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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.

COVID-19 narratives are 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.

Narratives claim that 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.

Fake armies: A field guide to astroturfing

“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions.”

― Edward L. Bernays

It sounds so Orwellian; the world’s opinions shaped by vast armies of bots, or by paid groups of teenagers in Macedonia. But far from being a 1984 nightmare come to life, this scenario has become reality; and not just in authoritarian states. Technology is now used to drown out the voices of real people, creating an alternate reality where fake opinions rule and the zeitgeist is based on myths.

What exactly is astroturfing?

Astroturfing is where paid groups or automated technologies (‘bots’) fool the public into believing that certain opinions are more popular or widespread than in reality. It’s used in many arenas, from political campaigning to Amazon reviews. With the increasing influence of social media it’s difficult to tell fake from fact. Astroturfing is especially likely to happen whenever the interests of big business come into conflict with those of the public, for example climate change and big oil, or lung cancer and tobacco companies. To challenge scientifically proven fact should be an impossible endeavour, as surely nothing is more sacred than fact? But in a world led by fake news and paid opinion, the word of experts has been cheapened. In fact, many people no longer trust experts at all. This was demonstrated to devastating effect this year during the EU referendum in the UK, and the presidential elections in the United States.

When did astroturfing begin?

Astroturfing is not a phenomenon of the digital age. It’s been going on since before social media began. Back in the days of print newspapers, so-called ‘concerned residents’ would send a barrage of letters to the editor, especially around election times, to protest against certain policies or candidates. Now that newspapers have gone online the armies of astroturfers have headed to the nearest obvious outlet: the comment sections. From there, it’s an easy step to create multiple identities and start posting comments. Forums are another prime target for astroturfers, along with blogs and of course, social media. Have you ever felt a sense of despair when reading the comments under a newspaper article posted on Facebook? They seem to bring out the worst of human nature, but some of them could be astroturfers. In our low moments, when we feel the world is doomed to a constant cycle of bigotry, xenophobia and fear, perhaps we’d do well to remind ourselves that the rabid anti-Muslim or anti-foreigner comments online could simply be the work of some bot army.

What’s the role of technology?

As technology advances further, astroturfing gets more sophisticated. Russia has a particular talent for harnessing the power of fake opinion on a massive scale, using something called ‘persona management software’. This software creates bot armies that use fake IP addresses to hide their location, along with generating authentic-looking ‘aged’ profiles. There’s almost no way to tell bot from human – and that’s where the real danger lies. Fake opinion en masse can have alarming results; shifting the social and political mood and whipping people up into hysteria over issues minor or even non-existent.

Thanks to the online echo chambers that we live in these days, fake opinion can spread with ease once sown. It becomes further reinforced and legitimised by ongoing social sharing and discussion. Most social media users get their news from within a bubble, as algorithms do their utmost to show only the updates that the user is most likely to engage with. This means there’s less chance of people being shown opinions that challenge their existing worldview. That’s a recipe for disaster – and it’s one that we’ve only just begun to understand the significance of.

What are the implications?

Politics in 2016 is fishy business. In particular, the Trump election campaign is extremely suspicious. There have been claims that Russia used its cyber warfare prowess to interfere in the US elections; in the end putting Trump in command of the country. Notably, Russia has been accused of using its hackers to access Wikileaks to produce a leak of thousands of incriminating emails supposedly sent by Hillary Clinton. This move eroded public trust in Clinton and narrowed the gap between candidates by double digits. Again, like astroturfing, this technique is not new. Orchestrating the right conditions to encourage people to act in a certain way has been used for decades. The father of propaganda, Edward Bernays, used it to great effect in the early 20th century, to sell pianos and bacon, and cause regime change in Guatemala.

Having Trump in power is very much in Russia’s interests. Trump is inexperienced in politics, especially foreign policy, making him very much open to manipulation from afar. He has a reputation for being greedy, meaning he can be easily bought. He has already said publicly that he favours anon-interventionist military policy abroad. For the Kremlin, a Trump presidency is Russia’s very own puppet in the White House. It’s the Cold War revisited, with Russia scoring a massive coup against the US. Only this time Russia has technology on its side, propelling its influence all the way into the corridors of American power. The Soviets couldn’t have hoped for anything like it.

Controlling the zeitgeist via propaganda and astroturfing has reached new heights in this fundamentally connected age where the concept of ‘post-truth’ is rapidly gaining currency. That’s a serious concern; it makes a mockery of democracy and free speech, destroying the validity of the internet as a forum for useful online debate. Soon we won’t know what’s bot and what’s not. In this post-truth, Trump-tainted era, one could well argue that is already the case.