As global health organizations keep voicing their concerns about alarming rates of COVID-19 cases, specialists are also warning about the infodemic which was inflicted by the coronavirus. Debunk EU analysis has shown that false and misleading information about COVID-19 did not only affect public perception of the virus in the Baltic countries but was also used to validate Kremlin-promoted clichés.
In October 2020, 55 cases of disinformation related to COVID-19 were spotted in the Baltic countries. Of these, 47.3% concerned Latvia, 29.1% focused on Lithuania, and 23.6% dealt with Estonia. The articles had a potential reach of 3.4 million contacts through the analysed websites.
According to Debunk EU analysts, a batch of articles included allegations that the effects of coronavirus pandemic have been overestimated, whereas the strict measures to fight it do more harm than good (the rising unemployment, economic uncertainty, the harm caused by wearing face masks, schoolchildren failing exams because of the distance learning, etc.).
Additionally, misleading and false articles were used to promote such narratives as:
Russophobia/anti-Russian policies in the Baltics,
Cracking unity of the EU,
The inability of the Baltic countries to maintain healthy economies,
The inability of the Baltics to act as independent players.
The highest peak of COVID-19 mentions was recorded on October 21, 2020: pro-Kremlin media picked up a comment made by the Latvian Interior Affairs Minister Sandis Ģirģens that the spread of COVID-19 in the country was stimulated by the “Soviet kolkhoz [collective farm] syndrome” and the “East European gene of "not giving a sh**”.
With a share of 14.6%, sputniknews.ru, a branch of Russian state-run pseudo news agency Sputnik, has led in terms of the number of false and misleading messages in the Baltics in October 2020.
Meanwhile, riafan.ru topped the list of false and misleading content sources by reach. Two of the articles on COVID-19 in relation to Latvia, published by a source linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA) troll factory in St. Petersburg, captured about one third of the total coverage by reach (potential reach of 1,1 million contacts).
The analysis has shown that 67% of the articles related to false and misleading data on COVID-19 were published in Russian language, 16% in Lithuanian, 9% in Latvian, 6% in Estonian, and 2% in English.
There were three main categories of false and misleading content regarding COVID-19 in Estonia.
The analysis has shown that those grouped under the narrative of Estonia fails to fight COVID-19 are an example of how the pandemic was used to justify and promote the mythologised stereotype of Russophobic countries.
A quote by the Health Board's Emergency Medicine Department Arkadi Popov can be used as an example – he stated that the availability of key information in Russian language could have been one of the factors in some of the recent outbreaks in Ida-Viru County and Tallinn. This statement was selectively applied to make such headlines as: The Russian-Speakers in Estonia Have a Greater Risk of Contracting COVID-19 Due to Lack of Information, Expert Says (baltija.eu, 05/10/2020).
Another batch of articles in Estonia, categorised under the narrative of COVID-19 effect is overestimated, were written in Estonian language, and mainly published by telegram.ee. Those included a common denominator: the statement that in Estonia only 17 deaths were caused by coronavirus alone, while the rest of the 64 had comorbidities listed in their causes of death, alongside the virus.
Here, a statement made by a health official was yet again used to amplify the headlines. A quote from the former Acting Director of the Estonian Health Board Mari-Anne Härma was used to make an assertion about the unnecessary measures taken against the spread of the virus and the harm that the lockdown brings, claiming that “it has long been clear that the spring "coronavirus pandemic" was a false alarm, and virtually all countries and governments (with a few exceptions) overreacted. According to the official statistics, more people died during the 2017/2018 and 2018/2019 flu seasons than this year” (telegram.ee, 16/10/2020).
Among the Baltic countries, the focus on NATO troops as a possible source of COVID-19 contamination was the most pronounced in Estonia. For several months, the country has been intensively made a target of Russia-funded media for carrying out military NATO/U.S. exercises on its territory. As the second wave of pandemic has hit the country, the pro-Kremlin media kept up the claims about the drills – that they should not take place not only because it is a threat to the regional stability, but may also be a source of COVID-19.
One of the articles analysed by Debunk EU claimed that “some of the Estonian representatives expressed dissatisfaction with the presence of the military alliance in the country, since NATO members can bring the coronavirus to the republic” (baltnews.ee, 21/10/2020). Although there’s a link provided to “expressed”, which makes one assume it leads to an article that gives more details on this, it actually leads to a very similar article dated September 2020 and stating the same unspecified “Estonian representatives”.
In Latvia, just as in Estonia and Lithuania, the main narrative concerned the country’s (in)ability to fight the pandemic.
Here, the narrative COVID-19 is used to draw attention from other problems was the most prevalent. The topic of COVID-19 was used to support the image of the Baltics as insignificant failed states via the repetitive cliché of “master and servant”, where a Baltic country is always a servant no matter who the master is, be it Russia in the USSR, or the EU and/or NATO in the current times. A quote from an article published on iarex.ru can be used as an example: “It is no secret that Latvia, like all the Baltic republics, remains for the Europeans the “edge of the world,” from which its own citizens flee by any means. And the challenge is to show off with demagoguery about "the front ranks in the fight against coronavirus" (iarex.ru, 14/10/2020).
The comment made by the Latvian Interior Affairs Minister Sandis Ģirģens on the spread of COVID-19 was among major news within the frames of analysis in October. In his Facebook post he expressed an opinion about the carelessness of the people who take off their masks in public transport or in a store just to make a selfie: “there still is a certain gene of not giving a shit sh** in Eastern Europe. The USSR kolkhoz syndrome is still hovering around... And they keep making selfies until somebody in the family or themselves die”.
The pro-Kremlin media presented this comment as the stance of the whole country and an effort of Latvia to “put the blame for the coronavirus on the Soviet “occupation”. Here a denial of the fact that Latvia was occupied by the USSR in 1940 can be seen: first, the word occupation is inside quotation marks and in the text it is alleged that “the Baltic countries regularly exploit the myth of the "Soviet occupation", calling it the source of all troubles” (riafan.ru, 21/10/2020).
Moreover, the current political regime in Latvia was juxtaposed to that of the Soviet times, claiming that Latvia was unsuccessfully fighting the pandemic, because ever since regaining independence the Baltic states were favouring liberal regimes which created “the society where no one cares about the health and safety of others. Such unsubstantiated claims went along with praising the Soviet health system for successfully dealing with epidemics and applauding China for the “miracles of effectiveness in the fight against the coronavirus", as its people were strictly following the orders from the authorities (rubaltic.ru, 21/10/2020).
In Lithuania, COVID-19-related false and misleading content comprised of two groups: on the one hand, COVID-19 and control measures to contain the pandemic were the target, and on the other hand, COVID-19 was used as means to support traditional clichés of the Kremlin propaganda, such as Russophobia, the insignificance of the Baltics, and a gloomy future of the EU.
A letter demanding that the Belgian government “puts an end to COVID-19 hysteria” and allegedly signed by “438 physicians, 1,448 medical professionals of other categories and tens of thousands of people” was quoted (sarmatas.lt, 07/10/2020) via an article from the Russian source ru-an.info. The letter allowed for a summary that claimed: “there is no epidemic or pandemic. There is only misinformation, lies and panic raised by the media - in other words, “infodemic”, whilst “masks do not protect against coronavirus, they only make it harder to breath, the body lacks oxygen and CO2 accumulates in the blood, leading to the poisoning of the whole body”.
Disinformation related to COVID-19 also concerned the ability of the EU overall and Lithuania itself to withstand the challenges the second wave may bring. Thus, in the words of an expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Baltic countries, hit by a second wave of COVID-19, would not be able to recover quickly even with the help of the EU, where separatism is likely to be on the rise as a result of the economic downturn (sputniknews.ru, 14/10/2020).
Sputniknews.lt, the Lithuanian branch of the heavy-duty Kremlin propaganda vehicle Sputnik, attempted to turn a debunking effort against it (a report on disinformation campaign throughout the COVID-19 pandemic waged by Russian media outlets, by Richard Weitz and Aurimas Lukas Piečiukaitis from the Hudson Institute) into a story about persecution of Sputnik in Lithuania: “The Russian Foreign Ministry noted that Sputnik Lietuva is "constantly persecuted", despite the fact that it carries out its activities in full compliance with the law and high journalistic standards” (sputniknews.ru, 27/10/2020).
An assumption can be made that COVID-19 related disinformation might have already affected the public opinion. According to a public opinion poll by Vilmorus conducted in October 9-18, 2020, only every second resident of Lithuania would get a coronavirus vaccine once it has become available: 42.9% said they would get the vaccine, and 42.5% said they would not, with 14.7% having no opinion on the issue.
Such data may evidence an array of problems faced by coronavirus-hit societies, including that of deep polarization and the ongoing infodemic, which allows for false andmisleading messages to shape our decision-making and hence affect public health, societal stability, economy, etc.