Russia, China and Iran spreading coronavirus ‘infodemic’: EU report

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State-controlled media from Russia, China and Iran and other malicious cyber actors are running various influence campaigns and spreading misleading information about the coronavirus, according to the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Union’s joint diplomatic and defense arm.

“Coronavirus-related disinformation continues to proliferate widely on social media, with increasing numbers of reports highlighting direct harm to the health of citizens and public security,” EEAS said in its Disinformation on COVID-19- Information Environment Assessment, published on Monday.

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The report stated that Russian official sources and state-controlled media as well as social media channels had been running a coordinated campaign across the EU member states and neighboring regions promoting false health information about the EU and its partners.

China has also run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image. “Both overt and covert tactics have been observed,” EEAS said.

Read more: China, WHO ‘totally responsible’ for coronavirus pandemic: US-China expert

The report also said that disinformation networks linked to the Iranian government had been exploiting the pandemic to frame ‘the west’ and attack international sanctions.

Analysis by EEAS Stratcom and external groups shows that highly harmful disinformation about COVID-19 is going particularly viral in smaller media markets within and outside the EU, where tech companies face lower incentives to take adequate counter measures.

A growing body of evidence suggests that COVID-19 -related disinformation can have direct impact on public health and security.

Read more: China provoked coronavirus blame game with disinformation against US: Expert

Fresh scientific research by the University of Mainz shows how coronavirus-related conspiracy theories and disinformation can adversely impact individual health behavior. According to the study, beliefs that the virus is a “hoax” strongly influences people to ignore official health advice on hand-washing and social distancing.

Conspiracy theories and false or misleading content about COVID-19 continue to proliferate widely on social media as well. In an analysis covering five European languages and Arabic, Avaaz found that "millions of Facebook users are still being put at risk of consuming harmful misinformation on coronavirus at a large scale". Avaaz analyzed sampled content, reportedly finding that it was shared over 1.7 million times on Facebook and viewed an estimated 117 million times.

The EU said it is working with international partners to step up its response to the influence campaigns and COVID-19-related disinformation.

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