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.
New figures indicate that the Russian death toll to Covid-19 is too low. For some, this is a sign of deliberate disinformation. One expert, though, tells IranWire that we should not overestimate it, while another claims that there is no coordinated disinformation effort going on at all in Russia – and in fact, false information is emanating from the EU and the US.
Researchers have been puzzled for several weeks by the low reported coronavirus death toll figure in Russia, where the mortality rate is close to 13 per million. In contrast, the world average is about 36 deaths per million. Consequently, researchers have accused Russia of hiding the true figure.
New data from Moscow’s city government has provided nourishment to that conclusion, because the total number of registered deaths in Moscow in April alone surpassed the five-year average at 1,700, according to The New York Times.
The figures from Russia caused an international stir this week, even as the fact-checking site EUvsDisinfo, an initiative of the European Union, reported a general decrease in the volume of disinformation emanating from Russian sources.
Mark Galeotti, a former British Foreign Office advisor and honorary professor at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European studies, told IranWire: “The official numbers of Covid-19 deaths in Russia are of course an understatement.”
“The problem is that Russia is now stuck with those numbers, while the actual figure might be twice as high or more. How do you correct that? How do you suddenly explain to your citizens such a terrible spike in cases? You will have to admit that the previous figure was nonsense, and it is challenging for Russia to do.”
“The West has some assumption that the Russian government controls everything, and that it is more controlled than it is. When the Russian government received these very low numbers, it seems like they said: ‘Oh well, let's just run with them’... and now they have to continue to do so.”
The West is to Blame
The low number of reported Covid-19 cases has now become the latest issue cited in myriad reports of Russian “disinformation”. Recently, three doctors mysteriously fell out of hospital windows in Russia, where at least one of them had openly criticized the lack of protective gear available. The Russian health ministry has denied any involvement. They told CNN that one of the injured employees, Dr. Alexander Shulepov, was simply “a victim of an accident due to his own lack of caution.”
In recent weeks, we have also described how the Kremlin has been accused of blaming the US and EU for the virus, working together with China, bending Second World War facts, and criticizing the Pulitzer winners in the US.
Maxim Bratersky is a professor of the department of international relations at the Higher School of Economics, HSE, in Moscow. In his view, there is no coordinated disinformation campaign emanating from Russia. Instead he blames the West.
“I am so tired of hearing about Russian propaganda,” says this academic, who is known for his criticism of Western governments. “These people need to show me the evidence. If somebody is sending out disinformation with a Russian IP address, it does not mean that it is Russian propaganda. I don’t know what people are talking about. I have no idea.
“Instead, I see the Western political mainstream - especially the Americans but also Europeans - coordinating a campaign against Russia and now increasingly toward China as well,” he says.
“We know that journalists are more interested in negative facts than in positive stories,” says Bratersky, adding that the situation is no different in Russia. “Russian journalists have reported unpreparedness and preparedness to such outbreaks in Europe... and I would say that it is balanced. Maybe there is a little more [of a] positive approach to the reporting about China and a little more negative about Europe.”
“Maybe I am blind, but I don’t see Russian propaganda against the West. We have a couple of journalists on state TV who challenge the West with strong rhetoric. However, it is different. Firstly, they address the Russian public and not a European audience, and secondly, you can find dozens of similar things in the West. Russia is nothing particular,” he says, pointing to the so-called ‘Russian index’ run by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where only two to three percent of foreign news articles are filed as positive toward Russia.
We reached out to both the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media without any response.
Galeotti, however, does not agree with Bratersky and says that there is a difference between Russian and Western journalism.
“The worst coverage in the West is not like the worst coverage in Russia. There is much more free media in the West. Still, there is, of course, what we can call ‘self-tasking’ in both countries: where TV hosts know what is expected of them and do it without any explicit instructions from anybody.” Galeotti who points to Russian state TV and Fox News in the US as examples.
“The West often misunderstands Russian disinformation as really disciplined,” he says, “while Russia looks at Western critics as part of some kind of grand campaign.”
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