COVID-19 Sceptics Turn to Pro-Kremlin Propaganda About the Russia-Ukraine War

Even though feelings of urgency about the COVID-19 pandemic have decreased in recent months, misleading and false claims about the virus were still pervasive in April and May. Most of the disinformation articles during these months sought to discredit COVID-19 measures and spread conspiracy theories about Ukrainian biolabs experimenting with dangerous pathogens, such as the coronavirus.

Throughout April-May, 2022, a total of 2213 articles have been analyzed, 503 of which contain disinformation or misinformation, and 1710 of which contain factual information. Most of the incorrect information is disinformation and has been shared by news outlets which are notorious for questionable reporting. Only a small share of the analyzed articles shared misinformation, originating predominantly from social media.

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The most prevalent disinformation narratives concerned the deceptive and/or unnecessary nature of COVID-19 measures. These articles were especially opposed to quarantine, face masks and vaccination. Some of those took the approach of ridiculing and denigrating Covid-19 preventive measures, by calling face masks “plague diapers”, referring to lockdown as “Covid hysteria” and to vaccines as “Pfizer Booster Clot Jabs”. Moreover, narratives deeming COVID-19 a biological weapon, or a lab-grown virus were also common in the analyzed months. Authors of the problematic articles often linked these topics to so-called globalists, such as Klaus Schwab, Bill Gates, and George Soros, as well as to international organisations: the World Health Organization (WHO) or the World Economic Forum (WEF).

In addition, the analyzed articles revealed a new narrative, stating that the US is supervising high-risk research Ukrainian biolabs, which experiment with pathogens like the coronavirus, in order to create biological weapons which might be used against Russia. Articles spreading this narrative claim to have Russian sources to back these assertions up. Some of these authors also argue that the US is developing these biological weapons as a means to enable a more authoritarian world in which a small powerful elite controls the population (“The Great Reset” conspiracy theory). As the fact-checking organization PolitiFact states, since 2005, the US Department of Defense Cooperative Threat Reduction Program has provided technical support to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health to improve public health laboratories. While US-supported laboratories have played an important role in stopping the spread of the COVID-19 virus, there is no evidence that they are being used as part of a conspiracy against the Russians.

Articles by narratives and sub-narratives

Additionally, there has been an increase in disinformation articles linking the Russia-Ukraine war to the COVID-19 pandemic. These articles generally defend Russia’s actions in Ukraine and portray the West as hypocritical and deceitful. This is connected to the pandemic, for example, by arguing that the West is lying about the war and the pandemic in order to control and/or depopulate the world. An article by The Unz Review titled “Mariupol: 1000 Gay Satanic Terrorists Surrender in a Single Day” argues that the West is misrepresenting the invasion, as Russia is actually “winning the war”. The author writes “Never forget that the same people who told you that the vaccine was safe and effective and that men can become women by cutting their penises off told you that Russia was losing the conflict in the Ukraine”. This sentence connects disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines to disinformation about the Russia-Ukraine war. The author also argues that the Azov battalion worships Satan and slaughters innocent women, children, and old people. The piece ends with the prediction that once Russia wins the war, the West will have no other choice than to return to the COVID-19 crisis. The author combines this remark with an edited image of Fauci as a satanist. Thus, the last part implies that if the Western elites cannot implement their malicious plot through the Russia-Ukraine war, they will go back to instrumentalizing the pandemic for their own gain.

In addition, many of the news outlets that previously positioned themselves against Covid measures and spread COVID-19 disinformation, are now on Russia’s side in the Russia-Ukraine war. The biggest news outlets with this crossover are Infowars, Zerohedge, Veterans Today, The Unz Review, RT and The Duran. Aside from RT, which is Russian, these are alt-right news outlets based in the United States with a strong distaste for mainstream media, mainstream politics (especially democrats), pandemic measures, NATO, foreign interference and progressive values. The Unz Review, The Duran and Veterans Today share particularly extreme content that can be linked to conspiracy theories, while the others are simply parroting pro-Kremlin propaganda and defending Russia’s choice to invade Ukraine.

It is likely that some, if not all, of these websites, have ties to the Russian government, as there is evidence to back up their ties to the Kremlin and other Russian institutions. In the case of Infowars, their articles have been promoted by bots connected to the Russian government during the 2016 US presidential elections. In addition, the website continually republished articles from Russian state-controlled news network RT. The same can be said for Zero Hedge, which often publishes the same content as Infowars. US intelligence officials have accused Zero Hedge of amplifying Kremlin propaganda. A former Zero Hedge employee has admitted that he felt pressure to frame issues in a misleading way, which were exceedingly positive about Russia and Vladimir Putin. Veterans Today has also been linked to the Kremlin, with the specific purpose of targeting members of the US military.

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The Global Times, a China-based news outlet with a pro-Chinese government bias, also makes up a significant share of the disinformation articles reviewed for this analysis. The narratives and content of these articles are noticeably different from other questionable news sources which were analyzed. The Global Times is a strong defender of the Chinese approach to the coronavirus and it is overly critical of the Western measures to cope with the pandemic. They typically portray the Western Covid-19 approach as lax and too nonrestrictive, sacrificing the lives of the weak and elderly for the sake of economic gain. The Global Times is especially scathing about the US, repeatedly arguing that it has the worst Covid-19 approach in the world. The failure of the US in handling the pandemic is often tied to their largely unrestricted capitalism and focus on liberal values.

Media sources by reach

In the analyzed period, the most prevalent disinformation technique was ‘forgery’. This technique can relate to forgery of images, forgery of sources or forgery of facts. However, nearly all articles containing forgery in this period fall into the latter category, forgery of facts. Forgery of facts simply means that facts are being made up to trick the audience into believing something that is convenient to the author.

Moreover, many of the articles containing false information use strong language to condemn the Covid-19 measures, such as “pandemic police state”, “biomedical authoritarianism” and “communist legislation”. Because of the subjective wording and hyperbolization used in these articles, they are easy to identify as disinformation. Other articles appear to be more objective, yet they will provide false facts or misrepresent statistics. In the latter case, statistics are taken out of context, or statements of fringe academic studies and/or doctors are used to defend claims which do not represent the scientific consensus.