Infodemic: A new agenda for Europe’s radical right and delving into China’s fake research papers

Natalia Antelava


Welcome and a very special greeting to our new subscribers! We are tracking how disinformation is shaping the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But before we dive in we have news:

We just launched a newsletter called China Influence Monitor. The newsletter focuses on China’s influence operations in Europe and Eurasia and is designed to complement our coverage of disinformation, the war on science and authoritarian tech.  It is also the result of our new collaboration with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). 

Authored by CEPA’s senior fellow Edward Lucas, China Influence Monitor will land in your inbox every Thursday but only if you sign up here. Check out the first edition before you sign up

And now, here are this week’s narratives – both real and fake – that caught our attention and deserve yours.

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While President Trump is imposing a new round of “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran’s entire financial sector, the country is battling a dramatic spike in coronavirus infections. Iran’s health workers say the virus is out of control, with people queuing to get into hospitals and ICU beds are full. The capital, Tehran, has partially shut down: schools and mosques have closed – and today there will be no Friday prayers. Iran’s ministry of health puts the current death toll at 27,658. The National Council of Resistance in Iran claims it’s more than four times higher, at 116,000. Considering the situation, new US sanctions, which may affect access to vital medical supplies, are “a cruel punishment for 82 million people,” tweeted the Atlantic Council’s Holly Dagres, adding that “Anyone claiming these sanctions don’t impact humanitarian trade with Iran is either lying or ignorant.”

Europe’s most radical far-right politicians use the anti-vaxxer agenda as a ticket into the political mainstream.  It’s an emerging trend that we first spotted when we reported on a local Italian politician whose views were so radical, even her right-wing party kicked her out. She proceeded to build a successful campaign on an anti-vaccination platform. Now, a similar thing is happening in Switzerland. Richard Koller was once a regional head of Switzerland’s right-wing populist People’s Party (SVP), the largest party in the country’s national assembly. In 2017 Koller and SVP parted ways because his anti-immigration views were too radical even for his right-wing colleagues. Now Koller is building a new campaign for a referendum to amend the Swiss constitution to insure that vaccination can never be mandatory. His opponents are worried. Koller’s former colleague from SVP, an MP Ruth Humbel predicted that “a group of corona-sceptics and anti-vaxxers” can collect 100,000 signatures – the number needed for a referendum to go ahead. 

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Rapid Covid-19 tests are already flooding global markets and China is a leading producer. But an investigation by a network of Latin American journalists established that 93% of rapid tests sold to Latin American governments do not even have any health certification back in China. 

We have all heard of fake rapid tests, fake cures, fake designer handbags. The list goes on. But have you heard of fake research papers? It’s a booming industry in China, reports Coda’s Isobel Cockerell. Keep reading!

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A week ago, I spoke with Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist who investigates questionable scientific research. She’s been hailed as a “super spotter” for her sleuthing work delving into shady scientific papers, and was one of the key figures who debunked the now-infamous Hydroxychloroquine “miracle cure” research. 

And now Bik is on the case of what she says is a massive, thriving and under-reported industry of fake scientific research papers in China. Bik and a team of researchers have compiled a list of more than 500 Chinese papers from researchers and universities all over the country, which use the same photoshopped or manipulated fake images, over and over again. 

China is the world’s biggest producer of scientific articles. In China, as with anywhere, scientific prestige and promotion comes with having a published portfolio of work – and the fake research paper industry has presented an easy solution: just pay a “paper mill” to churn out your research paper for you, complete with fake results. Bik’s team believes this group of “papermill productions” may all come from the same source.

The significant thing is that the papers all appear to have gone through the peer-review process, but until Bik and her colleagues found them, no one had spotted the abnormalities. “That is a real concern,” Bik said. 

Background Plagiarism and academic fraud have been a longstanding issue in China. At the end of September, Beijing pledged to crack down on the problem and “increase the investigation and punishment of academic misconduct.” Last month, state-owned Sixth Tone reported that graduate students could lose their standing in the social credit system if they falsified or plagiarized their work. 

Why this matters: We’ve reported on how the rush to publish Covid-19 papers and the race to find a vaccine has led to dodgy findings and misinformation. We are in a state of “carnage of substandard research” as bad science slips through the net amid the flood of new papers, warned a leading ethicist in the British Medical Journal last week. But the papers Bik has found go beyond that – “we believe they are completely fake,” Bik told me.

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Hungry for more? Here are a few pieces from our thematic newsroom:

  • In our War on Science channel we dissect the weird origins of one particularly sticky anti-World Health Organization myth 
  • In our Authoritarian Tech channel we look at how Taiwan’s most popular messaging app played a key role in pushing China’s message 

That’s all from us for this week. Please hit reply anytime to send your questions, comments and feedback!

See you next week, 

Natalia Antelava

Editor in Chief, Coda Story

Tracking the war on science around the world

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