COVID-19 disinformation asserts that ‘there will never be returning to the “old normal”’

As new vaccines are being developed, there seems to be that each jab is followed by a corresponding disinformation story. Throughout April, hostile media sources vigorously reported on side effects and fatalities correlated to vaccination to take advantage of anxieties and spread fear. In a continuous trend, stories on side effects and deaths were also exploited by the pro-Kremlin media as a background to claim the inferiority of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and prove Sputnik V was made to save humanity.

Findings on disinformation about COVID-19, DebunkEU data

The share of disinformation within the false and misleading content on COVID- 19 in April 2021 stood at 96.3%. Measured by DebunkReach®, the share amounted to 97.1%.

Quite often, there is only a fine line between disinformation and misinformation, as establishing the intent of creating and/or sharing false and misleading content (is it a deliberate creation or not?) may be a challenge. With social media tightening their rules against false and misleading information, some of those holding onto to the false beliefs or disseminating manipulated information for (political) gains turn to alt-tech platforms, as in the case of DecentaSpeak in Latvia. Hybrid-nature alternatives also exist, such as Wykop.pl in Poland.

The news aggregator Wykop.pl is a prototype of Digg.com, launched in 2005. It includes the spaces for sharing articles, microblogging and user-interaction, such as live Q&A sessions with public figures and politicians. At the end of 2020, it ranked 5th among the leading social media platforms and apps in Poland, being the leading Polish social media service by number of users. Wykop.pl has been the object of political and COVID-19-related disinformation analysis/reports — this is one of the misinformation stories spotted on the website:

What was claimed:

Wearing a face mask is not only inefficient in stopping the spread of COVID-19 (the virus particles are about 10 times smaller than the smallest space between the fibres of any mask), but it also increases the chances of contracting the virus because of oxygen deficiency, as well as bacteria, fungi and other dangerous microorganisms amass on the mask during long-term wearing.

Wearing face masks may be a reason of excessive deaths in Poland (over 100,000 registered so far). The data is evidenced by statements of famous scientists, publications in prestigious world medical journals and indirect statements by the WHO.

Our verdict:

Layers of face mask fibres capture large respiratory droplets and smaller airborne particles: larger particles slam straight into the fibres and get stuck, whereas the smallest particles are bounced around by air molecules in a random zig-zag pattern, increasing the time they spend in the fibre forest and their chances of getting captured. The combined filtration efficiency increases as everyone wears a mask. When worn properly, face masks do not cause CO2 intoxication nor oxygen deficiency (as is the case with surgeons, who operate for hours wearing them) and/or amass bacteria (disposable masks should be disposable, after all). Excessive deaths in Poland are related to COVID-19 and not the measures to control it, on contrary to popular claims on social platforms.

One of the stories which triggered waves of disinformation was a group of world leaders joining the head of the WHO in calling for an international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response.

What was claimed:

The call by world leaders and the head of then WHO for a new international treaty to improve pandemic response is basically an intent by a handful of EU leaders to establish a global government, securing positions there for themselves. EU member states have epically failed to deal with COVID-19 pandemic, as introducing never-ending lockdown ruined businesses and tourism sector, forced people onto the streets protesting and organizing pogroms.

Governments have been responding by tightening the restrictions even more, imposing draconian fines, promoting blatant segregation in the form of COVID-19 passports, and, risking the lives of their populations, continue to stubbornly refuse the Russian vaccine. The plan will also help to keep Ukraine, which seems to be a prospective colony for Europe that has doomed itself to poverty, obedient.

Our verdict:

The proposed international treaty strives for collective solidarity in fighting pandemics. Pro-Kremlin media has been repeatedly accusing the West of selfishness and vaccine nationalism, painting the picture of member states like rats, escaping the sinking (failing to fight COVID-19) EU ship. Nonetheless, the treaty is viewed not from a perspective of international politics, but as a conspiracy theory. The lockdowns were being introduced to save lives and prevent the collapse of medical systems. In some EU countries, such as France, protests have become a part of civil/political culture, often resulting with violent clashes.

Rejecting Sputnik V has also been explained: it depends on the timing of EMA approval and mass production dates to decide on whether to buy it or not (as explained by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in late April, and which was presented by the Kremlin-controlled media as Merkel saying firm ‘yes’ to the Russian vaccine). In terms of Ukraine, the economy was hit hard by the Crimean annexation in 2014, the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and trade war with Russia.

False measures to fight COVID-19 was the top narrative within the false and misleading coverage on COVID-19 in April 2021, as measured by articles. The sub-narrative Vaccine has been developed without rigorous testing added the most to its leading position and was the most pronounced rhetoric overall. Almost 40% of the hits under the sub-narrative were published in Polish. In an attempt to take advantage of anxieties, caused by prolonged lockdown, as well as shortcomings in the national vaccination programme, and pursue the rhetoric of useless and/or dangerous vaccines, an increasing number of articles claimed that vaccines do not work and there will never be returning to the ‘old normal’.

Top5 narratives and subnarratives by articles, DebunkEU data
Top5 narratives and subnarratives by reach, DebunkEU data

Pro-Kremlin media was often using the news on side effects and fatalities corelated to the immunisation with western COVID-19 vaccines as a background to showcase the superiority of the Sputnik V, targeting Western vaccination programmes and jabs. As Hungary and San Marino advanced with giving the Russian shot to their population, these were used to juxtapose the success of using Sputnik V vs. rejecting it.

