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Coronavirus “infodemic” in Donbas war zone

Disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic is being spread throughout the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics echoing Russian propaganda.

September 1, 2020 - Eugenia Kuznetsova - Articles and Commentary

Zolote checkpoint in the war zone, 2019. Photo: Marichka Varenikova

Feeding on fears and anxieties, disinformation campaigns related to the coronavirus pandemic threaten the lives of millions. Fake narratives about coronavirus spread throughout the entire world, including countries with relatively healthy media spaces, but in war zones the infodemic could become literally deadly.

If following misleading reports, audiences are unable to make responsible decisions and take proper actions. In conflict-affected areas people are targeted not just by the tools of an information war, but also by real weapons. For instance, in late June the lack of access to information about migration restrictions and the need to install an app for self-isolation when crossing the Ukrainian border led to a situation in which dozens of people, trying to cross the contact line, got stuck in the grey zone where they were being threatened by shelling and mines.

In Ukraine, there are up to 1,5 million internally displaced people. Some of them still have families in the non-government-controlled territories and have to cross checkpoints on a regular basis. Others depend on social payments from the government-controlled territories while living in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic (LDPR). This constant movement of people through the checkpoints requires access to timely and reliable information on coronavirus restrictions and developments both in Ukraine and in the LDPR. War propaganda, however, takes different forms and uses every opportunity, including the pandemic and its developments, to push its agenda.

Previous reports from the LDPR caused serious concerns over freedom of speech and the media environment in non-government-controlled Donbas. To check coronavirus rhetoric and audience exposure to fake narratives in the republics, I analysed the newsfeeds of two local online media outlets over three months in 2020: March, April and May. Both outlets position themselves as information agencies and were founded after the beginning of the conflict in 2014. Novorossiya (novoroinform.org) covers the DPR and Istok (miaistok.su) is based in the LPR.

Disinformation narratives relating to coronavirus, based on the conducted analysis, may be classified into several, sometimes overlapping, subgroups: (1) echoing Russian state propaganda, (2) manipulated messages on the epidemic in Ukraine and (3) purely fake narratives regarding coronavirus.

Echoing Russian propaganda

The first subgroup is the most harmless, even though it still counts as disinformation. The messages include descriptions of Russian acts of bravery, such as sending healthcare staff to Italy, Syria, Serbia and the US. Interestingly, the outlets do not mention Russian help to the LDPR (apart from quoting the interview with the DPR Minister of Health), but quite the opposite- Donbas Volunteer Union (Soyuz Dobrovoltsev Donbassa) is reported to deliver help to Moscow inhabitants to fight the coronavirus. Another propaganda-flavoured narrative deals with Russian achievements in fighting the virus. Novorossiya reports that Russian scientists managed to decode the coronavirus genome, plan to produce three (in some reports six) vaccines and also highlights Russian superiority over Americans and the rest of the world. Headlines appeared such as: “Death rates are 7,5 times lower in Russia than in the rest of the world” or “Experts reported the advantages of the Russian medicine against coronavirus in comparison to the American”.

Novorossiya holds the line of the Russian state media, but the style of its reports is sometimes more neutral than in some of the Russian media outlets. For instance, the headlines on decoding the genome of the coronavirus by Russian scientists in Novorossiya at least don’t highlight the tension between Russia and the USA. For example, Novorossiya stated “Scientists from Russia managed to decode the coronavirus genome,” while Komsomolskaya Pravda reports the same message as “Americans have nothing to do to with it: Russian scientists have revealed the origin of COVID-19”.

Headline: Tikhon Goncharov: Coronavirus – the project of globalists and transnational corporations. Source:https://bit.ly/3jx8agv

While reporting the statistics and other news from Russia, Novorossiya by and large ignores the news from beyond the Russian sphere of influence if it has nothing to do with Russia. Even in the toughest times for Italy, while most of the world was closely watching the situation in Bergamo and its surroundings, the outlet did not pay much attention to European developments. This may highlight both Russian information dominance and isolation from the rest of the world economically, politically and in terms of logistics. Scarce reports from beyond Russia include manipulated headlines like “European values: British citizens en masse started stealing chicken” or “Something is coming: Washington is to receive 100 thousand bags for corpses from the Pentagon”. At the same time, Istok does not provide even scarce reports on world developments either in Russia or beyond it.

