The Infodemic: Russia and EU accuse each other of spreading misinfo; Bolivian president turns to pseudoscience; Islamophobic Covid-19 disinfo spreads

Gautama Mehta


Welcome back, and a special welcome to our new subscribers.

We are tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation and how it’s shaping the pandemic response.

I am away today, but Coda’s Gautama Mehta has been tracking narratives — both real and fake — around the crisis. Before you dive in, though, subscribe to get the newsletter on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and encourage your friends to sign up too.

Islamophobic Covid-19 disinformation spreads from India to the U.K.

Hi, Gautama here. In a previous edition of this newsletter, I reported on how right-wing Hindu nationalists in India have advanced theories that Muslims deliberately spread Covid-19.

  • Now, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, this narrative has been taken up by white supremacists and alt-right figures in the U.K.
  • People including Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) and Paul Joseph Watson have been posting Islamophobic memes associating Muslims with the virus and using hashtags like #CoronaJihad, which accompanied a spate of fake videos on Indian social media.

Background: Links between India’s Hindu nationalist movement and the European and British right have been developing for some time.

  • We reported on how 27 mostly right wing members of the European Parliament flew to Kashmir in October, in an effort by Narendra Modi’s government to smooth over India’s international image, shortly after India stripped the state of its autonomy and imposed a communications blackout.
  • But it’s not just the right wing that India has been successfully courting. The U.K. Labour leader Keir Starmer recently reversed his party’s longtime stance on Kashmir, telling the lobby group Labour Friends of India that he considered Kashmir an issue for India and Pakistan to determine between themselves.

Spat between Russia and EU over competing accusations of spreading misinformation

On Sunday, European Union spokesman Peter Stano told the German newspaper Bild that Russian media is spreading conspiracy theories and fake news in the EU with “potentially considerable effects on public health.”

In response, RT criticized Stano for not providing examples to back up his charge, but Coda Story has reported on Russia’s propaganda efforts during the pandemic.

  • In March, a US-funded lab in Tbilisi, Georgia, became a target of Russian state TV channels, which called it, first, a bioweapons project and, later, a “nest of viruses.” 
  • Over the past few weeks, Russian state media has hyped the conspiracy theory surrounding Bill Gates. State broadcaster Channel One showed a 16-minute bulletin about the founder of Microsoft and his plans to “reduce the population of the planet.”
  •  Russian State Duma member Yevgeny Revenko reacted to Stano’s allegation by accusing the European Commission of enabling the spread of disinformation about Russia’s response to the pandemic in the Western press.
  • “I would advise Peter Stano to have a look at the publications in The Financial Times and The New York Times, both unfoundedly claimed that official statistics in Russia gravely underestimated the number of deaths caused by Covid-19,” said Revenko.
  • Coda Story’s reporting, based on conversations with health professionals in Russia, backs up the charge that Russia has significantly underreported its case numbers.

Also in Russia…

The prosecutor general has ordered the censorship of websites spreading coronavirus-related fake news, including YouTube videos linking the potential vaccine to a mass surveillance project. Meanwhile, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has suggested that medical staff who complain about the lack of PPE should be fired, calling them “provocateurs.”

  • “We have enough of everything — equipment, suits, masks, everything is enough,” Kadyrov said, after medical staff from a hospital in the town of Gudermes arranged a meeting to voice their complaints.
  • Later on, some of the doctors and nurses apologized, explaining that the reason behind their concern was that they didn’t know the hospital did actually have equipment available. 
  • The authorities fired the head of the hospital, because lack of information led to panic among medical staff, state media reported.

As Bolivia passes 4,000 infections, its interim president Jeanine Áñez resorts to pseudoscience for her own protection — and buys the wrong kind of ventilator for everyone else

  • Áñez was recently spotted wearing a “Virus Shut Out” card. It’s a Japanese-made pseudoscientific prophylactic, much like the “AirDoctor” pendant, beloved of politicians from Russia to Lebanon, which Coda Story’s Isobel Cockerell reported on in last week’s Infodemic. And it’s been banned in the US by the EPA.
  • The president attracted a firestorm of criticism when it was revealed that the 500 ventilators that her government paid $5 million to have flown in turned out to be unusable in intensive care. The machines are meant to sustain patients in ambulances or emergency rooms for a couple hours at most. Coronavirus patients sometimes need respiratory assistance for more than a week.

Context: Jeanine Áñez was installed as Bolivia’s interim leader after what was widely regarded as a military coup in November.

  • At the time, she promised to step down following elections. Since then, she has reversed course and announced her candidacy. After the elections, which were originally scheduled for earlier this month, were canceled, owing to the pandemic, Parliament issued a law declaring that new polls must be held by August 2. Áñez rejected this outright in the name of public safety.
  • Áñez, a right wing evangelical former senator, with a history of racist tweets, has been widely criticized for rights violations under her watch. These include a violent crackdown on the mostly indigenous opposition during the protests surrounding the ouster of her predecessor Evo Morales.
  • More recently, her government passed a law criminalizing the spread of misinformation, but repealed it following pressure from human rights organizations, which condemned it as a thinly veiled pretext to crack down on political opponents.

Sincere thanks to Alexandra Tyan, Mariam Kiparoidze and Isobel Cockerell for their help putting this together.

Hungry for more? 

During the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak, one of the biggest pieces of misinformation doing the rounds was a video, claiming to be filmed in a Wuhan restaurant, of a woman eating bat soup. The video was actually filmed thousands of miles away on the islands of Micronesia — but that didn’t stop stories about Chinese eating habits, drawing on racist stereotypes, from circulating. In an effort to counter these claims, state outlet the Global Times has released a three-minute documentary looking at China’s centuries-long relationship with bats, replete with quotes from D.H. Lawrence and Ming Dynasty-era warnings about the chances that eating them will cause diarrhea. Worth a watch!

Thanks for reading. Get in touch anytime if you have tips or feedback. And Natalia will be back on Wednesday.