Why European fears over gas supplies plays into Russia’s hands

Rebekah Robinson

 

Russia has reopened the Nord Stream pipeline after 10 days, supplying gas to Europe through Germany. Despite reduced volumes, the resumption of gas supplies will be greeted with some relief. The shutdown was due to scheduled maintenance work but it has been a fraught period, with the trading of threats and accusations of bad faith, the widespread reporting of doomsday scenarios, and inevitably the proliferation of conspiracy theories.

Lea Gerster, an analyst at the Berlin branch of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a global non-profit research and policy organization, told me that populist conspiracies tend to spread when people’s livelihoods are being impacted. She sees a common theme: “the government or people who support Ukraine want us to freeze for peace.” 

It’s similar, she says, to the rhetoric around immigration, when the people who buy into conspiracy theories believe that politicians are deliberately leading the country into a dystopia for their own opaque, “globalist” interests. “It’s beyond regular criticism,” she says. “It’s more like attacks to completely reverse policy. And in this case, it seems that they really want Russia to be appeased.”

Right-wing social media communities have latched on to the legitimate anxiety and concern people feel about gas prices and the cost of living to claim that the crisis has been triggered to enable the pushing through of certain ideologies. Many of these commentators, some mainstream politicians included, are arguing that Germany is hurting its own interests by making an enemy of Putin. 

The leader of Germany’s populist party AfD Tino Chrupalla said in a recent interview that the focus should be on German issues and opposes the sanctions against Russia. Part of the anger behind the complaints of opposition figures and conspiracy theorists alike is that Germany has mangled itself through policies, such as shuttering nuclear plants, that have made it too reliant on Russia.

German Economy Minister, Robert Habeck has said that by becoming so dependent on Russian gas, his country had made “a grave political mistake, which we are trying to remedy as quickly as we possibly can.” 

In keeping with what some describe as the “gastration” of Europe, the European Union has asked for a 15% reduction in consumption through to March. This has already been rejected by the Spanish government, which thundered: “Whatever happens, Spanish families will not suffer gas or electricity cuts in their homes and the government will defend the position of Spanish industry.”

No country in Europe wants to be seen making “disproportionate” sacrifices. A blogpost by International Monetary Fund analysts argued that given the very real risks to economic production posed by large reductions in the availability of gas in Europe, the continent must “build upon the decisive action and solidarity displayed during the pandemic.” 

But it is precisely that solidarity that is risked by the fear-mongering over gas supplies. As Europe shivers in anticipation of a lingering winter gas crisis, Russian propagandists and spreaders of disinformation will feast on low-hanging fruit.

META WHITEWASHES ROLE IN INDIA

A “near constant barrage of polarizing nationalist content, misinformation, and violence and gore” was how a Facebook researcher described their news feed after setting up an Indian test account. 

We know this from the cache of documents revealed last year by Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook. But Meta’s first annual human rights report, released just over a week ago, seems to completely absolve Facebook of any responsibility to monitor content. 

A principal gripe against Facebook in India is that when it does monitor content it shows an evident bias towards the BJP, the party of the government. Facebook executives in India had close links to the party and often let slide inflammatory and divisive content from BJP members and supporters while blocking opposition pages. 

But according to Meta’s human rights report, conducted by a third party, the “assessors did not assess or reach conclusions about whether such bias existed.” Facebook, independent observers have long argued, can have a disproportionate impact on a country like India’s democratic processes. 

Misinformation and even hate speech is rife across the platform and the Meta-owned WhatsApp. It appears, though, that Meta executives remain complacent about their responsibilities and obligations.

BOLSONARO SLAMS ELECTRONIC VOTING

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has long been derided as a Trump acolyte. And just like Trump, Bolsonaro appears prepared to undermine his country’s democracy and the integrity of its electoral processes rather than accept defeat with anything resembling grace. 

This week he regaled a captive audience of diplomats summoned to his official residence, the Palacio da Alvorada, with paranoid musings on the shortcomings of Brazil’s electronic voting system.

“We cannot hold elections amid mistrust,” Bolsonaro is reported to have said, with Brazlilians set to vote on October 2. What he did not dwell on was his own contribution to an atmosphere of mistrust and conspiracy. He has yet to provide evidence of any particular problems with electoral processes, or any evidence of a conspiracy to boot him out of office

Brazil’s highest electoral authorities have debunked Bolsonaro’s claims, criticizing his propensity for “disinformation” and “authoritarian populism.” Hopefully there’s a plan in place if or when he loses.

This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior editor Shougat Dasgupta. Erica Hellerstein contributed to this edition. 

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.