A disinformation attack on human life
Political Capital and its partners monitored disinformation narratives concerning the COVID-19 pandemic during the first wave of infections in the V4. Our research conclusions could be valid during the increasingly severe second wave Europe is experiencing, albeit it must be noted that there seem to be significant differences in disinformation campaigns' characteristics during the two waves. While in the first one, the narratives focused primarily on discrediting EU efforts to combat the virus parallelly to praising Russian and Chinese "aid," healthcare narratives seem to be in the focus during the second wave. These healthcare-centric claims can lower public trust in measures to protect the population against COVID-19 and in the vaccines being prepared.
Political Capital and its Polish, Slovak and Czech partners monitored COVID-related disinformation on 15 local, politically biased or disinformation sites in each country. We analyzed articles published between 11 January 2020 and 11 April 2020. The pandemic's healthcare, societal and economic uncertainty was fertile ground for the spread of manipulative narratives. In the period in question, we found two peaks in the number of articles shared by the monitored sites with the help of SentiOne's software. The first, smaller one came at the end of January and beginning of February when the situation was deteriorating rapidly in Wuhan. The second, larger peak came in early- to mid-March, as case numbers started growing exponentially in Italy. It must be noted that the overall number of articles was much higher than texts containing false claims.
Nevertheless, as interest in information on the coronavirus grew, the number of manipulative articles also increased in the V4 information space. This could be a valuable experience for the second wave as well, although it is likely that the extremely high peaks seen in the first wave will not be repeated during the second. The main reason for this is that the political agenda and mainstream media coverage are not being dominated by the pandemic to the extent we saw during the spring.
In the period examined, we found several matching narratives in the V4, but there were country-specific differences. The Kremlin saw the coronavirus as an opportunity to further weaken trust in Western institutions and politico-economic systems. China tried to depict itself as a reliable political partner driven by charitable thoughts. Chinese narratives were aimed at covering up the country's mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak in the early days, as well as the fact that Beijing's partners generally purchased the Chinese products, they did not receive them as donations. Domestic, populist forces concentrated mainly on popularizing their political solutions (e.g., concerning the European Union or migration), which often matched authoritarian third countries' interests. Therefore, pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing narratives could easily enter the information space of the V4 via domestic political actors, leading to considerable outreach for their messages.
Narratives present in the V4 in the first wave of the pandemic can be divided into five categories: (1) messages deepening internal political divisions; (2) articles contrasting the EU's failure and authoritarian states' success in handling the pandemic; (3) geopolitical statements concerning the origins of the virus; (4) origin narratives attacking the "global elite"; and (5) healthcare-related issues. In our sample, statements attacking the European Union's crisis management were the most popular besides domestic political messages. Allegedly, Brussels did nothing to halt the spread of the virus or even hindered the protection efforts of member states, while nation-states could handle the pandemic alone, which supposedly proves that the era of globalization is over, and the age of nation-states will replace it. While the EU's slow initial reaction can be criticized, anti-Union narratives were silent on developments coming later, such as numerous member states helping out Italy, among others, with protective equipment, healthcare staff or patient transfers in the frames of intra-EU solidarity. EU institutions themselves published joint tenders for medical equipment and distributed it to member states via the rescEU program.
In contrast, disinformation narratives depicted Russia, China, even Cuba as the saviors of European states, failing to mention that Chinese products had to be bought from taxpayer funds or the issues with the quality of Russian or Chinese equipment. Interestingly, in the first wave, narratives questioning the severity of the virus and anti-vaccination messages constituted the smallest group among all. Anti-vaccination narratives were only truly salient in Slovakia. Nevertheless, we can find narratives elsewhere that do not explicitly argue against the vaccine but lower trust in them. These generally stated that members of the global elite (and primarily Bill Gates) "released" the virus onto the world to profit off selling vaccines for it. A more "advanced" version of the narratives argued against the vaccine by claiming that these would be used to insert microchips into people.
Country-specific differences must be explained, as well. Narratives deepening internal party-political divides were mainly present in Hungary and Poland. The Hungarian government accused the opposition of hindering defense against COVID-19 – and the other way around. Meanwhile, in Poland, conspiratorial sites were attacking the government for trying to gain complete control over society during the state of emergency, for instance, by installing 5G masts. Messages concerning 5G equipment spreading the coronavirus were mainly prevalent in Poland, in Hungary – for instance – it was only mentioned by a couple of articles.
Texts attacking the EU's crisis management or those discussing the alleged Chinese or American origins of the virus could primarily have long-term geopolitical effects. However, healthcare-related narratives might have short-term consequences even more dangerous than long-term geopolitical ones. These messages might encourage people to take COVID protection measures lightly, avoid vaccinating themselves by creating the perception that any time the "elites" feel like it, they can simply release another pandemic. If citizens think the virus does not exist, they would also see no reason to adhere to restrictions on their own lives.
The disinformation activity seen during the second wave so far suggests that short-term consequences are what decision-makers, experts should focus on primarily. Narratives accusing the European Union of mismanagement, statements praising Moscow and Beijing, and texts speculating on the virus's origins are mostly missing from disinformation sites. In contrast, more and more coronavirus-skeptic, anti-vaccination contents can be found on these portals, and we can see anti-restriction protests in Hungary, Czechia or Germany. On the site of well-known Hungarian conspiracy theorist János Drábik, there is a theory about "someone" manufacturing country-specific COVID-19 mutations specifically affecting the target's population, which is blamed for the explosion of case numbers in the Czech Republic in October. Anti-vaccination voices are expected to gain strength, too. The Polish and Hungarian populations can be counted among the most vaccine-skeptic groups based on a recent poll, so anti-wax narratives could severely affect the two countries – if social media giants do not step up against such articles in the two nations. Trust in vaccines can also be deteriorated by the Russian vaccine that was given a registration permit without adequate testing or even unprofessional journalistic solutions: articles in some Hungarian mainstream media outlets, for instance, reported on the death of a young Brazilian doctor taking part in a COVID-19 vaccine test in the placebo group (i.e., he did not receive the active agent) by only mentioning this fact at the end, while their titles suggested that the doctor died due to testing. Another risky group of messages involve claims – shared also by US President Donald Trump – that doctors are being paid by some unknown source to overreport COVID-19 as the cause of death.
Naturally, we cannot forget long-term risks, either. If European institutions cannot agree on the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework and the additional EUR 750 billion Next Generation EU fund on time and member states cannot start using the funds soon to alleviate their economic troubles, the EU could become the primary target of disinformation once again, in some cases even strengthening chances for a member state to leave the Union, especially those suffering most severely (e.g., Italy).
What could we do to lower these risks? In the case of short-term healthcare disinformation, the communication of the EU and member states must be coordinated, and significant funds must be spent on reaching the European audience with factual messages. One of the most important ones in this regard is helping the electorate understand the preconditions for the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to issue permits for vaccination. They need to know that the EMA would only issue such a permit for a vaccine if its "benefits are greater than its risks." The media must pay more attention to detail in its coverage of the coronavirus; they must avoid publishing articles that could mislead the population regarding the vaccine.
In terms of long-term threats, improving media literacy could be critical, giving a "weapon" into the population's hands against disinformation. Establishing a strong, independent, trusted public broadcast is also crucial, so the broadest possible range of citizens can access credible information. The European Union and its member states must support independent journalism and journalist training more. Overall, only a complex, comprehensive strategy executed at the EU level with real cooperation from member states could prevent false narratives from seriously influence life in Europe and the broader West.
The full study is available here.
Photo credit: European Parliament, ©Kebox/AdobeStock