Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert are independent journalists based in Ukraine. In a weekly series for IranWire, they examine the landscape of disinformation in Russia and some of the false information that has emanated from the country since the outbreak of coronavirus.
In the midst of a global pandemic, the Russian embassy in the US still found the time to launch an attack on the New York Times this week, calling the work of its new Pulitzer prizewinners "rotten 'art’."
On Monday, the Pulitzer Prize Board dished out the latest awards in recognition of some of the best examples of journalism found across the globe in 2019. Among the projects was a series of articles exposing Russian interference in Western and African countries published by the New York Times. The reports contained stories about assassinations, a presidential candidate chosen by God, and a covert unit trying to destabilize Europe for a decade.
While the journalists were honored for their "enthralling stories, reported at great risk, exposing the predations of Vladimir Putin's regime", staff at the Russian embassy in the United States did not applaud them in unison. Instead they turned to their Facebook page to heavily criticize the decision.
"If there is some "great risk" as they allege, this only concerns reputation. We consider this series of articles on Russia as a wonderful collection of undiluted Russophobic fabrications, which can be studied as a guideline on creating false facts," the Russian embassy wrote.
The day before that, on May 3, Russian embassy staff had also been sat ready at the keyboard. The embassy marked World Press Freedom day by directing a harsh critique at the US administration for permitting attacks on the press. The review cited the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ): the same organization that has been very critical of the Russian approach to controlling the media.
This is not to say that the US does not have a growing problem with press freedom. But the criticism aimed at the US is an example of Transfer Propaganda: one of the seven basic techniques of propaganda as classified by researchers Alfred and Elisabeth Lee.
The Transfer Device, as it's called, is used to project negative values onto a specific entity: the American government, in this instance. In doing so, the Russian embassy reduces or diminishes the credibility of the US government, making its criticism of conditions suffered by Russian journalists and media outlets less valid. The post itself makes this plain:
"We expect the United States to move from making a show of concern for #pressfreedom around the world, to specific actions to rectify the situation with the media rights and the situation of journalists, primarily in their own country."
On April Fools’ Day 2020, Russia President Vladimir Putin signed off on new legislation banning the spread of "fake news" about Covid-19. The law change has been criticized as a tool to control the press. Russian authorities wasted no time, and just three days after the introduction of the law, the first activist faced investigation off the back of a social media post that questioned hygienic measures at a local hospital.
"We want to emphasise that Russia's amendments do not limit the work of the media or violate freedom of speech,” the embassy writes. “The legal innovations are aimed exclusively at counteracting disinformation that threatens people's lives. It is not surprising that they received the approval and support of Russian civil society and the professional journalist community.”
Not Coordinated but Encouraged
On Wednesday, the Atlantic Council and Czech think-tank European Values hosted a Zoom conference about disinformation in the Visegrad countries (Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic). One topic up for discussion was story about a Russian plane with coronavirus-related aid items not having been admitted into Poland. This story was fake, said Małgorzata Zawadzka, a researcher at Info Ops Poland Foundation.
She added: "One of the Russian officials confirmed this story, and the Russian ambassador was called to our Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That does not mean they are not involved; there is more support for disinformation in Russian media (usually state-controlled). So we can say there is support from the Russian government to the current disinformation campaign.”
Veronika Vichová is the head of the Kremlin Watch Program at European Values. While disinformation has not been issued directly by Kremlin officials in the Czech Republic, she said, it is encouraged and not condemned by Russian officials.
"When it comes to Covid-19, the Russian ambassador has not made claims or supported statements. I do not necessarily agree that it's not coordinated. There are some that must have been coordinated, but it's overshadowed by other issues," she said.
The most persistent myths coming out of outlets linked to Russia are still the same: The US, the UK, Bill Gates, George Soros, or the Rockefellers are the creators of coronavirus. Russia has also formed a very obvious alliance with China, in which the two states persist in praising each other for the way they are handling the coronavirus crisis. Pro-Russian outlets are trumpeting Russian and Chinese aid shipments to other countries. At the same time, the Russian media blames the European Union for not showing solidarity with Eastern European countries; even though Hungary, for instance, is on the receiving end of a substantial relief fund.
Also in this series: