03 April 2020 15:20
Disinformation is thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic. While a panoply of false rumours, hoaxes, and phishing scams have targeted health care and social distancing measures, some actors are manipulating the crisis to push anti-democratic agendas.
Working with NewsWhip's analytics, the DCU FuJo Institute is monitoring how major far-right and anti-democratic actors are covering the crisis. Reviewing their output over the past month, we find recurring narratives that endorse geopolitical propaganda, right-wing extremism, anti-EU sentiment, and conspiracy theories.
The New Cold War
The pandemic has exasperated tensions between the US and China with the expulsion of journalists, rhetorical attacks by political leaders, and the circulation of conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus.
Meanwhile, Russia is exploiting the crisis to undermine the EU. RT, Russia's state-funded broadcaster, is running frequent propaganda articles, which feature real quotes from European leaders criticising the EU response to COVID-19. The disinformation lies in the wider narrative that is woven around isolated quotes. In the Russian view, the EU "failed to act" when solidarity was needed while Russia and China offer support that leaders "couldn't get in Europe". Sputnik News similarly emphasises Russia's aid to EU countries while indulging Iranian conspiracy theories about the US origins of the virus.
Unsurprisingly, criticism of the EU is also found in pro-Brexit media with The Daily Express accusing the EU of being "totally useless". In some cases, this sentiment is endorsed by anonymous tweeters with recently established accounts and few followers, which may be an indicator of bot activity. For example, the anonymous account below was established in February.
You mean the EU hasn't ridden to the rescue of Ireland in this coronavirus pandemic, like they did with Italy………Oh wait— Sunny Disaster (@disaster_sunny) April 2, 2020
High profile figures have also endorsed the narrative of EU failure and Chinese/Russian support. In Ireland, the Web Summit CEO has extolled the Chinese response while condemning the government and media.
Most Irish Government & health leaders are fixated on attention seeking, with endless staged photo ops, crocodile claps & spin— Paddy Cosgrave (@paddycosgrave) April 3, 2020
Most Irish media are fixated on exonerating the above leaders daily for their repeated mis-steps, mis-truths, and mis-selling to the Irish public
Anti-immigrant disinformation in Europe is a key focus of the Provenance project, building on work undertaken at DCU FuJo on hate speech, the far right, and extremism.
Although some of these groups are not widely known – and some are banned from Facebook and Twitter – they play an important role in the information system of far-right activists by promoting narratives that filter up to more established media and political speech.
Unsurprisingly, the accounts we are monitoring are exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to push their anti-democratic and racist agendas. Two high-profile outlets – Voice of Europe and Gates of Vienna – are targeting immigrants and the NGOs and political leaders who advocate on behalf of immigrants.
Voice of Europe published 120 articles about COVID-19 since February. A recurring theme accuses immigrants of defying isolation measures across EU states. By inflating and decontextualizing stories and rumours about migrants who "reject" or "violently defy" isolation measures, the far-right reinforce their ur-narrative: migrants do not belong and cannot participant in the nation. Other stories resurface the trope of political leaders doing more to protect immigrant communities than citizens.
This narrative also features on Gates of Vienna, but with a more pronounced focus on immigrants – and by extension those who champion open borders – as the source of the problem. As such, the crisis is pitched as battle between 'cultural enrichment' – a sarcastic reference to multiculturalism – and the virus.
Another prominent narrative attempts to downplay the crisis as hysteria generated by mainstream media and political elites. The neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer has claimed the "Italy situation is exaggerated massively" while articles by Zero Hedge indulge in conspiracies questioning the reality of the pandemic while also paradoxically linking it to "Wuhan's Secret Bio-Lab".
Currently, DCU FuJo is monitoring this content to identify trends that will inform how our partners in the TCD ADAPT Centre develop text analytics tools for disinformation and extremist content. These tools are just one component of the overall Provenance project, which aims to provide online supports to help people detect and evaluate unreliable information.
Eileen Culloty is a Post Doctoral Researcher at FuJo at Dublin City University.