Infodemic: Chaos and conspiracies in Iraq and Austria’s populist Covid-19 denier

Katia Patin


Welcome. We are tracking how disinformation is shaping the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, it’s Coda’s reporter Katia Patin with the latest narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

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Since early summer, coronavirus numbers have risen sharply in Iraq. Government statistics now routinely confirm between 4,000 and 5,000 cases a day. Although the wearing of masks is widespread in the country, it has been difficult to make people take the disease seriously. After all, economic collapse and dysfunctional politics provide fertile ground for conspiracy theories. In fact, many still believe that the pandemic could be an excuse for authorities to clamp down on basic freedoms and delay the payment of already long-awaited public sector salaries.

This week, our team spotted a number of fresh rumors concerning infrared thermometers. In Ukrainian group messenger chats, parents are sharing the false story of two high schoolers dying from blood clots after repeatedly having their temperature taken. In Kenya, Facebook and Twitter users allege that non-contact thermometers damage the brain’s pineal gland. The common thread is a confusion over how these devices work, with many erroneous posts saying that the thermometers emit infrared radiation, rather than what they actually do, which is measure it. 

Turkmenistan continues to offer a fascinating example of how a country addresses a pandemic, while completely denying it is even happening. The most recent reports from foreign-based opposition media say that teachers are awarding students fake grades and submitting made-up time sheets. Across the country, schools have voluntarily cut classroom hours — and some subjects altogether — for public health reasons. However, since coronavirus doesn’t officially exist and there was no government order behind these measures, teachers are forced to pretend, at least on paper, that they are still working as normal.

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Heinz-Christian Strache, one of Austria’s most controversial politicians, has returned to the spotlight after a hiatus from politics following a corruption scandal. Now, he is standing for the newly formed right-wing populist party Team HC Strache — Alliance for Austria in elections for the city council of Vienna. His campaign platform is one of hardline Covid-19 denialism. 

“I cannot see a pandemic,” the disgraced former vice chancellor said during a recent interview with Austria’s national broadcaster ORF.

Some background:

  • The “Ibiza affair,” which led to Strache’s temporary exit from political life, was triggered by a series of videos filmed on the Spanish island in May 2019. At the time, Strache was a member of the far-right Freedom Party, serving as Austria’s vice-chancellor. The footage showed him attempting to offer Austrian government contracts in exchange for campaign financing from a woman he believed to be a “Russian oligarch’s niece.”
  • “The Strache chapter is officially closed,” said the chairman of the Freedom Party in December 2019, referring to the revelations. However, Strache is now making a comeback.
  • He has campaigned aggressively in the lead up to the October vote and made a point of shaking hands with voters during his many public appearances. Despite Austrian coronavirus case numbers steadily climbing since August, Strache has positioned himself as vocally opposed to the idea of compulsory vaccination and taken a stand against the wearing of masks.

What Strache said: He railed against the government, accusing officials of holding “society hostage.” In another interview on Wednesday, he called coronavirus restrictions “crazy” and spoke of a “corona-dictatorship.”

What others are saying: Strache’s anti-vaccine stance and statements on coronavirus are calculated. During a telephone conversation, Reinhard Heinisch, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Salzburg, explained that up to 40% of Austrians are skeptical or concerned about vaccines. “If you tap into that crowd of anti-vaxxers, that’s the best strategy you have for a radical or populist party to garner voters,” he said.

Why this matters: Like most other countries, Austria’s economy has been hit hard by the pandemic. The nation has seen its highest rates of unemployment since records began in 1946. In a bid to win votes, Strache’s party is mixing coronavirus denialism with standard right-wing populist messaging against migration and Islam. If it works, expect to see similar strategies elsewhere. 

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And before you go… a popular Moroccan TV actress was detained by police in Dubai and fined for breaking Covid-19 safety rules. However, Mariam Hussein said the Snapchat video showing her surrounded by partygoers on her birthday was misleading. According to her, she was having a modest, private dinner in a restaurant. But, when fans recognized her, they crowded in with their phones and the establishment’s managers surprised her with a cake. The United Arab Emirates has introduced some of the highest coronavirus-related fines in the world. In this case, though, the $3,000 penalty should be well within Hussein’s means.

Many thanks for reading, and to Coda’s Irina Machavariani, Oleksandr Ignatenko, Dave Stelfox and Rachel Sherman for spotting today’s stories. Please reach out with tips and feedback. 

Have a good weekend,

Katia Patin