stick around. In Russia too, those once shocking myths of Gayropa have simply moved into a realm of generic truths.
A couple of weeks ago, I overheard an afternoon chat show on Russian TV. A soft-spoken woman in her forties was commenting on the situation in Italian hospitals: “What else do you expect to see in the country, where children are forced to masturbate?” she said.
Next time I heard it was from the President of Brazil.
Bizarre. But also important: the way the pandemic has given the Kremlin’s dusty lie a new lease of life shows just how potent is the force of the infodemic that accompanies it.
The Covid-19 blame game
As President Trump suggested Covid-19 was produced in a Wuhan lab, Russia, China and Iran are now uniting around notions about US-funded biolabs in Russia’s backyard and their alleged connection to Covid-19.
- On Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told CGTN: “The United States has created many laboratories in the territory of the former Soviet Union, which evokes serious public worries in the neighboring countries concerned.”
- The comments mark a turning point in Russia’s disinformation campaign against US-owned labs along its borders, Kremlin media has long attempted to link outbreaks of all diseases — from Ebola to Covid-19. Now Chinese media is pushing the same narrative.
- Shuang echoed comments made by Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on April 17, who said: “we cannot ignore the fact that such infrastructure with a dangerous biological potential is built by the Americans in direct proximity to Russian borders.” She singled out Tbilisi’s Lugar lab, a favorite target of the Kremlin disinformation machine (and one we have reported on) as a particular source of concern.
- On Thursday, the story was also picked up by Iran’s Tasnim news agency.
Why this matters
- With Trump pressuring US intelligence agencies to find evidence that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab, conspiracy theories are replacing the pursuit of truth on all sides affecting all of us around the world.
- But the accusations also come at a sensitive moment for the region. The infection rate is rising dramatically — Russia has over 100,000 confirmed cases. Among them is the Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, the second leader after Boris Johnson who has been diagnosed.
- Mishustin’s temporary replacement is Andrei Belorusov, a hardliner economist close to Vladimir Putin. According to Russian publication the Bell, Belorusov subscribes to the nationalist conspiracy theory called the “ring of enemies” which holds that NATO countries ultimately aim to overthrow the current Russian government by encircling it with enemies — such as aspiring NATO members Georgia and Ukraine.
With conspiracy theories flying and conspiracy theorists in charge, the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic suddenly feels even more unsettling.
Hungry for more?
If you are curious about how Vladimir Putin weaponized homophobia, I encourage you to explore some of our past coverage.
- Here is a great piece by Peter Pomeranzev on why the Kremlin’s messaging on gay rights had little to do with beliefs.
- And here is a deeper dive into how the Kremlin decided to give family values a center stage.
- Coda’s tagline is ‘stay on the story’ and we are still tracking consequences of that decision. Katia Patin reports on a Russian YouTube producer now on a run in LA.
I hope you have a conspiracy-free weekend and see you on Monday,
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