Disinformation and COVID-19
08 May, 2020
In an era of COVID-19 disinformation is becoming a tool for some states as a political leverage. Political scientist Giorgi Gobronidze explains why the issue matters. Is the threat from disinformation increasing during pandemic?

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus was an unexpected threat that caused in most of the countries a crisis unlike to any that the world has ever seen before. The effect of surprise was tremendous as far as, considering the modern world politics, existing international and national
challenges countries were not ready for threats related to pandemics. Coronavirus has overshadowed such threats as the international terrorism, ongoing conflicts, crisis related to the humanitarian disaster in the middle east etc. Western community was really scared and confused for the first time after the world war two.

The main factor that deepened panic among the people was the fact that neither doctors, nor scientists had sufficient knowledge about the disease that had extremely high infectivity rate. The safety measures, such social distancing and “stay at home” campaign that became common to most of the countries caused not only confusion, but also directly stroke to the way and the style of life of many people. This was something new that people were not used to. Isolation and uncertainty, alongside with the economic crisis causes increased feeling of insecurity and vulnerability. On the one hand there is a threat, that is invisible and even hard to believe that it exists unless one’s community is not affected directly, on the other hand there is still fear of disease and also fear of poverty. Accordingly, the novel coronavirus was not a direct threat for the states but rather it can be evaluated as a direct threat to human beings.

In such case, the gaps of knowledge and distorted by fear perception creates a solid ground for disinformation and other types of informative manipulations of certain targeted communities. We also must consider that notwithstanding the crisis related to the pandemic the security and international political agenda of key international actors have not disappeared, but they are still on the table. Many international actors are looking for an opportunity within the crisis to affect the international information space in order to make public perception and attitudes more acceptant towards their international political agenda.

Communities affected by fear and uncertainty are more vulnerable to various measures of information manipulations. Countries, where strategic communication is experiencing certain gaps, and people are left without comprehensive, evidence based, clear and timely information about the problems and their solutions, risk to become victims of information attacks from the various actors which will try to instrumentalize the information gaps to transform and pollute the information space in the country to achieve desirable political, economic, social and cultural results.

Which countries are the main sources of disinformation and who do they target?

It is difficult to say exactly which countries are the main source of disinformation as far as they might vary from region to region and there targets also might be different as the reasons for spreading disinformation. However, there are still several clear examples that I would like to discuss below.

The first and the most obvious example of disinformation campaign related to the global pandemic is the People’s Republic of China. According to the leading and the most trusted media outlets Beijing has covered the exact scale of the threat related to the novel Coronavirus. Many world leaders openly blame the Peoples’ Republic of China in dissemination of the false evidence about disease that led to the deepening of the global crisis. International human rights organizations mentioning the facts of disappearance of the whistleblowers under very suspicious circumstances. These are the people, mainly healthcare workers who tried to warn the world about the new threat.

Such behavior is characteristic for the closed regimes. This case is remarkably like the Chernobyl disaster, when the USSR government tried to hide information about the nuclear disaster what costed lives of thousands of people.

The motivation of Beijing might be different, like attempt to avoid the panic among citizens, protect economic interests, ensure regime security.

Beijing’s efforts to help countries affected by the virus also might be seem as a reflection of responsibility for the problem, or demonstration of good will, or an attempt to improve international public perception about Chinese regime.

Another and even more important case related to the disinformation during the pandemic is related to the Russian federation. On the one hand Moscow acts in concert with Beijing, when Russian state media promotes the idea that the novel Coronavirus in a biological weapon created by the US scientists in South Carolina University and shipped to china by the US Military. On the other Moscow runs well organized disinformation campaign in target countries with two main goals:

1. Cause panic among the people and weaken capacity of the society to show organized resistance to the threat.
2. Cause skepticism about the threat among the people and therefore delegitimize states anti-crisis efforts and diminish the will to resist the threat.

Georgia might be a clear illustration of how Russian disinformation campaign acts. Somehow it was a strange coincidence in Georgia that the biggest part of social network pages promoting ideas similar to the narratives of Russian mainstream media, organizations and non-formal movements, which have been mentioned in various reports of Georgian organizations and experts working on the topic of the disinformation and propaganda, as promoters of Russian information narratives, some representatives of Georgian Orthodox Clergy, famous of their anti-western attitudes and political organizations, which might be discussed as pro-Kremlin factor in Georgian politics in one voice started to promote and disseminate different conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus in attempt to undermine state’s policy to contain spreading of the disease.

