COVID-19 Conspirators Side with Russia: Hyperbolising Inflation and Supply Chain Disruptions

Stand with Ukraine? Make sure you are ready for dire economic consequences. This was the sentiment behind disinformation narratives, claiming that countries can either help Kyiv or help themselves. As Russian invasion to Ukraine topped the news, COVID-19 also remained in the spotlight, with conspiracies asserting that the vaccines and other measures to curb the virus are deadly.



From June 01 to July 31, 2022, among the 801 analyzed articles, 382 (48%) were found to have misinformation or disinformation. The rest 419 articles (52%) are either accurate reporting or include misinformation or disinformation that is irrelevant to the topic of COVID-19 pandemic [1]. In April and May, as Berber Bijlsma presented in the article published on the DebunkEU website in July, COVID-19 Sceptics Turn to Pro-Kremlin Propaganda About the Russia-Ukraine War, 23% (503 out of 2213 articles) were found to contain misinformation or disinformation. The jump from 23% to almost half, 48% of inaccurate reporting signals intensified disinformation campaigns and increasing circulations of unreliable information in summer 2022.



Common Narratives and Sub-narratives



COVID-19 Measures Make People Sick or Die in the West


Similar to a popular disinformation narrative from April to May, disinformation actors continue to discredit countries’ public health measures to fight COVID-19. Multiple articles that have the broadest reader engagement [2] spread the false belief that COVID-19 measures are being used to control citizens in the West. For example, 5th COVID Jab Rollout Signals Continued Culling of World Slave Class from Infowars has only one sentence and one picture. The article states that “Queensland Australia has rolled out the 5th jab for its gullible citizens, which signals the continued death and destruction for those too naive to realize their government does not love them.” The text is paired with a screenshot of an inaccurate article reporting on the alleged US FDA approval of a 5th COVID booster shot from an Indian daily newspaper, Business Standard. The Infowars article forges facts, because neither Australia nor the US has approved a 5th COVID-19 vaccine. The purpose of forgery is to perpetuate the beliefs that COVID-19 vaccines kill, and Western governments use vaccines to control the public and consolidate power. No actual evidence was presented in the article. In addition, the author listed is “Bill Gates Is Evil,” and so insulting is used too.


Another Infowars article, Wake Up! Even the Masks Made you Sick! makes up facts such as that the Johns Hopkins University says lockdowns did more harm than good. The article selected statistics and research to create the false conclusion that masks harm individual health. The article quotes that “the widespread use of masks did not reduce COVID-19 transmission in Europe, and a moderate positive correlation was found between mask usage and deaths in Western Europe.” The author inflates findings of particular scientific research that are outliers to the scientific consensus of mask wearing, and there are plenty of research discrediting the claim that masks did not help curb COVID-19 transmission. In addition, the author cites “In Kansas, counties with a mask mandate had significantly higher COVID-19 case fatality rates than counties without a mask mandate.” Again, the conclusion does come from a research project, but the researchers’ findings are presented uncritically. First, people are more likely to wear masks in counties where COVID-19 has a higher transmission rate to protect themselves. Second, there is no evidence to show the direct causal relationship between mask wearing and deaths. People could have died from COVID-19 complications or other health conditions.


Articles by Narratives and Sub-Narratives (April and May 2022)



Governments’ Failure to Respond to COVID-19 in the West Results in Global Economic Disruptions


A new sub-narrative in the analyzed time period is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not to blame for global economic instability. Rather, Western governments that failed to mitigate economic challenges brought by COVID-19 measures are the root causes. It is common for disinformation actors to attribute inflation to COVID-19 stimulus checks in the US. Further, analysts and journalists have listed rising food prices, food shortage, inflation, and increasing energy prices as consequences of the Russia’s war in Ukraine. However, Russian state-controlled media RT and US right-wing website Infowars frequently publish articles that defend Russia and scapegoat the West for the war’s economic fallout.


Alex Jones is not the only person who justifies Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Articles from Infowars often downplay the war by exaggerating COVID-19’s role in food shortage. For instance, a widely engaged Infowars article, Dutch Farmers Rise Up Against Food System ‘Reset,’ is authored by Dr. Joseph Mercola who is an American osteopath. He was called “the most influential spreader of coronavirus misinformation” by The New York Times. The Times reported that Joseph Mercola creates and profits from false information about the COVID-19 vaccines. It is already suspicious that a widely discredited doctor [3] is writing about food system in the Netherlands. Mercola did not only falsely claim that the COVID-19 pandemic caused a nutrition crisis in the US by misrepresenting the message of “COVID-19 has boiled over long-simmering problems” in the US food system from The Rockefeller Foundation report, Reset the Table: Meeting the Moment to Transform the U.S. Food System, but he also holds the assumption that food shortage experienced in the West should be blamed on COVID-19 instead of “the Russia-Ukraine conflict.” First, Mercola absolves Russia of any responsibility of contributing to the rising food price and food shortage. Second, the osteopathic physician misreports the Russian invasion of Ukraine and makes it seem like both sides bear responsibility to such conflict.


Articles by Narratives and Sub-Narratives (June and July 2022)



The West’s Support for Ukraine is Against Domestic Economic Interests


Another emerging sub-narrative in Russian controlled media is that countries can either help Ukraine or help themselves. The false black-and-white choice is especially salient in the RT article, Zelensky Tells Americans to Make Sacrifices for Ukraine. The article claims that the Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky told the US “inflation and coronavirus are ‘nothing’ compared to Ukraine’s struggle, and Americans should support aid for Kiev ‘until we win’.” The statement uses the strawman technique to convince readers that Zelensky does not care for people in the West, and the West is investing too much in an ungrateful country. However, originally Zelensky was talking about the life of Ukrainians in the war. He said that to Ukrainians, they are fighting for values and international security. In such emergency, inflation and coronavirus are secondary in Ukrainians’ minds. RT took Zelensky’s words out of context. In the same article, RT also highlights high inflation rates and “record gas prices” in the US to paint the US government as unfit to satisfy domestic economic and political needs. The classic narrative of whataboutism positions domestic and foreign policy as a zero-sum game. As if the US can only help defend democracy when there is no domestic discontent, which is unrealistic in democracy.



The Global Order Controlled by the West is Ending


This sub-narrative is mainly propped up by Russian and Chinese state media. Disinformation that fall under this sub-narrative either fixate on the failure of COVID-19 measures in the US or EU, present false danger of the West dragging the world into a dystopia, inflate positive aspects of COVID-19 responses in Russia or China, or advocate for a new world order that is led by Russia and China. The three prior sub-narratives discussed in this analysis come in handy when disinformation actors demonize the West. The extreme pessimism is useful to present Russia and China as actors who do not talk a big game of democracy and human rights but are practical and meet citizens’ and less developed countries’ material needs. Since the analysis has included mainly Russian media as examples so far, this section will show articles from the China news channel CGTN.


In Children’s Day: Chinese Vaccines Protect Cambodian Children from COVID-19, CGTN interviewed individuals who are not representative of the national population, and inflates their statements to be accurate descriptions of the COVID-19 experience in Cambodia. For instance, a public servant in the Kandal province was quoted. He is grateful for China supplying Cambodia with Sinovac so that his four-year-old daughter could be vaccinated. He went on to say: “the Cambodia-China joint COVID-19 fight should be a role model for international cooperation.” It is one man’s opinion and the article made it seem like an overwhelmingly positive view of Sinovac is a popular sentiment in Cambodia. Other articles from CGTN emphasize “issues of mutual interest” in non-Western countries such as economy, public health, poverty reduction, and food security, in contrast to EU’s and NATO’s areas of interest such as military, human rights, and democratization. The role of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) during COVID-19 pandemic are frequently mentioned in such articles.


In the upcoming months, one unfolding development worth keeping an eye out for is disinformation actors’ increasing attention to the narrative of “fragile Western democracy.” There have been articles highlighting the chaos of Boris Johnson leaving office and the political inadequacy of Joe Biden succumbing to COVID-19 fearmongering to cling to power. With US midterm elections coming up in 2022 and the UK deciding on a new Prime Minister, it won’t be surprising to see articles that continue to use COVID-19 to highlight countries’ economic and political challenges.


Articles by reach



Media Sources


The majority of labelled articles are disinformation. Most misinformation is from articles that contain inaccurate new COVID-19 case counts [4]. Major news outlets that publish disinformation from June to July are RT, Xinhua News (news.cn), Zero Hedge, Sputnik News, and China Global Television Network (CGTN). RT, Sputnik News, Xinhua News, and CGTN are all state-controlled news platforms. RT and Sputnik News are Russian state-controlled news agencies that focus on international news and tailor to a global audience. Similarly, Xinhua News and CGTN are Chinese state-controlled media sources that promote positive imageries of China on an international stage and exaggerate failures of the West.


Share by Types of Information


Xinhua News Agency is directly linked to The State Council, which is the chief administrative authority of the People’s Republic of China. The agency is also the highest-ranking state media organ in China. Unlike Xinhua News which offers reporting in both Mandarin and English languages, CGTN is an English-language television channel that is relatively young. CGTN also receives inputs from Xinhua. The television network was launched in December, 2016 by the China national broadcaster and has a clear objective to reach a wide range of countries.


Media Sources by Reach


On the other hand, Zero Hedge is a US-based far-right website publishing a mix of extremely pessimistic view of the Wall Street and conspiracy theories in international affairs. Founded by the Bulgaria-born former hedge fund analyst Daniel Ivandjiiski, Zero Hedge was accused by U.S. officials for spreading Russian propaganda linked to the Kremlin. The conservative website also has extensive reach. According to Similarweb, in June 2022 alone, the site received 37.6 million views.


Share by Media Sources


Even though disinformation spread on Infowars and Fars News did not generate more reader interactions compared to RT, Xinhua News, ZeroHedge, Sputnik News, and CGTN in June and July, they are present in a sizable number of articles. Fars News is closely tied to the Supreme Leader of Iran. The source has been considered as having low credibility due to its spreading of government propaganda and conspiracy theories. As for the US-based far-right and antigovernment (part of the antidemocratic hard right movement) website Infowars, a credible US fact-checking nonprofit PolitiFact classifies Infowars as a conspiracy website. Consistent with the prior DebunkEU analysis, Infowars and Zero Hedge continue to republish articles from Russian state-controlled news networks such as RT and Sputnik News in summer 2022. The Infowars host Alex Jones also publicly characterized the West as the aggressor toward Russia and downplayed the Russian invasion of Ukraine as “is ‘like your big brother… comes in and beats you up on a routine basis.’” Like some other US conservatives, the Infowars host lends credibility to the Kremlin’s justifications of the Russia’s war in Ukraine.


Notes


[1] For instance, an article titled “Britain’s Food Supply at Risk – Telegraph” from Infowars misrepresents the original reporting on The Ince Plant from The Telegraph. Infowars exaggerates the impacts of the closure of fertilizer factory without mentioning that there are remaining plants and political actors are active to find solutions to resolve the food supply disruption. The article would have been labelled as disinformation if the topic of analysis was food security. However, since COVID-19 is only mentioned in passing: “prices for the crop (wheat-added for clarification) have more than tripled from £200 per ton before the Covid-19 pandemic, to around £625 per ton this year,” the article is not labelled as disinformation under the topic of COVID-19.


[2] See the graph at the end of the analysis showing articles by reach in June and July, 2022.


[3] If you search articles on Dr. Joseph Mercola’s website, you will see the alert that all contents were taken down from the website in August 2021 due to legal reasons.


[4] This analysis uses Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 data as the benchmark.

 

This analysis was carried out by a participant of DebunkEU.org internship program.

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