Russian media have been spreading disinformation about coronavirus with the aim of “aggravating” the public health crisis in the west, the European Union’s diplomatic service claimed in a leaked report.
An EU monitoring team collected 80 examples of disinformation from Russian sources in nearly two months up to 16 March. Coronavirus was claimed to be a biological weapon deployed by China, the US or the UK. Other conspiracy theories contended the outbreak was caused by migrants or was a pure hoax.
“Pro-Kremlin media outlets have been prominent in spreading disinformation about the coronavirus, with the aim to aggravate the public health crisis in western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems,” the report said which was seen by news outlets, including Reuters and the Guardian.
Russia has strongly denied the accusations. “If there was even a single concrete example, I could comment on it, but once again they are just unfounded accusations,” a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
The news came as Romanian authorities closed down a site stiridemoment.ro which published fake news about COVID-19, claiming that the government was planning to shut down supermarkets and the government had a “secret plan” to bring back Romanians who live abroad. More than one million Romanians live in Italy and Spain which have been the hardest-hit in Europe from the virus.
Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis decreed a state of emergency on Monday to help the government fight the virus outbreak which has infected 260 Romanians. Under the law, authorities are allowed to close media outlets.
The European commission’s chief spokesperson on foreign and security policy, Peter Stano, said there had been an increase in “disinformation, misleading information, outright lies and wrong things” since the start of the outbreak.
The commission had noticed, he said, an increase in disinformation from Russia, in the country and those with links to pro-Kremlin sources.
One conspiracy theory aired on Kremlin-backed Sputnik radio in February drew a parallel between the 19th-century opium wars and coronavirus, implying that “England” and unnamed “international organizations” were seeking to control Chinese internal affairs, just as the British empire forced China to open its markets and cede territory at gunpoint.
Meanwhile, the website Ria Fan claimed that a “false panic” about Covid-19 would benefit pharmaceutical companies looking to profit from the virus. And against a soundtrack of menacing music, Ren TV’s Military Secret documentary claimed the virus could be a “biological weapon” disseminated by US special forces in China.
Researchers at Cardiff University’s centre for crime and security research, who carried out research with the commission, found an evolution in tactics by pro-Kremlin media.
It said that rather than authoring disinformation, Russian sources were amplifying theories that had originated elsewhere, such as China, Iran or the US far right, the researchers said. “This tactic allows them to avoid the accusation of creating disinformation themselves, claiming instead that they are merely reporting what others are saying,” the report stated.
An internal EU network, where member states share cases, also reported examples of disinformation. In Lithuania there were false claims that a US soldier deployed to the country had been taken to hospital with coronavirus.
Slovak authorities reported false information about the prime minister, Peter Pellegrini, who was said to have had the virus and infected EU leaders at a Brussels summit in February. (Pellegrini posted a picture of himself from a hospital bed on Facebook on 23 February, saying he had “an extensive infection”.)