What was claimed:

Developers of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine has noticed that Western media keeps silent about the fatalities after immunisation with Pfizer vaccine, tweeting about it on Sputnik V account. ‘The media reported daily on AstraZeneca’s clot issues. Now it is stunningly silent on the fact from UK vaccination data that the death rate following Pfizer vaccination is more than double that of AstraZeneca’s. Why?’ the tweet said, referring to a report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Our verdict:

The report published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change urges to release full vaccination data to combat anxieties over AstraZeneca jab, stating that a comparison between the shot and Pfizer-BioNTech jab would prove AstraZeneca is as trustable.

The call, however, is manipulated by pro-Kremlin media to claim that there’s a conspiracy-like silence about deaths resulting from Pfizer vaccine, as well as to stress the latter’s inferiority. The report is based on the UK Yellow Card scheme, where reported events are not always proven side effects. Moreover, the report itself includes several lines that are crucial to understand the context: ‘This data is not complete and does not account for age, which matters particularly in the UK as the Pfizer vaccine was given earlier to older people who may be more likely to die from Covid-19.’

False and misleading articles on compulsory testing of children for COVID-19 were also used to spread narratives that pandemic restrictions violate human rights and draw parallels with such historical events as the Holocaust.

What was claimed:

Compulsory COVID-19 testing of children wishing to return to schools and continue with their lessons there and not remotely is similar to the Nazi methods, says Darius Trečiakauskas, the chairman of the Lithuanian Parents’ Association. The situation is exactly like the one when the Nazis forced the Jews into ghettos during the Holocaust, and the measures violate human rights, according to him. The decisions made by the Government are made not on a scientific, medical basis, but on a purely political basis. In Kaunas, outraged by the measures, parents held a protest action.

Our verdict:

There are several worrying issues with the article posted by the Lithuanian branch of Baltnews, a part of Kremlin-led propaganda network: although the quotes are correct and the head of the Lithuanian Parent’s Association did compare the COVID-19 testing with the Holocaust, the piece of news is structured in a one-sided, biased way, incorporating the citations into the text to follow the pre-existing Kremlin rhetoric of human rights being violated in the Baltics and connotations with Nazism.

In December 2020, the Latvian State Security Service detained seven Baltnews and Sputnik employees, charged with violating EU sanctions set on Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of Rossiya Segodnya. Since then, the Baltics have been under constant fire for alleged human rights violations in the three countries. The article of the headline states ‘Nazi methods. The return of Lithuanian pupils to schools has been compared with the Holocaust,’ whilst further in the text it is stipulated that every single participant of the protest agreed that human rights were violated in Lithuania. The article also reflects the devaluating usage of such terms as the ‘Holocaust.’

Moreover, COVID-19 was used as an excuse to end annual expeditions of Lithuanian activists to Siberia, meant to commemorate those who died during the mass Soviet deportations in 1941 and 1945–1952.

What was claimed:

The activities of Mission Siberia were discontinued blaming the impossibility to visit burial sites due to the coronavirus pandemic and a lack of prospects for improving bilateral Lithuanian-Russian relations. According to Aleksandr Nosovich, a political analyst, even if it were not for the coronavirus, Mission Siberia would have been stopped due to Lithuania’s disrespectful attitude towards the historical memory of Russia. Lithuania just took the chance to end the project avoiding disgrace, using the pandemic to justify its move.

Our verdict:

The article presents expertise on the issue by Aleksandr Nosovich, a self-styled expert on the Baltic countries. In this article, he claims that Lithuania has used COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to end Mission Siberia. One of the aims of these annual expeditions has been to keep the historical memory alive about the mass deportations through the engagement of a younger generation. In 2018, the Russian side said it was forced to stop the activities of the project on its territory so that Lithuania renewed negotiations on the Russian — Lithuanian international agreement on military and civilian burial places, victims of war and repression. The article is an attempt to shame the policies pursued by the Lithuanian government and claim these are a failure. It comes woven into a wider net of Kremlin narratives used to escalate conflicting memories and showcases how vaccine diplomacy (or, in fact, harsh war) and memory wars may get intertwined in misleading content.

Measured by mentions, most of the articles with false and misleading content were published in the Russian language (a share of 35.0%, 595 articles), followed by Polish (33.1%) and Lithuanian (20.1%).

Measured by DebunkReach®, it was the Russian language that reached out to the largest number of potential contacts (a share of 72.5%, or 425.9 million potential contacts), followed by English (via internationally oriented state-run Russian news outlets, at 25.4%).

Sources by articles and reach, DebunkEU data

Measured by articles, the top 20 of media sources was topped by the Polish websites neon24.pl (known for conveying pro-Kremlin messages) and wolnemedia.pl, positioning itself as a ‘a non-commercial alternative to mass media manipulation and disinformation’, followed by the Russian language platform

In terms of DebunkReach®, pro-Kremlin media outlets were on top, led by RT, blamed for a series of malign influence operation abroad, RIA Novosti, a part of Russia’s state-controlled media group Rossiya Segodnya, headed by Dmitri Kiselyov, known as ‘Putin’s chief propagandist,’ and Rambler, owned by Rambler Media Group, which’s sole owner is state-run Sberbank.

DebunkEU.org analysts use multiple tools to deliver reports:

· DebunkEU analysis platform

· CrowdTangle — Facebook tool that tracks interactions on public content from Facebook pages and groups, verified profiles, Instagram.

· Truly Media — collaboration platform developed to support primarily journalists in the verification of digital content.

· TruthNest — Twitter data analysis platform.

The birth of Debunk EU was a direct response to coordinated, mostly Kremlin sponsored, disinformation and propaganda efforts in the Baltic states.