Interestingly, the neighbouring LPR does not seem to exist on the DPR’s information map. Apart from a couple of briefs on statistics, Novorossiya ignores the LPR and developments there, while Istok does report on the situation in the DPR.

Manipulated content on pandemic developments in Ukraine

Another disinformation subgroup, present in both media outlets analysed here, deals with the approach for reporting news from Ukraine. Earlier media monitoring observed high levels of hate speech towards Ukraine in the local media and coronavirus has become an additional tool for fueling hate. The restrictions on visiting churches on Easter in Ukraine were reported as religious persecution. “In Ukraine, religious persecutions for visiting churches began.” “Special forces will drive away the churchgoers on Easter in Ukraine.” The healthcare situation was also misreported- Kyiv hospitals refusing to accept patients with coronavirus, rioting healthcare staff, the Ministry of Health recognizing its inability to tackle the situation with the virus and other messages in which the news was manipulated and misreported arose in the LDPR media during the pandemic. Other manipulations related to the corona crisis include predicting famine[ or a coronavirus-caused coup d’état in Ukraine and persecutions for revealing US guilt in the coronavirus pandemic.

Every few days Istok publishes news from the Ukrainian armed forces, with 19 mentions over three months. During the pandemic, these reports centered around coronavirus in a manipulative way, such as Ukrainian soldiers infecting civilians with coronavirus, storing bags intended for corpses, asking for help fighting coronavirus, getting drunk, losing weapons and going on hunger riots. This rubric is an illustration of classic military propaganda which demonises and humiliates the enemy. Coronavirus in this regard became just another tool for demonisation, added to the headlines as another sign of the decay of the armed forces of Ukraine.

The preparation plans for treating coronavirus in Severodonetsk were reported as a deliberate decision by the Kyiv authorities to move infected people closer to the LPR and further from EU borders. The absence of centralised help from the Ukrainian government to the republics was reported as a sign that Ukraine recognised their independence. The relocation of the OSCE staff due to coronavirus restrictions was also reported as “OSCE observers flee while shelling of the LDPR strengthens”.

The manipulated reports on the coronavirus situation in the LDPR in Ukrainian media are mostly centered around unwary quotes. The Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov, claimed in March that there were about 12 cases of the virus in Horlivka, but President Zelensky said the real coronavirus situation in LDPR is “horrible” and Volodymyr Kravchenko, the head of the Joint Forces Operation, claimed the LDPR hospitals are overwhelmed with patients sick with coronavirus. These quotes led to potentially disinforming headlines since none of them can be properly checked, and the official statistics of the LDPR, taking into account the media and political environment in the “republics,” cannot be relied on. Any gaps in information, especially in the conflict-affected areas, are readily filled with rumors.

Fake reports

Apart from echoing Russian propaganda and fueling hate towards Ukraine, the LDPR outlets also published several purely fake stories. One of them asserts that some coronavirus tests are an instrument for “genetic scanning of the people”. Novorossiya quoted Tikhon Goncharov, an activist of “Russkaya vesna,” with the headline “Coronavirus is a project of globalists and transnational corporations” and Sergey Glaziev, who claimed the USA created the virus. Interestingly, along with these messages, Novorossiya also published the quotes of Russian authorities regarding natural origins of the virus. In the context of coronavirus, another fake claim resurfaced in Istok– American biolabs use Ukraine for developing biological weapons. The publication is under the tag “coronavirus” even though it does not mention the virus itself, but hints to the readers that disease outbreaks in Ukraine are related to the US labs.

Headline: USA uses Ukraine for bacteriological weapons development. Source: https://bit.ly/2YV1XD5

Lack of access to quality information in the info space of the “republics” directly threatens the lives of the local population. The exposure to a wave of corona-related disinformation in the local media of the LDPR and echoing Russian propaganda impedes the ability of the local population to take responsible precautions amidst the pandemic.

Misleading reports on the coronavirus situation in Ukraine weaken ties with the government-controlled territories, while strengthening Russian information dominance and the isolation of the LDPR territories from the rest of the world. Coordinated action in following pandemic dynamics in a connected world is vital not just for the local population, but for the rest of Ukraine and neighboring countries. Any isolated islands in terms of information enhance the risks of the epidemic spiraling out of control.

Dr Eugenia Kuznetsova is a Research Fellow at Kyiv School of Economics. She studies media environments and disinformation within the Ukrainian geopolitical fault-line cities: urban identities, geopolitics and urban policy project funded by the Norwegian Research Council.

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