One of the more disturbing effects of the coronavirus pandemic isn’t related to health, but rather what it could do to international relations. In addition to impacting global trade and travel, there are now loud and growing fears about new disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining U.S. and NATO forces.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, disinformation has only continued to spread, but it could be argued that this form of state propaganda has been weaponized. Unlike misinformation, which could be inaccuracies that stem from error, disinformation is where deliberate falsehoods are promulgated by design.
It is believed that about two-thirds of such disinformation has Russian origins. This includes purposefully misleading emails to government officials and news outlets. In some cases pro-Russian news outlets have also been publishing articles with the aim to stoke alarm or anger. Some of those outlets have been linked to the Kremlin.
China has also been called out for spreading disinformation about COVID-19 in the west to sow discontent within NATO.
Earlier this week NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg accused both China and Russia of spreading disinformation regarding the organization’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have several examples of statements coming from Moscow and Beijing, which are not correct, which try to undermine the cohesion of NATO allies, and also portrays NATO in the absolutely wrong way,” Stoltenberg told a video roundtable with the media.
Stoltenberg suggested both countries were trying to portray NATO as being unable to work together during this crisis. “We are working together,” he added. “That’s exactly what we do.”
The secretary-general noted that the military alliance has provided airlifts, medical support and has transported patients during the pandemic.
Stoltenberg is just one of a chorus of Western leaders who have recently criticized Chinese and Russian-backed disinformation campaigns. President Donald Trump slammed Beijing earlier this month and labeled COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” which came after Chinese state-run media began to falsely suggest that the virus originated in Italy, not Wuhan, China.
Stoltenberg has been more cautious about calling out China for its initial handling of the outbreak.”There will be a time for lessons learned and to look into how the world ended at where we are now.”
Disinformation in the Baltic
Some of the efforts by Russia have been aimed very close to its borders.
According to the Lithuania Defense Ministry there have been more than 800 cases of false or misleading information about the virus, much of it focused on the Baltic nation. The most recent incident occurred last week when the Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis received a fake email that purportedly came from Stoltenberg and stated that NATO forces could be pulled out of Lithuania.
Similar emails were sent to the Lithuanian media, as well as to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Another fake news story claimed that a U.S soldier stationed in Lithuania had contracted COVID-19. While it was only up for a few minutes on a Lithuanian news site, it highlights how such disinformation can fool the legitimate news media and spread potentially as fast as the highly infectious virus.
“Alas, the coronavirus crisis has not only not reduced security threats in Europe but created conditions for the threats to grow,” Karoblis said in a statement as reported by Military.com. “It is one in a series of attempts to turn the pandemic crisis into a security crisis. Fake news like this piece are aimed at sowing distrust in our Alliance partners and NATO unity.”
NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Tod Wolters of the United States Air Force, told reporters that it is crucial that alliance members work together to call out such disinformation efforts.
“Number one, recognize when you have malign influencers and they’re telling falsehoods and point those out and correct that to 100%,” Wolters told the reporters. “And number two, taking the time to talk about your operations, your activities, your investments, what you’re doing from a health perspective to positively influence the good outcome of all your forces.”