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4 Things I’ve Learned From Analysing Russia-Aligned COVID-19 Coverage

Much social unrest has emerged amid COVID-19, such as anti-lockdown protests, attacks on 5G masts, and violent reactions when asked to wear masks. As I write this, a murky far-right group called ‘UK Freedom Movement’ is organising a new spate of anti-lockdown protests around the UK.

This month I’ve been reviewing Russia-aligned news sites. I’ve been looking for key narratives on COVID-19 and the US election. I’ve examined two types of sites: those directly linked to the Russian state, and those with a similar political stance. Many sites share the same core group of authors.

Here are some of my findings, related to the current discussions on social unrest, conspiracy theories and the infodemic.

They’re consistent across websites

Topics covered on these sites reflect COVID-19 conspiracy narratives found on social media since the pandemic began. Here are three prime examples.

Bill Gates the ‘criminal globalist’

The Microsoft boss features regularly, from the Kremlin-funded news outlet InfoRos to the Russia-aligned news site Fort Russ. Narratives unfold along similar lines.

They claim that Gates is the ‘criminal globalist’ ringleader of a cabal using coronavirus as a smokescreen to impose mandatory tracking and mandatory vaccines.

Justifications for singling out Gates are usually his prescient 2015 talk, in which he highlighted the global risk of a pandemic, or the Gates Foundation’s funding of WHO.

Herd immunity vs lockdown

Another key narrative centres on the benefits of herd immunity, often juxtaposed against the negatives of lockdown. Sweden is the poster child for herd immunity. Lockdown is presented as a corrupt government-led attempt to remove people’s basic freedoms.

It’s not hard to imagine how this framing could trigger people who value freedom above all else – and cause events like the anti-lockdown protests that have been cropping up across the US and UK.

The smouldering culture war of Trump and Brexit has extended into new battle lines of ‘lockdown vs herd immunity’. As a result, pandemic control efforts are at risk.

Scapegoating China

China is presented as an innocent player in the pandemic. The US is blamed for targeting China with information warfare in order to blame it for the coronavirus.

In some articles, the authors claim that the pandemic could create a ‘New Cold War’ between the US and China, with severe consequences for the global economy.

Other sites take it even further, claiming that COVID-19 could spark a nuclear war between the US and a newly formed Russia/China alliance.

They claim COVID-19 will reshape the world 

Another popular theme is how the outcome of the US 2020 election, plus the effects of coronavirus will cause the US to lose hegemony. The result will be a shift into multilateralism.

Some sites claim coronavirus will cause Western governments to “face a legitimacy crisis like never before”, eventually causing so much chaos that it will reshape the global order.

To reinforce this point they highlight how the US has failed to protect its people from coronavirus, so it can no longer be called a superpower. Multilateralism is presented as inevitable, due to the unprecedented crisis the world now faces.

Anti-imperialism has been a key feature of pro-Russian media for decades. It overlaps with certain far-left lines of thinking, especially among those who critique Western military actions around the world.

They don’t support Trump

“Voters now must choose between Donald Trump, an unstable, incompetent president whose blatant narcissism has been on full display as the nation suffers from coronavirus, and the former vice-president who will diligently represent the rich and govern for their good above all others.”

American Herald Tribune

We often assume that Russia-aligned media is pro-Trump. In fact, many of these news sources criticise Trump as much as Biden. Criticisms of Trump include poor handling of the pandemic, and ‘imperialist shenanigans’ in foreign policy.

Framing of Biden often paints him as sleazy, citing the recent Tara Reade case as evidence. Some articles suggest he may have dementia. Such framing of both candidates as hopeless choices could be a subtle attempt at voter suppression. 

They frame themselves as ‘independent’ thinkers

Most of these websites present themselves as bastions of independent thought. They encourage readers to go beyond the mainstream and discover ‘new’ perspectives.

It reflects a common refrain among social media conspiracy theorists, who often talk about the need to “do your own research” . Often, that translates as “using Google or YouTube to find content that reinforces one’s existing views”.

Pro-Russia news sites tap into this way of thinking. They use it as a defining aspect of their reporting. It’s a message likely to resonate with the exact kind of person who questions everything.

What’s the link to real life unrest? 

Looking at these websites in aggregate, it’s easy to see how their typical narratives link to social unrest during the pandemic.

I’ve noticed the same themes popping up over and over on social media. Ordinary citizens share them in mainstream Facebook groups (e.g. local news and discussion groups).

These ideas have become rooted in public consciousness. They drive a growing sense of distrust in Western governments, particularly in the UK and US, where populations are already polarised. Both countries have handled the pandemic badly, so it’s easier to create scepticism among a fearful population.

If we were to survey the beliefs of anti-lockdown protesters, 5G mast attackers, and mask-related violence, I bet we’d find echoes of the same narratives found across these ‘alternative’ news websites, many of them either Russian government funded, or publishing work from the same authors.