But when questions were raised about Russia’s aid, the state-funded outlets went on the defensive.
Another RT headline read, “How disinformation really works: Activists linked to pro-NATO think tank smear Russian covid-19 aid to Italy.”
The study — which analyzed coronavirus-related news from state-backed English-language media in Russia, China, Iran and Turkey — found some common themes that have the potential to cloud and complicate global efforts to tackle the pandemic.
Among them: portraying responses by others to the pandemic as “incompetent,” pushing conspiracy theories about the origins of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and positioning their countries as world leaders in the fight against the virus.
Some of the narratives are far from limited to media in those four countries.
Fox News has provided an ample platform for President Trump’s touting of hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment despite no consensus from health experts on the drug’s effectiveness. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has described the outbreak as a “fantasy” and a “little flu,” and Twitter even deleted two of his tweets for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.
Philip N. Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, said that criticism of the World Health Organization is also prevalent in the content the report studied — something that’s been boosted by Trump’s own attacks on the U.N. agency in recent days.
“If you can generate some headlines that are a little click-baity and pretend to be giving you the truth or looking under the hood or exposing some conspiracy, then if you’re online late at night trying to figure out what’s going on, those are the headlines you’ll click through on,” Howard said.
The intended audience for English-language media in China, Turkey, Iran and Russia is the country’s diaspora as well as “people who like conspiracy theories in the West,” Howard said. The majority of the content has heavy political spin rather than outright lies.
During a Wilson Center online video panel, Nina Jankowicz, who studies disinformation at the think tank, said that the most successful propaganda is grounded in “emotional truth” and that the lack of knowledge about the coronavirus is what’s made it fertile ground.
“We’re not talking about fakes,” she said. “We’re talking about things that are very, very real to people. And that’s what draws them in and manipulates them.”
China’s state-backed media largely focused on distancing the country from the coronavirus’s origins.
One story from the China Global Television Network cited a quote from an Italian doctor who told NPR that the virus might have been circulating in some elderly Italians as far back as November, before news of an outbreak in China. The China Global Television Network then used that statement to argue that the virus could have come from “China, U.S., Italy or anywhere else.”
“Asking questions is a way of inserting doubt,” Howard said.
Iran’s Mehr News Agency and PressTV pushed conspiracy theories that the virus was created by the United States, which has crippled Iran’s economy with sanctions. Russian and Turkish media largely stayed away from conspiracy theories but instead sought to strengthen the appearance of their countries’ responses to the coronavirus by scrutinizing how Western governments have handled it.
The Kremlin-backed outlets emphasized Russia’s offer of medical equipment to Italy, the United States and other countries. And any outside skepticism of the aid was then seized on as anti-Russia sentiment.
“RT, Sputnik and Kremlin media highlight public fear, the shortage of Western medical supplies and spread confusion with disinformation while widely publicizing that Russia and its system of government is capable of providing urgently needed humanitarian aid to the U.S., Italy and Spain — despite the West’s hostilities and sanctions,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“In other words,” she added, “Russia should be viewed as a benevolent hegemon.”