Coronavirus WAR: Russia and China attacking West with fake news – worrying report

Meanwhile Professor of Web Science at Oxford University, Harith Alani, has been awarded an EU grant of almost £350,000 to track the spread of misinformation on social media. The report, published by East Stratcom, a wing of the bloc’s European External Action Service, has highlighted more than 150 examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation relating to the pandemic since the end of January. Many sought to compare EU preparations for a health emergency with those of Moscow and Beijing.

The report says: “Disinformation and misinformation around COVID-19 continue to proliferate around the world, with potentially harmful consequences for public health and effective crisis communication.

“In the EU and elsewhere, coordinated disinformation messaging seeks to frame vulnerable minorities as the cause of the pandemic and to fuel distrust in the ability of democratic institutions to deliver effective responses.

“Some state and state-backed actors seek to exploit the public health crisis to advance geopolitical interests, often by directly challenging the credibility of the European Union and its partners.”

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Claims about the EU’s imminent disintegration as the COVID-19 crisis escalates are widespread on social media, with stories published by Russia Today and Sputnik suggesting the virus is a biological weapon and was being spread deliberatel receiving more social engagement than many other stories.

“Pro-Kremlin sources” are also accused the EU of being “selfish” and of “betraying its own values” with its response.

Meanwhile Ukraine is branded a “failed state” which has been “abandoned by its European allies”.

State-controlled media outlets have simultaneously highlighted Russia’s supposed preparedness, with specific reference to the help it has offered Italy.

China is accused of promoting “not proven theories about the origin of COVID-19”, with Chinese media focusing on “displays of gratitude by some European leaders in response to Chinese aid”.

In addition, the report highlights claims the virus was brought to Wuhan by US military personnel, or alternatively originated in Italy.

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Sputnik Deutschland was also promoting the claim on Facebook and Twitter that “washing hands does not help”.

Accusations have also surfaced online suggesting the EU was “exploiting the crisis to advance its own interest”.

The report explains: “In Georgia, sources allegedly quoting the “South Ossetia KGB” claimed that under the guise of the pandemic, Tbilisi is violating the “border” with South Ossetia with the help of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia.”

In addition, despite attempts to prioritise information from the World Health Organization and other reputable sources, there were nevertheless flaws in the approach of social media platforms, the report argues.

It explains: “The major platforms continue to monetise disinformation and harmful content on the pandemic (including pro-Kremlin disinformation sites), eg by hosting online ads on pages that misrepresent migrants as the cause of the virus, promote fake cures or spread conspiracy theories about the virus.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned of the risks of fake news in relation to COVID-19 in an online video released yesterday.

In it, she says: “Those spreading disinformation harm you. Disinformation can cost lives.”

Prof Hathi and his team will track the extent of misinformation about COVID-19 in social media content so that it can be brought to the attention of policymakers and be used to alert social media users, as well as attempting to dispel myths: for example, to debunk myths, COVID-19 being a man-made virus, people being able to wash the virus away with water and that taking a hot bath stops people from being infected.

He explained: “We already have tools and algorithms that have been doing this for generic misinformation in CO-INFORM; a project that aims to support people, journalists, and policymakers with better misinformation identification and tracking tools.

“We will extend and use such algorithms to find the claims that are being made about COVID-19, check them against facts from trusted and authoritative sources, and produce knowledge and graphs for policymakers and health influencers, showing which rumours are spreading more than others, where, and when.”

On Monday the UK Government announced the creation of specialist units to combat the spread of false information about coronavirus.

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