Simultaneously, Moscow continues active campaign against Georgian critical healthcare institutions, promoting the idea that the Richard Lugar Public Health Research Center represents is a threat that creates biological hazard for the region. However, Georgian society witnessed that the mentioned facility occurred to be the main shield of the country during countering of the virus.

How relevant is the EU, US’ answer to disinformation? Should more be done?

During the existing crisis the coordinated disinformation of Russia and China is not only a part of the information policy, but it is much more dangerous act of sabotage against the target country or a community, as far as the false news and the harmful data about the healthcare crisis might directly influence on the dynamics of pandemic, public attitudes towards and threat and that might cost lives of hundreds and thousands of people.

On the one hand there is a problem that some countries still try to instrumentalize the crisis as an effective measure for their information policy. Manipulate public fears and vulnerabilities to dominate the information space and establish narratives in accordance with their security and political agenda. On the other we see that technological giants do not hesitate to promote the paid adds, and sponsored pages that disseminate disinformation and the fake news.

Accordingly, there rises several questions. The first is related to ethics and values. What should the countries do and what should be done by the big communication giants? If countries start to limit access to information for the public, they will simply start to turn into the actors like their rivals. Accordingly, prohibition is not the way that the EU community should apply. And it is right when European information space remains opened.

However, EU should increase efforts to enhance the means of strategic communication on he one hand and bring to the surface the real attitudes that the actors behind the disinformation campaign have. EU should also review its relations with the Peoples’ Republic of China and Russian Federation. The main problems are that EU is not a consolidated international actor and many members in the organization still see Moscow and Beijing as an opportunity rather than a threat.

How growing dispute between China and the US may affect the world order?

The United States is not the only country concerned with Beijing. We also observe that Chinese regional rivals, such as Japan is also taking measures to reduce Chinese influence. The leading EU leaders also started to speak explicitly about Chinese responsibility. Today, on the one hand we have China and Russia as one part of the axis and their situational allies in the form of the rogue powers, including the significant number of authoritarian states and on the other hand we observe slow, but visible consolidation of trans-Atlantic powers and theirs south east Asian allies.

However, it is extremely hard to make certain predictions. Maybe there will be another “cold war” lead by the US and China on the different sides of the front, which will take place in cyber and economic space. Maybe after this crisis the global community will start revision of the role of the traditional state.

The crisis we face today is different from previous outbreaks as far as it has directly stroked not only the healthcare system, but also affected lifestyle of billions of people on the Earth. Therefore, not only political, but social constructions, on which the traditional societies are based might also been revised.

As for today we see that United States and China are the leading powers in the world. EU is in process of seeking and Russia has already been removed to the periphery of the world politics and is positioned in this global competition as secondary actor, depended on China. And this dependence will grow alongside deepening of the economic problems in Russian federation.

What are consequences of these problems for Georgia?

Georgia as a small country with traumatic past and complexity of social constructions is in exceedingly difficult position. Today the faces complex challenges. The first and the most important challenge is related to containing the disease. With the weak healthcare system and relatively small hospital sector Georgia can not afford overload of the system. As far as the result might be grievous.

On the other hand, country must deal with extremely serious economic challenges. Unfortunately, the anti-crisis measures applied by the government indicates that there is no clear vision about the scale of the problem. To have such vision country needs to have comprehensive empirical data, which is achievable only in case of mass and indiscriminate testing of the population on disease and anti-bodies as well. Such measure is difficult to afford by the countries which are bigger, stronger and wealthier than Georgia, but still it is not impossible. Only the clear picture of the status quo might to lead to the following steps: determination of the maximum efforts that should be done to overcome the problem and determination of the resources that are needed to overcome the problem. Without this, it is impossible to have an efficient anti-crisis plan which is oriented on the result. Today we see efforts to provide the basic needs to the citizens, but we still cannot determine the exact results of the anti-crisis measures.

Alongside with those challenges, the security threats that existed before the crisis remain and threats related to the information security are increasing. Simultaneously, we observe significant gaps in strategic communication of Georgian government. There are still many questions that require answers and in some cases those answers are coming from the sources that are not only unreliable, but also are harmful for the national interests of the country. Therefore, Georgia needs to be focused on enhancement strategic communication and public awareness measures as well.

As for the international politics, following the declared foreign political course is not only necessary, but it is a foreign political imperative to avoid isolation and remain a predictable partner. The community should understand that European and Euro-Atlantic integration is now more important for Georgia than ever. It will be extremely hard for Tbilisi to deal with increasing security challenges, even in the terms of the novel Coronavirus alone.

Giorgi Gobronidze, political scientist

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