KEY POINTS

  • EU report accuses Russia of spreading misinformation in Europe
  • RT Spanish, a state-owned Russian news website, was among most popular in Europe
  • Russian misinformation falsely reported outbreaks in Ukraine

It’s become an open secret that Russian interests have a strong affinity for using social media to spread disinformation in the West. Their latest online propaganda campaign, instead of focusing on elections, is targeting the spread of information around the novel coronavirus crisis.

According to a new internal report from the European Union viewed by Reuters, online users are disseminating false details about the coronavirus pandemic on behalf of the Russian government. Misleading and outright false news about the disease are being pushed on social media in English, German, Italian, French and Spanish.

The report cites nearly 80 examples of fake news concerning the coronavirus being shared online by Russian agents since January. The EU report points out how RT Spanish, the Spanish-language branch of the Russian state news agency Russia Today, became one of the most popular sources of information on the pandemic in Europe.

Among the messages being pushed by pro-Moscow agents is a “narrative that coronavirus is a human creation, weaponized by the West,” the report claims. In several cases, fabricated news stories falsely claimed that there were confirmed cases of coronavirus in Ukraine and that Slovakia’s prime minister, Peter Pellegrini, had been infected.

In another instance, fake news was shared in Italy stressing how a lack of health care capacity would mean doctors would have to deliberately leave some patients to die.

EU authorities said they have been in communication with Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter in an effort to control “the spread of disinformation” about the coronavirus pandemic.

The EU’s report states that “the overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries.” This strategy reflects a clear pattern of online campaigns which have, in the past, sought to promote confusion and distrust in the West.

Officials from Moscow have roundly denied the allegations, calling them baseless. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently claimed that foreign agents had been pushing misinformation in Russia to create panic.

In the past, Russian-backed online actors were exposed for not only spreading information on social media aimed at swaying elections in Western nations, including the United States, but for also working to inflame political divisions over such controversial issues as gun control.

Medical workers wearing a face make and protection gear tend to a patient inside the new coronavirus intensive care unit of the Brescia Poliambulanza hospital as the town saw the country's highest daily rise in case numbers Medical workers wearing a face make and protection gear tend to a patient inside the new coronavirus intensive care unit of the Brescia Poliambulanza hospital as the town saw the country's highest daily rise in case numbers Photo: AFP / Piero CRUCIATTI