On December 9, the website of the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti published a column accusing Europe of creating “‘a ministry of untruth’ to fight Russia.”
The author, political analyst Vladimir Kornilov, took aim at a recent European Commission democracy action plan aimed at beefing up the European Union’s “response toolbox” to countering disinformation campaigns. Potential responses include “publicly identifying commonly used techniques” to neutralize disinformation and “imposing sanctions following repeated offenses.”
The report cites foreign actors, “in particular Russia and China,” for engaging in “targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU, its neighborhood and globally.”
Kornilov criticized the East Stratcom Task Force, an official EU body set up to expose Russia's ongoing disinformation campaigns. The task force also established the media outlet EUvsDisinfo to achieve that goal.
EUvsDisinfo, in turn, created a database of “pro-Kremlin disinformation,” which Kornilov dismissed as the “only evidence of the ‘subversive work of Russia and China’.”
“Even a cursory analysis of the database that the European Commission used as the basis for the official accusations against Russia shows that for the most part it consists of references to someone's private opinion or to resources that have nothing to do with our state at all,” Kornilov said.
He added: “Such apophasis, montages, distortions, lack of references to the source, and outright manipulations constitute the ‘database of Russian disinformation,’ which underlies the tough accusations against Russia in the report of the European Commission.”
Kornilov’s claim is false. The Russian state is directly involved in spreading the disinformation cited by EUvsDisinfo.
What he called “private opinions” are consistently amplified across Russian state and state-adjacent media platforms in multiple languages. Every EUvsDisinfo item provides a link to the article in question, even if the summary on the site itself does not explicitly name the individual being quoted in pro-Kremlin media.
The database of Russian disinformation on COVID-19 is available here.
Many of the news sources cited by EUvsDisinfo are Russian state broadcasters and/or news agencies. They include the Sputnik and RIA Novosti news agencies; Russian Defense Ministry-run Zvezda TV; state television’s Channel One Russia and Rossiya 24; state-owned online news portal Vesti.ru; and state-owned broadcaster RT.
Others, including News Front, SouthFront (formally Crimean Front), the Kremlin-aligned think tank Katheon, the Strategic Culture Foundation, and the Federal News Agency (aka “Troll Farm”), serve as proxies for Russian disinformation. Many of these outlets reportedly have links with Russian security services and/or Kremlin funding. They also collaborate with each other. In August, the U.S. State Department released a report describing this Russian disinformation “ecosystem.”
There are also outlets like Free Press and Tsargrad TV, which are independently controlled but nationalist in tone and reflect state interests. Tsargrad TV, for example, is owned by Konstantin Malofeyev, a pro-Kremlin businessman who has been the target of U.S. and European sanctions for illegally financing Russia-backed forces in Ukraine. He also serves on the board of Katheon.
According to EUvsDisinfo, claims that are sometimes repeated dozens of times across languages and platforms include: a new Chinese coronavirus was likely created in NATO biolabs; the coronavirus is manmade and tailored to Chinese DNA; Bill Gates and/or George Soros are behind the coronavirus; and the coronavirus is part of a U.S. war against Russia and China.
EUvsDisinfo said those narratives have recently shifted, and Moscow is currently focused more on “creating a receptive atmosphere for the Russian-made vaccine” than anti-Western conspiracy theories. Spanish-speaking countries are targets of this so-called “vaccine diplomacy.”
Kornilov’s claim that the database consists of references to private opinions rather than the Kremlin’s official positions also ignores the manner in which Russian-state disinformation works.
The ability of state media to contradict official government positions is itself a feature of Russian-state propaganda. As the U.S. State Department noted in its report, the Kremlin has encouraged the “development of a disinformation and propaganda ecosystem that allows for varied and overlapping approaches that reinforce each other even when individual messages within the system appear contradictory.”
It continued: “This ecosystem reflects both the sources of disinformation and propaganda — official government statements, state-funded media, outlets, proxy websites, bots, false social media personas, cyber-enabled information operations, etc…”
According to the report, this approach allows the Kremlin to introduce multiple versions of the same false narratives. That, in turn, allows Moscow to “fine tune” disinformation narratives for different audiences, as the consistency expected of official government communications is no longer necessary. This approach also allows for plausible deniability.
“Opinions” reflecting coronavirus disinformation are regularly summarized in Russian-state media headlines. The same experts or officials are cited across multiple articles, languages and/or platforms.
Several articles published by Sputnik’s Belarusian service, for example, cited Dmitry Belyakov of the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences. Belyakov has falsely claimed that the US/NATO may have deliberately created the novel coronavirus in a lab. He further states the novel coronavirus is the West’s revenge for China refusing to become hostile towards Russia.
Another article published in Arabic on Sputnik – headlined “Is the coronavirus a secret U.S. biological weapon?” – featured expert opinion from Russian biochemical and military expert Igor Nikulin.
In January, Polygraph.info debunked similar claims made by Nikulin in the tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda and RIA Novosti. Nikulin has also claimed that the United States, not Russia, was behind the March 2018 poisoning of ex-KGB spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England.
RT Arabic also ran an article citing the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hossein Salami, headlined: “Revolutionary Guards: ‘Corona’ may be an American biological attack.”
Another video upload on RT Arabic referencing Nikulin suggests the coronavirus is being used as a form of biological warfare against China and Iran.
In March, EU monitors noted that pro-Kremlin media was increasingly amplifying disinformation originating in other states rather than authoring it themselves. Such an approach allows them to claim they are merely reporting, rather than creating, the false narratives, the monitors said.
Others institutions have also documented Russia’s attempts to spread coronavirus-related disinformation.
These include Stanford University’s Stanford Internet Observatory; the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy think tank; the International Centre for Defence & Security (ICDS), a Tallinn-based non-profit research organization affiliated with Estonia's Ministry of Defence; and the independent, non-partisan Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank.