Resurgence of pandemic hoaxes crossing the line of decency and a skewed pro-Russian depiction of history - the last two weeks have been rich with disinformation narratives
The COVID-19 outbreak caused a global public health crisis, but unfortunately, its impacts go far beyond the health dimension. Since the beginning of the crisis, disinformation actors have played a key role in spreading disinformation and hoaxes, and have not hesitated to cross the boundaries of decency to generate as much chaos and uncertainty among the population as possible. In this respect, the past two weeks have been no different.
Infosecurity.sk presents an overview of disinformation trends that have been on the rise in information space in the past two weeks:
- The most trending disinformation narratives of the past two weeks were related to the ongoing pandemic. The disinformation actors were intentionally misleading in a recent case of the death of a four-year-old child in Slovakia. False reports claiming that the Slovak army was preparing an internment camp for the unvaccinated also roamed the internet.
- Other pandemic-related disinformation narratives included downplaying the severity of the virus and its prevention, labelling vaccines as experimental and ineffective, criticising the "mainstream" media for lying to the public, and labelling the vaccination of minors as an "obscure experiment."
- In the context of foreign policy, the go-to topic for the disinformation media was the developments in the energy sector, particularly concerning the low gas supplies from Russia. The disinformation media strongly criticized the EU, while at the same time portrayed Gazprom, and thus Russia, as a reliable energy supplier while also endorsing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
- In light of recent commemoration events, the Russian embassy and various pro-Russian proxies spread historical narratives portraying Russia exclusively as a peacemaker and liberator of Europe, justifying its aggressive foreign policy and criticizing pro-western politicians.
Misusing the death of a child for political profit
A few days ago, Slovakia was hit hard by the death of a four-year-old boy from the town of Jarovnice, who had an asthma attack and collapsed. Paramedics called to the scene were unable to help.
The parents of the boy blame the doctor who refused to examine the boy a day before his death because he had come accompanied by his unvaccinated mother. Under current pandemic restrictions, the examining doctor can condition the examination by a vaccination certificate or a negative test. The doctor in this case has enforced a measure in which she does not examine children with unvaccinated or untested supervision.
Milan Mazurek, a non-attached MP and member of the far right Republika party, commented on the tragic incident in a video with a misleading title: "The sadistic government kills little children! It's time to rise up!" In the video, he said the following: "A four-year-old boy in Jarovnice died only because the doctor had not provided him with medical care." The video became popular on social media.
The doctor indeed refused to treat the boy because he had come to the examination accompanied by his unvaccinated mother and the incident is currently under investigation by the police. However, Mazurek was being deceptive in his video, as he did not mention that the child had been brought to the doctor the day before by his vaccinated grandmother and that the doctor had examined him and prescribed medication to him.
Mazurek also claimed that refusing to examine the boy was against the law. However, this is rather questionable, as according to the Ministry of Health's guidelines, doctors can decide for themselves whether to examine unvaccinated or untested individuals.
It was also reported that the doctor was of retirement age and suffering from cancer. Therefore, she also had personal reasons for setting the concrete conditions for providing the examination. Nonetheless, as already mentioned, the tragic case is being investigated by the police.
“Concentration camp for the unvaccinated” hoax
However, this was not the only COVID-19-related misinformation disseminated in the last two weeks. Another wildly spread disinformation narrative came again from Mazurek and the leader of Kotleba's far-right People's Party (Kotlebovci - Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko), Marian Kotleba.
Marian Kotleba has published a video in which he labels the MOVIR project (mobile monitoring system for the protection of isolated and at-risk populations from the spread of viral diseases) of the Technical University of Košice (TUKE) as a plan to build an "electronic prison for unvaccinated." Milan Mazurek followed a similar narrative, calling it a "concentration camp for unvaccinated."
Kotleba also claimed that MOVIR was a joint project of the Slovak Armed Forces and the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at TUKE aimed at tracking down and isolating the unvaccinated.
However, in response, the Slovak Armed Forces denied the abovementioned claim and marked it as a hoax.
Moreover, Minister of Defence, Jaroslav Naď, announced that a criminal investigation will be launched against Kotleba and Mazurek for spreading misleading information.
Nevertheless, Kotleba’s video has gained more than 66 thousand views on YouTube in two days. Kotleba's and Mazurek's conspiracies were also spread by local disinformation media such as Bádateľ, Zem a Vek and Hlavný denník.
Backed by local disinformation actors
The local disinformation media not only shared the aforementioned hoaxes, but also actively spread their own COVID-19 related disinformation content.
Common disinformation narratives traditionally included downplaying the severity of the virus and its prevention, labelling vaccines as experimental and ineffective, criticising the "mainstream" media for deliberately lying to the public, and labelling the vaccination of minors as an "obscure experiment."
"Classic" conspiracy theories claiming that the pandemic was a prearranged event - a "plandemic" - coordinated by the "global criminal syndicate" and pharmaceutical companies, were also disseminated.
The disinformation media also put forth findings from various "experts", often taken out of context and deliberately interpreted to fit the narrative of undermining the vaccination and testing process. The prevailing narrative was that the vaccinated segment of the population is just as dangerous to the society as the unvaccinated one. Therefore, according to disinformation actors, it should not be favoured, but on the contrary, isolated.
On the other hand, scientists and doctors who advocated vaccination and the Slovak police who enforced the pandemic restrictions were targeted and accused of "covid bullying".
The fact that COVID-19 was a trending topic over the past two weeks is visible on the data from CrowdTangle. The graph above shows videos from disinformation actors that received the most views on Facebook in the last two weeks. All of the videos were spreading disinformation related to the pandemic. The most viewed videos concerned the previously mentioned disinformation narratives of Milan Mazurek. Another problematic politician, a member of the social democratic SMER-SD party, Ľuboš Blaha, was also successful when spreading COVID-19 related disinformation content concerning categorizing people based on vaccination and general criticism of the pandemic restriction.
An overabundance of pro-Russian disinformation narratives
The pandemic wasn’t the only topic to which disinformation websites hung on to. When it came to foreign policy issues and even historical revisionism, one could not overlook the overabundance of pro-Russian disinformation narratives.
As far as foreign policy was concerned, the go-to topic for the disinformation media was the development in the energy sector, particularly concerning the low gas supplies from Russia.
In this context, the disinformation media heavily criticised the European Green Deal, portraying it as a hasty decision and the reason for the energy crisis, since renewable energy, according to the narrative, cannot meet the needs of the EU population. Russia's Gazprom was portrayed as the only reliable supplier of energy at the same time. Also, endorsement for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was highly present.
The question of Slovakia's energy security and past negative experience with Russia in this matter was also deliberately overlooked. For example, in January 2009, when gas supplies were halted due to Russian-Ukrainian disagreements, or in 2014 and 2015, when Russia decided to cut the gas supply short after Slovakia launched a reversed flow of gas to Ukraine.
Critics of Nord Stream 2 argue that it will increase dependence on Russian energy supplies, while strengthening the Kremlin's political influence in the region – this can be considered as another issue (intentionally) overlooked by the disinformation scene. In this context, the disinformation website Hlavný denník also attacked the Czech Republic's special ambassador for energy security, Václav Bartuška, who had spoken out against Moscow's energy extortion.
Rewriting history in favour of Russia
Moscow has long promoted a distorted historical narrative that portrays the USSR and its successor, present-day Russia, as peacemakers and liberators of Europe from fascism.
These narratives trivialise the merits of the Western allies and gloss over any historical facts that might harm USSR’s positive image of a liberator. For example, the fact that USSR entered the war as an ally of Nazi Germany when both countries attacked Poland. Or the fact that the "liberation" led to more than 40 years of totalitarian communist oppression in Central and Eastern Europe.
Moreover, Moscow uses these narratives to justify its current aggressive foreign policy, such as the recent annexation of Crimea or the escalation of war in eastern Ukraine - the latter often portrayed as an uprising against the fascist Ukrainian "banderist" junta. In the past two weeks, these narratives have been spread in connection with the commemoration of the Battle of Dukla Pass in World War II.
The battle was key in liberating Slovakia and is considered one of the bloodiest in the entire eastern front campaign, with thousands of Soviet soldiers losing their lives during the operation. The disinformation media exploit its commemoration to spread false historical and political narratives.
One of the channels for spreading such narratives is the official Facebook page of the Russian Embassy in Slovakia, but also many proxy pages and groups dealing with Russia and its history.
For instance, the Russian Embassy heavily promoted the activities of a page called Brat za Brata (Brother for Brother). The page Brat za Brata describes its dedication to commemorating the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army during World War II.
However, it also publishes political content, mainly non-factual criticism of pro-Western politicians in Slovakia. Among those wrongly criticised in the recent past were, for example, MEP Michal Šimečka or Minister of Defence Jaroslav Naď. As such, the Russian embassy misuses commemorative events and uses various proxy Facebook groups to spread distorted representations of history undermining Slovakia's pro-Western orientation and justifying Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy.
Project Infosecurity.sk organised by STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute and Slovak Security Policy Institute, which is supported by the Prague office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, continuously monitors the activities of both Slovak and foreign disinformation actors, but focuses mainly on the former. The project activities are built upon daily monitoring of emerging disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories in the online information space. This approach allows the analysts to identify disinformation posts and narratives that resonated with the public the most, as well as to find out where they originated, and how they spread and evolved on social media. The report takes the form of a bi-weekly summary of arising trends in the spread of malicious information content online. Based on that, Infosecurity.sk can warn the public about emerging and current trends in the field of disinformation, manipulation, and propaganda.
Matej Spišák is a Research Fellow at STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute in Bratislava and Editor-in-Chief at Infosecurity.sk.
Denis Takács is an Analyst at STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute in Bratislava.